To and Frozen – Hokkaido’s Chuo Bus Reviewed

the only way to pass the time on a bus ride

the only way to pass the time on a bus ride

Buses are boring. There is nothing wrong with being a boring bus. In fact, I prefer boring to say… life threatening. Talking about buses is also pretty boring. However I have somethings I think you should know about Chuo Bus in Hokkaido.

Chuo bus is very convenient (kind of).

I took 4 trips (2 round trips) on a Chuo bus. We took the bus from Tomakomai ferry port to JR Sapporo Station. Then I also took the Chuo bus from JR Sapporo to Niseko Hirafu and back. Two very different trips but essentially the same things to say. To get from the ferry terminal to JR Sapporo there are four bus pick up times posted outside at the stop. You can take an express train that goes from JR Tomakomai to Sapporo but its nearly double the price of the bus and you have to transfer from the bus to the train anyway. Might as well stay on the bus. In this respect the bus was very convenient.

Riding to Niseko was also very convenient. The bus leaves from JR Sapporo twice in the morning 7:55AM and 8:55AM and arrives at Hirafu just before lunch. The price is very reasonable at 3100円 round trip. There is a large customer service desk that opens at 7:30AM in Sapporo Station to pay for tickets and book numerous other excursions offered by Chuo bus. They also offer services that leave direct from the airport to Hirafu but I did’t explore that option because we took the ferry.

Customer Service

Customer Service

Now the inconvenient elements. Their website is terrible and almost 100% in Japanese. There is an English site seeing page but the ski link goes back to the Japanese page. The bus to Niseko requires a reservation and during peak season you may need one as it might sell out. However, my bus was mostly empty and I left on a Friday morning in peak season. Like Keio bus terminal in Shinjuku there was a massive LED readout listing trips and availability on it. My guess is that even without a reservation if you got to the station at 7:30AM right when the ticket counter opens you could get a seat on the bus to Niseko. I didn’t try that because I had someone call for me and book it in Japanese. There are 3 other main bus services that all make trips to Niseko and when I was at Niseko I saw even more buses that I didn’t find online. White Liner has the best website and you can book in English. The other services are Donan (Japanese only) and Resort Liner (English). Chuo does NOT offer online reservations because, I have no idea.

ski page for Chuo bus

ski page for Chuo bus

Style, Comfort or Both?

I can assure you these busses were completely lacking in style, but were comfortable enough. I wouldn’t take Chuo overnight somewhere as they were pretty standard fare and didn’t have any of the extra sleeping  “comforts” you get with a Willer bus. They did have regular sized cup holders which I thought was nice. The ride from Tomakomai to Sapporo and back was fraught with my largest complaint about buses in Japan, they are too warm. Inside the bus it was blistering and outside it was just normal cold weather for Hokkaido. The bus to Niseko didn’t seem to have this problem. Not sure why but I was wearing snowboard gear and it didn’t feel overly hot to me.

The in-crowd?

The buses we took were all about half full save the bus 3:30PM bus from Sapporo Station to Tomakomai. That bus was jam packed. They even had to bust out the jumper seats to fit everyone. It was a sardine can. Not surprisingly, a super crowded bus can result in a relatively uncomfortable ride. Was it worth paying double to take the train? Probably not, and there is no guarantee that the train would be any less crowded. Plus, once you get to Tomakomai, you still have to take the bus to the ferry terminal.

Something strange also happened at the bus terminal in Sapporo. The guy loading the luggage told me I couldn’t put my bag in the luggage compartment under the bus. His reason, “PASOCOM! PASOCOM.” For those of you not familiar with English words remade into Japanese words, this sounds just like the way it’s spelled: complete gibberish. After about three times of trying to hand the guy my bag we finally figured out that he was telling us laptops can’t go under the bus. Why? Who knows. After we informed him it was just clothes in my bag, he changed to normal polite Japanese, “ONEGAISHIMASU!” It was weird. The Japanese are incredibly paranoid about lithium-ion batteries but this was out of the ordinary. As if all the lithium ion batteries in cell phones, iPads, mp3 players, and laptops are some how less dangerous when raised more than a meter off the ground.

Bus drop off in Niseko

Bus drop off in Niseko

Chuo bus is very inexpensive to get around Hokkaido and it goes almost everywhere a gung-ho tourist would want to go. However, you may hit a language barrier here and there and if something requires reservations you may have to phone a friend. For skiing or boarding I thought the Chuo bus was by far the best option with the best available times. It leaves early enough to get in a solid half day when you arrive in Niseko and leaves late enough that you can have two solid days and only pay for one night in a hotel.

