Konichiwa! To anyone who is heading to Japan I wanted to share some general information on the ski resorts and backcountry policies as I was able to interpret them. I just spent a month in Japan skiing, mastering the art of the Japanese Onsen (hot spring), sampling fine food and then skiing some more.
Avalanche ‘Control’ in ski resorts
There is little if any avalanche ‘control’ conducted at ski resorts in Japan comparable to what we are used to in Canada. Most ski hills do not open avalanche terrain and try to manage a
valanche hazard by preventing people from being exposed to the risk. If you leave the organized piste to ski trees or open bowls there will likely have been NO avalanche control.
E.g. We encountered touchy soft slab conditions where a small - otherwise low hazard avalanche - could sweep a skier into an open creek. And we also skied (and at times avoided) large aggressive terrain immediately adjacent to resorts where we were responsible for making all of our own hazard assessments.
Accessing the back-country from Ski Resorts
The Japanese have very strict rules around skiing only where you are supposed to ski. They have established groomed runs and for the most part - you are not allowed to duck rope-lines to ski trees adjacent to the runs or ski below the gondola. If you do - you may encounter unmarked cliffs, open creeks and uncontrolled slopes where a small avalanche can sweep you into such obstacles. And - you may lose your pass for the day / season if a ski-patrol gets upset.
However, many resorts are developing policies to open up the back-country and off piste areas.and these rules change rapidly. Each resort seems to have a different policy and set of procedures. One resort had changed its policies in the 2 weeks we skied there. I will try to outline what I have learned below. In all cases - skiing with Avalanche rescue gear (Beacon / Shovel / Probe) and also a creek / cliff rescue rope is essential. If in doubt about the policy - try to find an english speaking staff to help explain it.
General Hazard / Snow & Avalanche conditions
Although locals claim there is a lower than normal snow levels we found incredible ski conditions. We still had to ski trees with care as the low density snow hides rocks / bamboo / trees. The creeks present a considerable hazard - particularly since they tend to have very steep sidewalls and are slow to freeze given the widespread onsen (hot) water. Carrying a small rope kit (or 2) in a group is essential.
We managed Windslab and Storm Slab avalanche problems - which tend to settle out quickly. It snowed 10-30cm nearly every day in Hokkaido while we were there while Hakuba tended to have alternating snow events wi
th clear weather. Winds come from the W/NW and load the S/SE/E quadrant and often overlay sun crusts. Wind increase rapidly with elevation and whiteout conditions above treeline are best avoided.