Multi-Day Ski Tour: The Okuteine-Haruka Traverse (Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan)


In the 1920’s, several huts were constructed in the hills surrounding Sapporo by Hokkaido University professors and early European cultural figures. Their purpose was singular – extend the scope of ski touring possibilities in the Sapporo area. Here, we link together two of those huts – a hütten kette or ‘chain of huts’ – on a classic two-night route. Entirely accessible by public transport, this mountains-to-the-sea route essentially shortcuts its way across the range of hills separating Jozankei from Sapporo, from west to east. Doing the route in the opposite direction is also possible, but the direction here allows for more downhill than uphill.

Yama-no-Ie Hut near Mt. Okuteine (Hokkaido, Japan)


Route Map with GPS Trace (GPX file)


Essential Info

  • Location: The route starts at the Sapporo Kokusai Ski Field (location), about 50km by car from central Sapporo City (or about 20km as the crow flies), and ends at the zenibako-josui-jo bus stop (location) on the Ishikari Bay side of the hills.
  • Route GPS log: GPX file download.
  • Route timing/distances
    • Day 1: 11km (around 6 hours) from Sapporo Ski Area to Okuteine Yama-no-ie Hut, via Mt. Tsuge. Total climbing approx. 550m. NOTE: Just behind the Okuteine Hut is the ‘Utopia Piste’ – a clearing in the trees for some great skiing. A couple of laps is highly recommended, and the current route via Mt. Tsuge drops down to the hut on this slope.
    • Day 2: 11km (around 4 hours) from Okuteine Yama-no-ie to Ginreiso Hut, via Mt. Okuteine and Mt. Haruka. Total climbing approx. 600m. NOTE: Behind Ginreiso Hut is a 20 minute hike up to the summit of Mt. Haruka, with some great downhill skiing to be had. Once again, a few laps is highly recommended.
    • Day 3: Around 6km (all downhill) from Ginreiso Hut to Zenibako.
  • Total climbing: Approx. 1000m. The highest point on the route is around 980m, and does not go beyond the treeline at any stage.
  • Topographical maps: For topographical maps, you can either print out what you want from the Geospacial Information Authority of Japan here (the middle of the route is in the cross-hairs), or buy the following 1:25,000 paper topo maps (for 350yen) from a bookstore in Sapporo (such as Kinokuniya next to Sapporo Station). Unfortunately, this route straddles no less than four 1:25,000 maps.
    • Yoichi-dake (余市岳) – Map No. NK-54-14-14-4
    • Teine-yama (手稲山) – Map No. NK-54-14-14-2
    • Zenibako (銭函) – Map No. NK-54-14-14-1
    • Hariusu (張碓) – Map No. NK-54-14-14-3
    • Alternatively, the 1:50,000 map Zenibako (銭函 – No. NK-54-14-14) covers the entire route.
  • Snow/route safety: As is the case with most winter routes in Hokkaido, this route assumes you can read a topographical map. Even so, you’ll need to be sharp on your navigation skills on the second day as you find your way from the Okuteine Hut to Ginreiso Hut – the route is not marked, and in low visibility there are very few landmarks to guide your way.
  • Other resources: In the Yuki-yama Guide (ISBN: 978-4894538047), see the following write-ups of portions of the route.
    • Mt. Tsuge route, p.118.
    • Mt. Okuteine and hut, p.94
    • Mt. Haruka and Ginreiso Hut, p. 90
  • Best time to visit: January till mid-April (as per the Yuki-yama Guide).
  • Getting there and away
    • Getting there: As of March 2017, there were around 6 buses in the morning going from Sapporo Station Bus Terminal No. 17 to Sapporo Ski Field (see details in English here). The earliest bus was at 7:10am, arriving at the ski field at 8:50am.
    • Getting away: As of March 2017, there were around 2 buses per hour leaving from the zenibako-josui-jo (銭函浄水場) bus stop (location), going to JR Zenibako Station (location). The bus stop is just 500m from the trailhead. Zenibako station is about 2.5km from the bus stop, so in the worst case, it is not overly far to walk (I did the walk in my ski boots, and it was bearable).
  • Onsen neaby: One argument for doing the trip in reverse is that there are more onsen in Jozankei, which would be a worthy stop on your way back Sapporo on the bus. The Zenibako end doesn’t even have any sento.
  • Weather forecast: See the Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort forecast here, and the Teine Ski Field forecast here. The weather for these nearby points should be an OK approximation of what to expect on the route.
  • Hut information: You’ll need to contact Hokkaido University about using the Okuteine Hut, and Tokai University Sapporo Campus about using the Ginreiso Hut. See my Okuteine Hut route page here and the Ginreiso Hut page here for information about who to contact.
  • Date visited: March 11th-13th, 2017

