Furano is frequently cited in Japan’s list of top 10 most attractive towns, but it is not until winter each year that this captivating Hokkaido town really comes to life. Here’s how to make the most of Hokkaido’s premier ski destination.
Situated in the middle of Hokkaido, on the doorstep of Daisetsuzan, Japan’s largest national park, Furano is as famous for the magnificent natural beauty of its surrounds as it is for its world-class powder skiing. Hokkaido is a land of active volcanoes, remote onsen, sparkling lakes and dense forests, and this is the best place to see them all, nearly untouched by human hands. Furano’s renown as a destination for winter sports is down to the quality of its dry-powder snow – in the winter season around a metre of the stuff falls every week. It’s heaven for ski bums, with 25km of ski runs featuring both beginner trails and hard-core cross-country skiing. But if the slopes aren’t for you, there are still plenty of other reasons to come to Furano, including everything from snow trekking to outdoor onsen or even dog sledding.
Fuel up for the day with a filling breakfast
With a day full of intense outdoor activities ahead, morning is the time to stock up on calories – you’ll need them. Think about a trip to the Furano Bakery, located adjacent to the train station. Everything for sale here is made fresh each morning by hand, and it shows. Particularly noteworthy are the perfectly moist and flaky chocolate croissants, made with fresh Hokkaido butter, and the cherry Danish topped with lush fruit and delicate custard is another favourite. As with everything in Furano, the inviting atmosphere of the shop is as much part of the experience as the quality of the excellent food on offer.
Start your morning by hitting the trails
The best way to get to know Furano is a guided snowshoe hike through the Daisetsuzan National Park, the largest national park in Japan. Although you’ll only be able to see a fraction of the park’s 2,267 square kilometres of wilderness, what you do see is spectacular. With its reliably blue skies, this area is known as Kamuimintara by the Ainu, Hokkaido’s indigenous people, which means the playground of the gods and today, the park is a paradise for outdoor lovers. On your trek you can expect to encounter broad valley bottoms, wild rivers, bubbling natural hot springs and an array of fauna including deer and brown bears. Tours run from 9am to 12pm and can be booked at the tourist office. This is a great family activity and the tour ends with a cup of coffee and a slice of hot apple pie loaded with cinnamon.
Enjoy the entertainment in town
While you recuperate from your trek, think about doing some souvenir shopping in Furano. During the peak of the winter season performances are put on by locals as a way of welcoming international visitors. These include the famous ‘Belly-button Dance’. This is less salacious than it sounds and stems from Furano’s nickname, ‘Belly-button Town’, which comes from its location at the centre of Hokkaido Island. Nevertheless, it is a cheery distraction while you catch your breath between activities. Traditional folk music, sword dances and calligraphy demonstrations are also frequently held. Alternatively, take a 10-minute taxi ride to Furano Winery, which is located on a hill above town. It’s open to the public and includes free wine tasting – the barrel-aged red Zweigelt is surprisingly good.
Go for a Hokkaido lunch
Grab some lunch in Furano with a unique Hokkaido twist. The island is known for its dairy, and in Furano, the devotion to all things cheese has been taken to its logical end point, by adding it to ramen. This is better than it sounds and results in the perfect comfort food after a morning in the cold. The best place to try this stringy mess is Chizu Ramen-no-mise Karin. Located a few minutes’ walk southwest of the train station, this recommendable ramen restaurant is tucked behind a doorway draped with a red curtain in a nondescript building.
Hit the slopes
After lunch, it’s time to strap on your skis. Furano benefits from the winds that pass over the Sea of Japan from Siberia, which dump the finest and driest snow in all of Hokkaido on the area. After a large snowfall, there are clean trails for days – so it’s no wonder that many of Japan’s top skiers choose to base themselves here. Throughout the winter volunteer ski hosts can be found in the two ski zones and around the town, waiting to show you around the mountain as a courtesy.
The two zones that make up the Furano ski area – the Kitanomine Zone and the Furano Zone – are each only five minutes away from the town. The zones are serviced by 11 lifts, including the fastest in Japan, which is capable of whisking up to 101 people to the top in just one trip. Tickets are priced between ¥4,000 and ¥4,800 for a half-day pass or ¥5,500 for a full-day pass; and are valid for both zones.
For more advanced or adventurous skiers, there are downhill courses and terrain parks, as well as a half pipe. But there are also plenty of wider, gentler slopes suitable for beginners and families.
Top tip: Ski and snowboard equipment – as well as clothing items – are available to hire across the ski area, at the New Furano Prince Hotel, the Ropeway base station, the Furano Prince Hotel and under the Kitanomine Gondola Station.
Alternatively, visit Family Snowland
If skiing isn’t your thing, consider a trip to Family Snowland. Located at the base of the Furano Zone, you can try a variety of other winter activities, from snowmobiling and snow rafting to parasailing and even dog sledding.
Take a walk in the dark to a hot spring
As night falls, assemble at the Alpine Visitor Centre for a gentle walk up to the Tokachidake hot springs. In the pindrop-silence of the forest, the crunch of the white snow will be the only sound you and your companions hear. Once you reach the onsen, clamber into the steaming pool where – surrounded by the white snow and the cloudless dark sky – you can look up and contemplate the immaculate Milky Way, undimmed by light pollution. There is no better way to unwind after a day on the slopes. After towelling off, descend the mountain, clean, refreshed and ready for dinner.
Eat Furano Wagyu for dinner
Walking in the snow builds up an appetite, so for dinner, head to Sumiyaki Club Yamadori, next to Furano Station. This unconventional building used to be a stone warehouse, and the fixtures and fittings have barely changed since it was built in 1911. The menu includes plenty of intriguing local ingredients such as alpine leek, grated radish and mountain wasabi, as well as the superb Furano Wagyu – some of the best regarded beef in Japan.
End the day with a drink at an ice bar
Après-onsen drinking is just the thing to round off the evening. For atmosphere, make your way to the ice bar at Kan Kan Mura, just below the Furano Ropeway. If you’re really going for it, follow this up with a nightcap at the Furano Brewery, where they make their own beer and sausages. The pilsner is widely admired but don’t forget to ask about the seasonal specials – everything is made on site.
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