Dreams (and nightmares) abound at Rusutsu.
WORDS & PHOTOS • CRYSTAL SAGAN
Pulling into Rusutsu, one of the larger ski areas on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, is like stepping into another world. Japan in itself is already kind of a quirky place so Rusutsu—with its deserted rollercoasters, vintage carnival-inspired lobby merry-go-round and nightmare-inducing animatronics—is next level.
We’re traveling with SnowLocals, a small grass-roots travel agency with a focus on Japanese ski adventures run by brothers Jake and Charlie Cohn. The pair has been exploring Japan’s mountains since 2011, collecting beta and insider info on what runs, restaurants and onsens are the best at every possible ski area. Born and raised in Telluride, to say they’re die-hard skiers almost does them justice, but calling them non-traditional when it comes to travel agencies is spot on. They’re a couple of young guys with a ton of experience, information and connections just waiting to blow the lid off your ski fantasy.
And so they do, for our group, even before we’ve dropped our luggage off. Never-ending truckloads of snow fall from the sky as we drag our wheeled luggage through the snow at the base of the mountain to the private cabin, beside the main lodge, where we’ll be staying. You’d have to sleep in the gondola to get any closer. It is located (literally) ten steps from the gondi, which is convenient considering lifts turn for 11 hours a day here.
The snow in Hokkaido is legendary and is the byproduct of cold air blowing down from Siberia and over the Sea of Japan where it picks up moisture. The moisture-filled air then creates dense snow clouds that drop obscene amounts of snow on Japan’s northern island in cold winter months. There’s so much snow that they measure it in meters—13 of them to be exact—an average of 42-feet of snow a season at Rusutsu. I check it out for myself after we’ve settled into our cabin to see if 42-feet feels as good as it sounds.
After hopping on the gondola outside our cabin door and making a quick transfer to the East No.2 Gondola, one of Rusutsu’s 18 lifts, we exit the gondola station at the top of East Mountain. I click into my skis and follow Jake and Charlie along a traverse to the skier’s right, through snow-crusted trees and crisp air. The trees below the traverse welcome us with deep, dreamy pow and I’m pretty sure the sounds of our overwhelming delight can be heard by every other person on the mountain. There’s no question that we sound ridiculous but Japan is already everything we’d hoped for and we’re just plain old pumped.
“Arigato gozaimaaaassssssu,” the lifties are thanking us as we get to the top of the lift for our next run in their unintentionally endearing way. “They’re so polite!” Jon, one of my travel buddies points out later over ramen, “The lifties at home never welcome us to the top.” It’s a dangerous game to play, comparing skiing Japan to skiing at home, Japan almost always comes out on top. (Especially when you consider that a lift ticket to Rusutsu is just over $50— affordable and polite!)
Later that night, a group of us head to the No. 2 Quad on West Mountain for some night skiing where we would’ve been able to see Mt. Yotei to the west, had it been a clear night. Stadium lights cover the main night skiing runs and we head off-piste into the trees in the middle of the run. They are completely untouched. This side of the mountain has been packed with beginner skiers all day who haven’t ventured off the corduroy. We yelp and hoot and holler, flying through the trees with cold smoke trailing behind us.
It doesn’t take long before we lose each other in our blindness to chase the snow dragons and our group of seven becomes two, the rest of the group impatient in their quest. My friend, Nordica’s Sam Beck, and I get off the lift at the top and head to the skier’s right where we duck into the trees. It’s completely silent, there isn’t another soul or track in sight or probably even within earshot. We’ve skied far enough away from the lift that it’s dark and we take turns shining the light of our one headlamp down the line as we follow the good snow farther from the piste. The trees are tighter on this side of the mountain, and as we weave through them it’s the singular most amazing run of my life. We’re not going very fast, thanks to our one headlamp, but there isn’t anybody to impress. It’s dark, quiet, and we’re surrounded by the stillness of falling snow. It’s exactly like skiing powder in a dream and better than any powder fantasy I could have conjured up.
After a few more turns we cut back towards the lift, figuring we’ve probably gone a bit too far. When we finally pop out onto the trail the vacant, off-season rollercoasters stand in front of us. They loom overhead like giant aliens, covered in snow that won’t stop falling. They still seem a bit spooky in the dark, but they stood there with us on a cold winter night watching our wildest ski fantasies come true.