Hokkaido Back Country Skiing: Mt. Yoichi (Akai-kawa Route)

Mt. Yoichi (1,488m) is the highest peak within the Sapporo City limits. Despite this, it is extremely accessible – it overlooks Kiroro Ski Resort, so take the ski lift to the resorts upper reaches, and you’re more or less there. But to truly experience Mt. Yoichi’s enchanting snowy wilderness, the only way to go is on foot (or ski) all the way from the resort buildings. The 6-hour return journey is long and steep in parts, but the rewards a more than worth it.

Skiing Mt. Yoichi near Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

Essential info

  • Location  43.0653764,141.1870193; around 30km west of Sapporo, as the crow flies.
  • Getting there and away Arguably the most straightforward and popular way of accessing Mt. Yoichi is via the Kiroro Ski Resort. Buses from Otaru Station (a 50 minute train ride from Sapporo Station) leave a few times a day; check with tourist info before you leave to get correct seasonal timetable information. Rental cars are are a cheap option also: Niconico Rentals in Sapporo (last time I hired from this gas station) have 12 hour rentals for around 2,500yen for a gutless wonder that’ll transport three skiiers and gear. Forking out a little money will get you a car resembling something less tin-can-esque.
  • Routes  There are a few options for routes up Mt. Yoichi in winter.
    • The Akai-kawa Route – This approx. 15km return route is the route that Dirk and I took for this report. It starts at the Kiroro Ski Resort buildings and follows a dirt road along the Akai-kawa valley to the south-west of the Kiroro ski area (starts in the cross-hairs here). The road heads up to the base of a ski lift at 43.052081, 141.007633, where the Akai-kawa walking trail cuts away from the ski area to the east.
    • Tengu Hut Route – This is a 21km return journey, and is decidedly more remote than the Akai-kawa route, starting on the southern side of the mountain, accessed via Jozankei.
    • Other options  Another option for getting ascending at least part of the way up Mt. Yoichi is to take the Kiroro ski area lift to the highest point, and then traverse a mostly flat ridge connecting Mt. Asari and Mt. Yoichi. Once at the top of Mt. Yoichi, the descent is up to you. This group, for example, took a westward route down.
  • Maps  The paper version of the Mt. Yoichi topographical map (1:25,000) produced by GSI is map number NK-54-14-14-4. I usually get my topo maps (around 300 yen each) from Kinokuniya Bookstore on the west side of Sapporo Station. Alternatively, you can print out the sections you need from GSI’s amazing (free) online topomap app. The following link points to the online version of GSI’s topo maps, with Mt. Yoichi in the cross-hairs: http://maps.gsi.go.jp/#15/43.032729/141.020379. I’ve also embedded the map below for reference.
  • Onsen nearby  The beauty of back country skiing in Japan is the abundance of onsen (hot springs) available on the drive home; perfect to sooth tired muscles from a full day. On this particular day of skiing, we didn’t have much time after getting down off the mountain, and we wanted to check out the Otaru Beer hall, so we didn’t end up going to an onsen. I’ve heard great things about Asarikawa Onsen though, so if you’re traveling by car, it would be worth dropping in on the way back to Sapporo.
  • Weather forecast (Google Translated): Tenkura Pinpoint
  • Date climbed (date this report is valid for)  We climbed and descended via the Akai-kawa route in gorgeous weather on the 4th of April, 2015; well and truly spring conditions, but still a decent amount of snow. Even a little layer of pow near the top from the day before.

Mt. Yoichi Topographical Map (see larger version here)

Climb Report

With NicoNico Rental cars, I’ve found that most franchises don’t open until 8am. This means that realistically with a 12-hour rental, we’re not onto the mountain until around 10am, depending on how far we have to travel. Today was no exception; the drive from central Sapporo to Kiroro Ski Resort takes between an hour and an hour and a half. Also, being a weekend, the resort was already very busy by the time we got there; we had to park in a lower parking lot and take the free shuttle bus up to the main building.

