Hokkaido Ski Touring: Mt. Sandan-yama and Maetokachi-dake (Tokachi region)

Dirk looked at me with wide eyes. “You have your PhD defense on Monday, and you want to go ski touring in the weekend?” But how could I not. The boys from France would be nearby, and they were up for exploring. And what can be better to take one’s mind off a presentation than a solid weekend of backcountry skiing, in Hokkaido’s powder mecca? So we decided to head further afield this past weekend, to the Tokachi mountain range, a 2-hour drive east from the Sapporo area.

Essential Info

Route Map with GPS Trace (GPX file)

About Hakuginso mountain lodge

Hakuginso mountain lodge (also referred to as Fukiage Onsen – Japanese website here) is in my mind one of the best accommodation you can find in the Tokachi region in the winter. If it is ski touring you are into, then the ‘ski touring mecca’ (as they boast on their website) that is Hakuginso should be on your list of places to stay. You can literally ski from door to door.

  • Location In the middle of nowhere: 43°25’52.4″N 142°38’31.7″E. The closest convenience store is about 30 mins drive away.
  • Facilities They have one of the best outdoor onsen in the area, and there is a huge kitchen for guests to use. In the basement is a well-ventilated ski and outdoor gear storage and drying room. They do sell some very basic foodstuffs. There is no restaurant.
  • Cost As of January 2016, they offer bunk beds (12 to a room, with individual curtains) for 2,750 yen a night in winter.
  • How to book As far as I know, the only way to book is by phone (0167-45-4126 or 0167-45-3251). I’m not sure if the staff are willing to speak English over the phone. But generally there is no need to book. Saturdays and Japan public holidays, however, are super busy. When we stayed (on a Saturday night in late January), there were 51 guests staying, with a max capacity of around 70.
  • Reviews On Trip Advisor here
  • Onsen nearby Apart from the massive onsen at the Hakuginso lodge, 10 minutes walk down the road is the free wild onsen, Fukiage Onsen (location: 43°25’46.4″N 142°38’17.8″E)

Climb and Ski report

Haidee, Dirk and I had stayed in the amazing Hakuginso mountain lodge the night before. In my excitement to experience what the Hokkaido Yuki-yama guidebook (ISBN 978-4-89453-804-7) calls the ‘Holy place of powder snow’, I put my skis and skins on and went for a near-full-moon hike up from the lodge at around 9pm. The clear sky allowed the moon to light up the landscape perfectly, including the majestic Mt. Maetokachi. Vapor poured from its active craters.

Full moon views over Furano and Maetokachi-dake (Hokkaido, Japan)

On the Sunday morning, the boys from France (Mathieu, Vincent and Angelo) arrived in time for skins-on at 7am. It was still only just getting light. Overcast and with a light snow falling, it was a subdued start to the day. “Don’t worry,” Mathieu beamed. “At the top, voila!” He gestured with his hands clouds parting, giving us a massive view over the surrounding landscape. The weather forecast suggested his positive attitude was not misplaced. I was hopeful too.

Skiing Sandan-yama in the Tokachi mountain range (Hokkaido, Japan)

The route up Mt. Sandan-yama starts on a long-defunct Japanese government-run skifield, just above the Hakuginso lodge. Haidee joined us on snowshoes for a few hundred meters before heading back to the lodge to do some PhD work. We said our farewells and veered west up a western branch of the skifield, up onto the main ridge that would take us up to the summit of Mt. Sandanyama.

Skiing Sandan-yama in the Tokachi mountain range (Hokkaido, Japan)

It was still early, and it showed in our quiet trudge up the slope. We were all lost in our own thoughts, caught up in the simple bliss of putting one foot in front of the other, slowly peeling back the groggy morning fog of mind. Before long, however, we were out of the lee of the ridge, and were shaken awake by a stiff, biting cold wind that pinched at my cheeks. Already at 1,400m in altitude, I was approaching the highest I’d been on a backcountry trip in winter in Hokkaido. I pulled out a balaclava and yanked it on, and enjoyed a reprieve from the wind.

Skiing Sandan-yama in the Tokachi mountain range (Hokkaido, Japan)

I’ve quickly found that ski-touring is a very meditative activity. I think it has something to do with the tracks that skis leave in the snow. In particular if I’m following in already-made tracks (I did a lot of this on this trip – thanks Mathieu and Vincent!), the slide-step-slide movement is rhythmic, slowly but surely making my towards the destination. All surrounded by a beautiful world of cold and white.