See my Hokkaido Ski Touring Resources page for more trips like this
Please read my disclaimer, if you haven’t already


Ski Tour Report

Preamble

When I was flicking through one of the early issues of the Stuben Magazine recently, I came across an entire article devoted to the chain of huts the dot the hills west of Sapporo City. Akihito Tachimoto writes:

“Did you know that around 90 years ago, 20 mountain huts were constructed in and around Sapporo City? Ten of them still remain. Almost all of these huts are still in use, still accessible to the general public when going through the right channels…It was around the time of the dawn of skiing culture within Japan, when a number of individuals conceived the idea to construct a hütten kette (chain of huts) in the Jozankei area. They wanted to facilitate social interaction, broaden awareness of ski touring and encourage mountain hut use among students and Sapporo citizens. They were Hokkaido University’s Prof. Seishichi Oono and Prof. Haruo Yamazaki, German instructor Dr. Arnold Gubler, and Swiss architect Max Hinder, among others. Together with Hokkaido University students, they made the idea a reality.” Stuben: Our Snow Culture, p. 35 (translated from the original Japanese).

Doing some more digging, I came across a 2006 publication by Hokkaido University, detailing the history of mountain huts the university had been involved in setting up. Called “The Mountain Huts of Hokkaido University” (in Japanese, download the official PDF version here), this 90-odd page book goes into fascinating detail about historical ski routes and the huts west of Sapporo. Case in point is the 1930’s era ski route map below.

1930's ski touring routes in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

Looking at the map above, there are any number of options for ski tours west of Sapporo. The green-shaded areas are ‘good slopes’ for skiing. The solid red lines are main ski routes. The dashed lines are secondary routes. Well before I came across this 1930’s map, I had wanted to join up the common Okuteine Hut and Ginreiso Hut routes. They are both huts that sit at the bottom of some short but magnificently fun ski runs, so a leisurely three-day tour, allowing time to do a few laps of the ski runs behind the huts, was very appealing.

In the end, we would end up essentially following the route in blue below, starting at the west end at Sapporo Kokusai Ski Area, and ending on the coast at Zenibako JR station (see the route in GPS-track form here – slightly different to the route below, but close enough).

Sapporo ski touring routes (1930's historical map, northern end), Hokkaido, Japan

Day 1 – Sapporo Kokusai Ski Area to Okuteine Hut (Yama-no-Ie) (11km)

Our actual Day 1 route/tracklog: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/13373833

Andy and I met up at Sapporo Station at 6:50am on Saturday morning, keen to be first in line for the bus to Sapporo Kokusai Ski Area. The bus was advertised as leaving at 7:10am, and would take over an hour to get to the ski area. This all went smoothly, apart from one small catch – I opted to wear my ski boots rather than taking spare shoes, and found out upon boarding the bus that you’re not allowed on the bus wearing ski boots. “You may slip over,” was the reasoning. This was not a major issue, as I could remove my inner boots and wear those on the bus.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)
Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