Sapporo Snow Festival – Yuki Matsuri

We can finally check another island off our list! Since moving to Japan, we have visited over twenty cities, but never left the island of Honshu. Two weeks ago, we went to Hokkaido to see the famous snow festival in Sapporo. Besides yuki matsuri, we fit in a couple other sites in Hokkaido, and slept on a ferry for the first time. You can read about the ferry experience here (Coming Soon!).

Yuki matsuri is a yearly 6-day winter wonderland where people from all over the globe create massive snow sculptures that remain on display day and night. It is rated as one of those must-see experiences, and it was definitely impressive. February is arguably the “worst” weather period for Hokkaido, as it is below freezing and often snowing. The festival coordinators do their best to provide fun winter activities throughout the day, but there is only so much fun one can have for extended periods outdoors in -7°C degree weather (even colder at night). Lots of food stalls line the main sculpture park, offering temporary respite from the cold, and since the festival features works from many countries, it is a great chance to get non-Japanese food. We particularly enjoyed the fantastic Indian cuisine in front of the huge snow Malaysian temple.

You can also watch singers and dancers perform on frigid outdoor stages, partake in ice skating and sledding, and see Japanese snowboarders and skiiers do tricks off an Olympic-style ski jump. One 14 year old snowboarder was fantastic and apparently devoid of fear. And… that’s about it. You can make a nice day of it, or day and a half, since there are three separate locations for ice sculptures, but with five days scheduled in our trip, we realized we’d have to fill up the time elsewhere.

While I’m sure Sapporo is a happening place in the summer, it can be a bit dull in the winter. What there is to do and see may be dampened by perpetual snowfall. Indoor activities it was then! Luckily, Sapporo boasts a nice subway system that is concise and easy to use, so you don’t have to do a ton of outdoor walking. I especially recommend the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art. The temporary collection is rotated often, but contains many works by Japanese artists schooled in French impressionism and École de Paris. A five minute walk from the Nishi 18 Chome station, in winter the museum observatory overlooks a snow filled garden where you can relax on a couch with a good book (I took this time to read a personal account of autism by a Japanese teenager, check out The Reason I Jump for a fascinating narrative).

The special exhibit was a fantastic collection of the works of Ken-ichi Kuriyagama. He was a wonderful Japanese artist who created paintings of Hokkaido for tourism posters. 120 posters were on display along with 40 of the original paintings on canvas, in colors even more vibrant than the posters can imply. The paintings were not only stunning in their beautiful simplicity, but the collection led one back to the times when advertising was actual art. Frankly, it was very hard to go back to the subway station and look at all the heartless, digital ads after viewing that exhibit. When did we lose the desire for beauty in our search for commodities? Needless to say, it was one of the most beautiful things I have seen in Japan.

Close to the art museum, one subway stop west at Maruyamakoen, is a bona-fide Louisiana-style southern restaurant, Dixie-Roux. If you are in the area (especially if you live in Japan and are a little tired of the culinary monotony) you must give it a try. Perhaps the number one selling point for me, outside of the fabulous inner décor, great service and wonderful food, was the drink menu. Nowhere in Japan have I seen mint juleps, hurricanes, or the crème-de-la-crème, a Cosmopolitan.

Yes, you heard right. What is a ubiquitous cocktail back home is impossible to get here. I have never seen uh cranberry, let alone cranberry juice, in Japan. How they can live without it is a mystery, so I immediately ordered one. It was perfection, although in the spirit of all things Japan, too small. The food itself was equally reminiscent of home and authentic. I sampled some local Hokkaido cheeses and bread and had a big bowl of brown roux gumbo. Sadly there were no fried green tomatoes or shrimp and grits on the menu, so I consoled myself with a second Cosmo and enjoyed the jazz music on the radio.

When the weather gives you snow, make snowmen; or hang out in museums…you know, same difference.

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Niseko – A pinnacle of powder

I’ll admit it. I’m a little arrogant when it comes to ski resorts. I grew up near Lake Tahoe, CA and my father got me started at age 6 on a pair of rental skis. My spur of the moment ski trips were to places like Heavenly, Squaw Valley and Kirkwood. Lake Tahoe doesn’t have the world’s greatest snow or most vertical feet, but its steep, deep and full of variety.  I’ve skied at Mt. Baker, Snowbird, Mt. Bachelor and Happo-one as well (read about my Hakuba trip herehere and here). I thought I was pretty spoiled.

Then, I went to Niseko. Now I am really spoiled.

Niseko

you can't tell but there is a huge smile on my face

you can’t tell but there is a huge smile on my face

The snow in Niseko, as any ski travel site will tell you, is absolutely legendary. I read once that a lot of foreigners think that the Japanese word for powder snow is, “niseko,” because the resort has become synonymous with great snow. It’s not likely I can add anything to the conversation by telling you about how the Gobi Desert and the Sea of Japan make freaky weather-love and science together to create soft dry fluffy powder that falls at world record rates. I won’t tell you that boarding through Niseko snow is like flying, even when it’s tracked out. I’m not going to tell you about any of that.