Skiing Sandan-yama in the Tokachi mountain range (Hokkaido, Japan)

After what felt like minutes, but was actually just over two hours, we arrived at the top of Mt. Sandan-yama. And, true to Mathieu’s enthusiastic positivism, the skies cleared soon after. While the plains of Furano were still in cloud to the north, the majestic Mt. Tokachi and surrounding peaks to the south showed us their full glory. I felt small and insignificant. And so too did Mathieu, who sprinted along the ridge to the south of Sandan-yama’s peak, in order to see if there was a possible route from where we were up to the summit of Mt. Tokachi, as an extension to our current trip. “It is only 9am, and the weather is stable,” he argued.

Skiing Sandan-yama in the Tokachi mountain range (Hokkaido, Japan)

Mathieu arrived back 10 minutes later, having deduced that there was likely to be a route, but it would be much further than we had food or pre-planning for. We scoffed down some food and made preparations for the descent back down the way we had come. In the photo below, Mt. Tokachi is the peak at the top left.

Skiing Sandan-yama in the Tokachi mountain range (Hokkaido, Japan)

No sooner had we started our descent, however, than we realized that it would be a challenge. Massive icy clumps lay hidden under soft powder snow, as did low-lying pines. We all started off with gusto…

Skiing Sandan-yama in the Tokachi mountain range (Hokkaido, Japan)

But one by one we came foul of the invisible traps under the snow. No one was hurt, but it dampened the free-flying feeling of hurtling down the hill.

Skiing Sandan-yama in the Tokachi mountain range (Hokkaido, Japan)

We descended most of the way down Mt. Sandan-yama, and it was only 10am. So the decision was made to traverse across a couple of gullies to a track heading up Mt. Maetokachi. With all the time in the world, we would try to make it two summits in one morning. The skin up Mt. Maetokachi started through spooky scarred forest.

Skiing MT. Maetokachi in the Tokachi mountain range (Hokkaido, Japan)

But soon enough we found ourselves once again dodging the dreaded low-lying pines.

Skiing MT. Maetokachi in the Tokachi mountain range (Hokkaido, Japan)

In the end, we only made around an hour and a half of progress up Mt. Maetokachi before making the call to head down for the day. The peak was clearly in dense cloud, we’d already climbed in total for almost five hours, and the descent was not looking promising with the low pines. We did, however, take the time to scout the area out for terrain that would allow for a more enjoyable downhill ski run. The answer came in a beautiful wide gully, full with waist-deep powder. It was magic.

Skiing MT. Maetokachi in the Tokachi mountain range (Hokkaido, Japan)

Skiing MT. Maetokachi in the Tokachi mountain range (Hokkaido, Japan)

As if as icing on the cake, our final few minutes of descent were punctuated by a clear view over the Furano plains. Up till this point in the day they had been obscured by clouds.

Expansive views over the Furano plains (Hokkaido, Japan)

Smiles and more smiles.

Skiing MT. Maetokachi in the Tokachi mountain range (Hokkaido, Japan)

The day was finished off with a soak in the free Fukiage Onsen. This wild onsen is just 10 minutes walk from the Hakuginso lodge, and is a great way to soothe the muscles after a long day. Just perfect.

Fukiage natural free onsen in the Tokachi mountain range (Hokkaido, Japan)

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7 thoughts on “Hokkaido Ski Touring: Mt. Sandan-yama and Maetokachi-dake (Tokachi region)

  • Ian Meggitt

    I love this blog post – awesome. We are in the throes of planning a three week trip to Central Hokkaido and we are hoping you might be happy to share some of your expereinces; tips for great places to tour etc. I followed the link to Robert Thomson’s Flickr page and the shots are great, really curious about the alpine hut – Yma-no-Ie Hut near Mt. Okuteine and will google that – anything you can share with us? Other blogs or posts? Guides? yes/no? Love to hear from you!

  • Matt Walsh

    Dear Rob,
    I stumbled upon your site and the better for it!! I’ve skied Japan several years and next year (Jan 2018) am doing a Journey Into Japan trip to Ashidake and Tokkachi mountains. Post trip (14 Feb 18) I intend to stay on in Hokkaido for another 2 weeks ski bumming around.

    Your trip reports have inspired me and great food for thought. Though being alone, I am well experienced in BC trips and well equipped so feel I could safely attemp some of them alone ie the OKUTEINE HARUKA traverse.

    Well done on so much great information and photos. Regards Matt Walsh, Melbourne, Australia

    • Rob Thomson Post author

      Not that I know of – that lodge sees plenty of foreign guests, so I’m pretty sure they are flexible. I’ve seen foreign guests in the onsen there with tattoos.