Skiing Mt. Yoichi near Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

But there’s something secretly satisfying about shunning the lines at the lifts, walking past the throngs of people milling about the lower slopes, and heaving on a heavy backpack with skis and survival gear. Perhaps it is a feeling of freedom. Mixed, I must say, with a hint of ‘holier than thou’. I’m taking the hard route, people!

That feeling usually lasts only a few minutes until the reality of trudging along a deserted snowy road kicks in, the sun gleaming down, trying its best to sweat us off the mountain.

Skiing Mt. Yoichi near Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

Still, it is nice to be away from the madding crowds. And taking this Akai-kawa route around the south-western perimeter of the ski slopes is perfect for that. I spent a great deal of the first hour or so of climbing wondering where on earth the downhillers were…this would be a perfect spot to get away from it all.

Soon enough we made it to the start of the Mt. Yotei track proper; just above the bottom station of one of the smaller chairlifts. It was here that the real fun – and spectacularly enchanting scenery – began.

The previous couple of days had seen some very high winds and late season wet snow up on Mt. Yoichi. This had coated the bare tree branches with a thick snowy ice. In the heat of the day the ice was melting fast, but we managed to overtake the melt and found us entering a mysterious world of white forest.

Skiing Mt. Yoichi near Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

Skiing Mt. Yoichi near Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

The way was steep in parts. Steep enough to make zig-zagging up the wide ridge/face the more energy efficient option. Curiously, there was a very thin, hard crusty layer of ice over a softer snow; ice dislodged from trees and from snowshoes above would come clattering down the fragile-layered slope.

Skiing Mt. Yoichi near Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

Once on the main ridge connecting Mt. Asari and Mt. Yoichi, we were well above the melting zone. What had been a thin, fragile crusty layer of ice was now a solid, gale-blown mess of mini-sastrugi. We were never in want of crampons, but had the ice been smoother, we would have struggled with only the soft aluminium protrusions on our snowshoes to grip the icy layer.

Skiing Mt. Yoichi near Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

The final ascent up to the mini-plateau like peak of Mt. Yoichi was over sooner than I had expected it. We were greeted with more micro-sastrugi, evidence of the preceding days’ storm. The view from the top was expansive; towards Niseko in the south-west, and the sea to the north. If the air had been less hazy, we would have been able to see further.

Skiing Mt. Yoichi near Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

Last week’s trip up Mt. Fuppushi was my first ski trip for the season. That made today my second ski trip for the season. My brain and legs were starting to get into chorus with each other on the way down from Mt. Yoichi, but not quite in coordination enough to have the camera out for the ski down.

Dirk, on the other hand, a German wrought from iron direct from the European Alps, was in his element. He hardly hesitated to take the first positive-looking line down the way we had climbed up. I threw caution to the wind and jumped in after him, great chunks of flaky ice chattering down the steep gradient as I braked heavily down the slope. It was pure terror mixed with an inescapable joy of ‘knocking the bastard off” (in the words of Sir Edmund Hillary) and now having the downhill ski slope entirely to ourselves.

Skiing Mt. Yoichi near Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

The lower reaches were pleasantly wooded with plenty of room between trees to cut a comfortable line between them. Classic Hokkaido back country skiing.

Mt. Yoichi descent (Hokkaido, Japan)

Mt. Yoichi spat us out onto the Kiroro ski area, and we nonchalantly glided up to one of the ski lifts, hoping we’d be able to catch a ride up, in order to avoid a 15 minute climb; doing so would allow us to ski along the groomers back down to the resort buildings. The lift security was having nothing of it, however, and after ascertaining that we were out for a free ride, he sent us on our way.

At the resort buildings we boarded the 4pm shuttle bus down to the car park, packed up, and headed straight to central Otaru, to the Otaru Beer Hall. Being the designated driver of the two of us, I had a few of Otaru Beer’s take on zero alcohol beer. After a long, sometimes very hot, day on the mountain, the sweet, fizzy, and wet substance was a perfect antidote to a parched body, and the perfect end to an awesome day.

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