Having been regaled with many tales of glorious skiing in Hokkaido (both before and since our arrival in Japan), we were keen to experience it for ourselves at the first opportunity. School broke up for the Easter holiday on 31st March when many of the resorts are already closing down, but at the beginning of March the snowfall had been good enough that Grand Hirafu in the Niseko area expected to be operating through to the Japanese Golden Week holiday in early May and so we took the gamble and booked a trip.
It was a good decision. The flight north to Sapporo was an easy 90 minutes, made more comfortable by it being a wide-bodied aircraft with 9 seats across. Collecting a hire car was also straightforward, in the sort of we have a process, and that process has been designed to cope with foreigners way that probably becomes frustrating when you have been here a while, but for which I am still new enough to the country to be grateful for. The car turned out to be essential, both because the cheap transfers from New Chitose Airport are winter-only, as well as to get between the four different ski areas (Hirafu, Annupuri, Niseko Village and Hanazono). During the main season there are high altitude ski links as well as a shuttle bus between the areas, but both had finished for the season. Luckily our car was upgraded to an SUV which allowed our rental skis to fit in too. It is worth noting that only Hirafu is a proper village with independent restaurants and shops, the others are just ski areas with few other services. In particular Niseko Village is confusingly not a village at all: it is just a collection of car parks to allow access to the lifts, and a large Hilton hotel!
Our first day on the slopes was a perfect blend of skiing through soft snow in warm sunny conditions: I had been worried that the start of spring would mean skiing on slushy-ice but actually the volume of snow here means that even when it gets a bit warmer, the snow gets denser and claggier, so it is like skiing through buttercream not ice-skating. There are a reduced number of runs available as the snow recedes in certain areas, especially lower down, but the slopes are also practically empty, so it has proven a great opportunity to have a relaxing few days of enjoying the tremendous scenery in the sunshine, exploring the different ski areas and practising techniques.
On and off the slopes, it feels like we have travelled to a different country, not just a different island within Japan! French ski resorts are busy, bustling, places squeezing as many people and buildings into whatever space the geography permits—not unlike Tokyo—but here the village has a car-centric, low-density, feel. The large number of international visitors also means that café and restaurant staff all speak excellent English, contributing to the feeling of this being an easy and relaxing holiday. The two Australian-style cafés in Hirafu village has also given us a chance to enjoy a wider variety of western-style food (and coffee!) than we have found in Tokyo—a welcome taste of home after two months away.