I spent nearly two full days there and I can say it was some of the best boarding in my life. It wasn’t simply the snow, it was more than that. The variety at Niseko (if you buy the more expensive all resort pass, WHICH I DID) is awesome. There is so much to do, plenty of reasonably steep runs but more over any of the diamond runs that run from the uppermost lifts allow you to get pretty much anywhere on the mountain. There are banked gully runs (like a natural half pipe with TREES!), wide open bowls, tree runs, groomed runs, trick parks, and so much intermediate and easy stuff that I don’t think you could ski the whole place in three full days. And that’s not even counting back country.

It's always in your field of vision, when you can see it.

It’s always in your field of vision, when you can see it.

The view on a sunny day at Niseko is absolutely incredible as well. Yotei-san, which is affectionately referred to as “Kita-Fuji” (North Fuji), is a slightly smaller version of the famous Fuji-san, a perfectly conical volcano that basically fills your entire field of vision. It reminded me of old school racing arcade games like, Cruisin U.S.A., where the background is static and never changes. Sadly I was still having issues with my Contour camera because Apple hates backwards compatibility on non-Apple peripherals. So, I don’t have any awesome powder videos with Yotei in the background. You’ll have to take my word for it.

(watch the clouds, they never move – that’s what Yotei-san is like as you go down the mountain)

But like I said earlier, it wasn’t the snow, the variety, or the view that made Niseko so mind-blowingly awesome. I loved it because it was quiet. For being the most popular mountain in Hokkaido and maybe in Japan, and the dearth of Aussies that take over the town at night not-with-standing, the mountain itself was peaceful. For a solitary skier or boarder it made the experience that much more memorable.

Despite being a holiday weekend, I only had to wait in line once. Once. I can’t remember ever not waiting in a line at Northstar on a holiday weekend. Off the lift there were groups of people picking their lines but there are so many runs, I just had to pick the one they didn’t. Finally to really get your money’s worth, being able to get right back on lift after a run is great, provided you aren’t marooned in shoulder deep powder somewhere. I was struck constantly by being alone on the hill even though I knew the place was crowded. I could see other skiers and boarders but they might as well have been on another planet. There is a lot of space to spread out and make the most of the fresh pow, the stunning view, and the variety of Niseko.

Another shot of Yotei-san from the summit.

Another shot of Yotei-san from the summit.

Something else occurred to me, do I like boarding with others or can I do board all by myself? I’m still not sure. Sometimes when you do really awesome stuff you want to make sure others saw it because, “That was awesome, did you see that!?” When you board on your own there is never any arguing about what run to take and wasting time not boarding. Plus singles get through the lines faster. Experiences are sometimes better when you share them with others and in general I prefer company to being alone but with snowboarding, I haven’t made up my mind.

Enough philosolophisizing, the G2 gate to the summit of An’nupuri-Niseko ranks at least in the top three runs of my life; along with conquering, “The Wall” at Kirkwood and doing the summit run at Mt. Bachelor. It starts with an “easy” 20 minute hike to the summit and then you drop into a powder filled bowl that funnels you into a 2 to 3km gully which then spits you out through a birch and cedar forest that could a set piece from Game of Thrones, eventually shooting out near the Nook restaurant at the base of the An’nupuri Resort.

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Speaking of restaurants, my only complaint about Niseko, and it’s a minor one, is that the food was too expensive. At least at the Nook it was. That was the only place I ate at (on the mountain). I had become accustomed to the great value offered by the restaurants in Japanese ski resorts but the Nook was more like American ski resort pricing. Hot tea was 400円 and my small beef bowl was 1,000円. Big beers were 1,050円. The food prices were a minor inconvenience for such an awesome place to snowboard.

This hot dog stand was great and inexpensive compared to the Nook, but its not on the mountain.

Hokkai-dog was great and inexpensive compared to the Nook, but its not on the mountain. +1 for the pun.

Getting to Niseko is actually easier than it looks considering its relative distance from Sapporo. There are four main bus companies that all operate daily service from both Sapporo Station and from New Chitose Airport. Some bus packages include round trip and your lift ticket. During the busy season they can get booked up so definitely make reservations if you can. If not you can check out my review of Chuo Bus here for more details (Coming Soon).

Niseko is a fantastic place to spend a week or more going up to the top of the mountain and back down again but it will be expensive. Accomodations and food in the area are not cheap. Is it worth it? If you love skiing or snowboarding, totally. I will have to find my way back eventually. Save your coin and get up to Hokkaido for some of the best boarding in the world.