It was a relatively uneventful bus ride, and by around 9:00am we were gearing up in the ski area parking lot, with skins on right at the bus stop we’d been dropped off at.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)
Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

From the ski area carpark, it is a 2.7km flat-ish skin to the Okuteine trail. On the way, you’ll pass the historic Helvetia Hutte, still owned and maintained by Hokkaido University. It was one of the first mountain huts built by Hokkaido University. Designed by Swiss architect Max Hinder this hut was built on the 13th of September 1927 – or, at least the original hut was. The old hut was demolished, with the current hut, an exact replica, built in 1985. The hut is locked, so to use it you’ll need to talk to Hokkaido University (see the Okuteine Hut info for contact details).

You’ll also likely get some strange looks from passing cars…

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)
Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

Once on the Okuteine Route proper, you’ll want to either follow the summer route along the valley floor all the way to the hut, or if the weather is good, head up to Mt. Tsuge and approach the hut from the top ridge. The Mt. Tsuge ridge has jaw-droppingly good views across the mountains of Jozankei, so this is by far the recommended route. After the 730m mark on the way up Mt. Tsuge the ridge gets very compact and you’ll be picking a cramped line through closely-spaced trees.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

This keeps things interesting, however, and makes the broad summit ridge all the more pleasant. The view looks to the west towards the majestic, fortress-like Mt. Tengu (1,144m).

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

The route meanders up and down a few times before finally arriving at the top of the “Utopia Piste” – a clearcut section of forest that descends sharply down to the hut. Enjoy this run – Prince Chichibu did in 1928, according to the official record.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

When we arrived at the hut, there was a group of Hokkaido University students from the Wandervogel Club – a university club that manages the hut. They’d already got the coal stove fired up, so the hut was already warm (see my Okuteine Hut page for hints on how to light the coal stove). The hut was as I remembered from last time I stayed there: a mess. The interior of the hut – parts of kerosene lantern and pots and cookers strewn over the tables – instantly tells you the hut is managed by a rag-tag club made up of undergraduates. But not only does this give the hut a homely feel, it speaks to the deep history the hut has with Hokkaido university students.

According to the 2006 booklet produced by Hokkaido University, the hut was built in 1930 partly in response to the mass popularity of skiing in pre-war Japan, and partly due to the Sapporo Railway Department wanting to boost profits.

“In January 1930, the Sapporo branch of the then Japan Railway Department was seeking ways to increase income revenues. One of the ideas was to build facilities for ski tourists, somewhere close enough to a railway such that they’d use the railway to get to the ski facility and away. On the 27th of January, the Railway Department held a get-together for skiers in the region, in order to gather opinions on what they might do. It was here that the president of the Hokkaido University Ski Club, Prof. Seichichi Oono suggested a hut at either Utopia or Zenibako Pass. He was keen to see one more hut be constructed so that the Paradise Hut (next to Mt. Teine) and Helvetia Hut might be more practically linked. If this idea was realized, then it would be likely that many hut users would get off the train at Zenibako Station, and this would add to the coffers of the Sapporo Railway Department. Since Utopia was known then as one of the larger ski slopes in Hokkaido and had the marked distinction of having had Prince Chichibu ski there in 1928, this area was chosen for the hut.” Paraphrased from Mountain Huts of Hokkaido University (PDF), p. 39-43.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

Day 2 – Okuteine Hut to Ginreiso Hut (11km)

Our actual Day 2 route/tracklog: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/13373834

The students staying in the hut with us last night were actually graduated members of the club, staying in the hut one last time before they went their separate ways to graduate school and new jobs. This was their farewell from a hut they’d grown to love over their 4 years as undergrads. What better way to celebrate this farewell than to sing acapella karaoke until 2am in the morning. Thankfully I had earplugs, and was sleeping on the third floor – just far enough away to reduce the frivolities to a loud murmur.

