Tomamu: a secret skiing spot in the heart of Hokkaido

The spectacular cloud walk in Tomamu
The spectacular cloud walk in Tomamu | Courtesy of Hoshino Resorts Tomamu
Rebecca Hallett

Freelance writer and editor

In the mountainous interior of Hokkaido is Tomamu, a laidback ski resort which is off most international travellers’ radar. But its fine powder snow, beautiful natural setting and excellent facilities should put it high on any winter sports lover’s list.

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As I leaned my weight onto my left ski and swept smoothly around the corner, I felt a rush of surprised satisfaction. A couple of days ago I’d been wavering my way down the kiddie slope in a permanent pizza-slice position, skis knocking together, with toddlers who barely reached my knees whizzing past me. Now I was weaving through trees and (almost) confidently zig-zagging down green- and blue-graded runs.

My cheeks burned in the cold wind as we emerged from the wooded track. We were now overlooking a groomed expanse which sloped down to the base of the ski lift. Sloped sharply down. I turned wide eyes on my instructor, who just grinned and waved an arm vaguely in the direction of the run.

‘This is our very last section, so let’s go out on a high! I’ll back you up if you tell people you managed a black run at the end…’

The thought that I could manage a black run (even for 30 seconds) was a jolt. I’d visited Hokkaido a couple of times already, after seeing the big-hitters like Tokyo and Kyoto – which you can visit on Culture Trip’s own Japan by Train Grand Tour. My experiences of the Hokkaido winter, though, had been limited to ice sculptures and festivals, steaming bowls of ramen and soothing hot spring soaks, not outdoor activities. But this most northerly of Japan’s main islands gets about 190 inches of snowfall every year, and is known in the ski industry as “powder heaven” – it seemed like a waste not to at least try some winter sports.

And so, a couple of days earlier, I’d left Asahikawa – the bustling nearby city I was visiting with InsideJapan tours – bound for the mountains spanning the horizon to the east. As the bus drew closer my eyes were pulled upwards, tracing the wooded foothills as they graded into stark white peaks under the sharp, clear sky.

My destination was Tomamu, a small resort largely run by Hoshino and little known to foreign travellers, home to a few hotels, restaurants and attractions, and not much else. No shopping malls, no big shows, no rowdy bars. Just a remote but well-equipped resort surrounded by some of central Hokkaido’s most awe-inspiring nature – the perfect place to find my ski legs.

On day one, waddling in unfamiliar layers and stiff ski boots, I made my way outside for my first lesson. My instructor, Rodrigo, slid forward on black-and-red skis to greet me with a wide, friendly smile. Like all of Tomamu’s sixty-odd instructors he wore an orange jacket emblazoned with “Tomamu Gao Snow Academy”, and had the rugged, tanned look and slightly pink nose of someone who spends every day outside on the sparkling mountainside

A winter wonderland in Japan

Having worked at resorts around the world, Rodrigo had plenty of experience with nervous new skiers like me. As I babbled on about the weather like a stereotypical Brit (“is it normally this snowy? Is that good for skiing?”) he brought the conversation gently round to how beginner-friendly these slopes are.

‘There’s no need for artificial snow-making equipment here, which you see in some other parts of the world,’ he told me. Sweeping his arms around at the expansive white landscape, he continued, ‘Mother Nature provides! And it’s safe as well as beautiful. The powder snow makes it easier to learn – people feel less scared when they know there’s a nice soft landing if they fall.’

I had several opportunities to try out this soft landing for myself. But as the day wore on I got better at staying upright, progressing from the learners’ slope to higher ones. Up there the view unfurled further, revealing Tomamu’s remarkable setting.

Unlike larger resorts such as Niseko or Furano, here there’s only a small group of buildings, mostly clustered around the four modern hotel towers. Surrounding them are sprawling peaks dusted with snow-burdened pines, ethereal white birch trees and, of course, that sparkling powder snow. The fairly low elevation (around 1240m) makes for good visibility, so you can often pick out brightly dressed snowboarders on distant slopes as you breathe in the clean, crisp mountain air.

On day two I decided to explore Tomamu’s less strenuous activities, which include adrenaline-fuelled snowmobile rides, snowshoe tours, and even ice fishing. Tempted by those majestic views I’d glimpsed from the beginner slopes, I decided to take the gondola up another section of the mountain.

As I crunched through the snow towards the Unkai Terrace viewing spot, some advanced skiers crossed over the path. They vanished over the precipitous drop to one side, slicing through piles of powder and deftly arcing around trees.

Clearly, it’s not just beginners who flock to central Hokkaido’s mountains. Experienced snowboarders and skiers also come in search of pristine powder, both on groomed runs and off piste at laidback resorts like Tomamu, or in wild Daisetsuzan National Park – which has some of Japan’s best backcountry skiing.

I wasn’t keen to descend the mountain the same way as the advanced skiers, opting instead to speed down on a small plastic cart. I ended the day with a stroll through the warmly illuminated birch forest to the ice village, where I watched fireworks over the ice rink, slipped down an ice slide, and tried the local gin in glasses made of – you guessed it – ice, served in an igloo.

Chilling in the Ice Village

The final morning dawned bright and cold, with occasional thick flurries of snow. Time for my final lesson, my last chance to see more of this beautiful mountain before heading back to civilisation.

My confidence wavered as we hit the intermediate slopes, but Rodrigo diligently distracted me when I got nervous, sharing stories to get me out of my own head. I found out that he’d been a skateboarder before moving onto snowboarding and skiing; that he’d witnessed a mid-lesson proposal (“she said yes, but the lesson was tough after because she had shaky knees from all the emotion!”); and that he loved teaching families, as ‘it’s like a dream for most kids when they see snow for the first time.’ In between chatting, pointing out scenic views and waving to fellow instructors and students, he patiently taught me how to lean into my turns, how to keep my skis parallel, how to avoid the ‘cookies’ of hard-packed snow which could make me slip.

And so I found myself here, after two days of practice, cheeks stinging in the cold as I stared down the last section of a black run. (Well, basically a black run). I breathed out slowly and nodded, giving Rodrigo a thumbs up. Raising his arms in a cheer, he slid effortlessly onto the slope, cutting across in wide arcs for me to follow.

Though the zig-zags helped slow us down, I still felt a rush of adrenaline as we barrelled towards the ski lifts on the steepest slope I’d tackled. My thighs were burning as I leaned over one ski, then the other, my heart pounding with excitement and a tinge of fear, grinning so widely that my teeth stung in the cold even through the scarf pulled up to my nose.

We reached the bottom and Rodrigo greeted me with a whoop. I managed to slow down just in time to avoid a collision, giddy with excitement, and give him a shaky high-five.

After my heart rate returned to normal, I begrudgingly waved goodbye to the instructors and hobbled off towards the hotel, still unused to walking in ski boots. My legs were probably one big bruise now, and my hair was a tangled mess, some strands frozen around my face where they’d flown into my mouth as I skied. But I couldn’t help smiling, feeling proud of achieving something I never thought I could, reinvigorated by a few days in the sun and snow of Hokkaido’s wild, beautiful mountains.

Rebecca travelled from Tokyo to Asahikawa with the ANA Discover Japan Fare and InsideJapan Tours, and stayed at Risonare Tomamu.

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