They were rather more subdued in the morning, but once again had the stove roaring by the time Andy and I roused ourselves downstairs for some morning coffee.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)
Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

The route from Okuteine Hut to Ginreiso hut is not marked, but with good weather, it is a fairly easy route. Once you’re up on top of Mt. Okuteine, just follow the ridge around to Zenibako Pass, and then on to Ginreiso Hut. In anything other than perfectly clear conditions, or in changeable conditions, however, you’d have to have your wits about you. There are ups and downs and very steep drop offs towards the eastern side of the route.

We left the hut at around 9am with blue skies overhead.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

These conditions would follow us the entire day, for some truly inspiring views over the terrain, including Ishikari bay and the Japan Sea. I’d never seen this area from this vantage point before, and it was clear why it has such a deep skiing history here. Mellow plateaus dotted with some great terrain features for downhill skiing.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

We only took the skins off for one downhill run – a beautiful mellow run on the western flanks of the 838m peak just before Zenibako Pass (location). It was well worth the extra time taken to put the skins back on again afterwards for the final 30 minutes or so of skinning to Ginreiso Hut.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

While we had been breaking trail for the 4 hours or so it took us to get here, the final 20 minutes approaching the hut were on a very well-trodden trail. Mt. Haruka is a very popular location in the weekends, particularly for day visitors. We had obviously caught the tail end of the weekend rush, however, as we were the only people staying over on that Sunday night.

As always, Mt. Hirata, the live-in caretaker, fastidiously ushered us in, making sure we had everything in the right place. We sat down for a coffee and a bite to eat, before heading out unburdened by heavy packs for a couple of runs on Mt. Haruka. I’d only ever been here in relatively snowy conditions, and had never seen the hut from the slope before. Today, it was clear that whoever had chosen the location of the hut had done well. It really is at the foot of some great skiing.

Ginreso Hut quick-facts: First built in 1934 by Hokkaido University with funds from Hokkaido Newspaper. Was demolished before the Second World War. A new hut was rebuilt on the site in 1960 again with funds from Hokkaido Newspaper, and since 1974 is owned and maintained by Tokai University Sapporo Campus.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)
Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

The slope was relatively tracked up, being the end of the weekend. But upon getting back to the hut, Mr. Hirata reminded us that we must have been having fun – he could hear our whoops and hollers from down in the hut below.

After making dinner with the last of our heavy ingredients, we settled in for a quiet evening of reading and browsing through photos from the day.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

And then I noticed it was almost as bright as day outside – the moon was full, and it was lighting up the area perfectly. How could we not go for one moonlight ski run. At the very least we’d get to see the city lights of Sapporo.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)
Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

Day 3 – Ginreiso Hut to Zenibako JR Station (8km)

Our actual Day 3 route/tracklog: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/13374114

The plan for Day 3 – a Monday – was to get away from the hut early, in time to be back at work by mid-morning. Being 100% downhill, this was completely doable…but not before a decent celebratory breakfast of bacon, eggs, slightly stale baguette, and coffee. We were almost finished following the footsteps of those hardy Japanese skiers of the 1930’s.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

The ski down from Ginreiso Hut to the trailhead can be taxing, especially after a weekend of skiers, snowshoers, and snow-mobiles. The walking track to the west of the forestry road can be narrow and tracked up, and the forestry road can be concrete-like corrugated snow-mobile tracks. That said, there were a couple of spots of un-tracked bliss that had us thinking that there could certainly be worse Monday morning commutes.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

Once at the trailhead, we opted to walk the 2.5km from the zenibako-josui-jo bus stop to Zenibako JR Station. We’d missed one of the earlier buses, and with only two per hour going to the station, we’d get there quicker walking. With me in my ski boots (the relatively articulate Scarpa Maestrale), this was bearable. Just. Perhaps Andy had been right in carrying his trainers across the hills.

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)
Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

Okuteine-Haruka Traverse ski tour (Sapporo City, Hokkaido, Japan)

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