Rachael Oakes-Ash investigates Furano, a country town with an amazing ski field, a legendary local host and excellent Hello Kitty Karaoke.

Forget any preconceived ideas you have of Japan. It is in a category of its own.  Hello Kitty is akin to royalty with a national obsession that matches the average western woman’s fascination with Princess Diana.

Toilets have movement censors that detect motion in the cubicle and let off a musical accompaniment to your ablutions.  Not so you can pee in time to the beat, but more so nobody else can hear you doing so.

Love hotels line the highways – fantasy rooms rented by the hour for Japanese couples who can’t get cosy at home due to paper thin walls and extended family.  But that’s not all…

This is the land of the vending machine.  Thirsty?  Put coins in the slot.  Hungry?  Put coins in the slot.  Need something to read? Bring your coins. Feeling perverted? Bring more coins and buy hermetically sealed virgin underwear.

The ski fields of Japan are no different.  Vending machines pop out pre- warmed cans of milky coffee with a touch of a button, though you may wonder where the electrical plug is inserted when stumbling upon these machines mid ski run.

There are over four hundred, six hundred or seven hundred ski fields in Japan, depending on who you talk to.  Some country villages may have one run down a nearby hill with one chairlift to access it but it’s still considered a ski field.

Skiing has been a recreational sport in Japan for almost a century.  Japan’s proximity to Siberia means cold dry conditions that guarantee some of the world’s premium snow.  It is not uncommon in Japan for resorts to experience metre dumps overnight and average snowfalls of thirteen metres a season.

The northern most island of Hokkaido has been high on the radar for inbound ski operators for a few years now, thanks to a bunch of Australian ex-pats who bought up big in Niseko, two hours west of Sapporo.  But if you’re looking for an authentic Japanese ski experience then head inland to the belly button known as Furano and ask for Luke.

Meet Luke Hurford…

Three and a half years ago Luke Hurford jumped on a bus at Sapporo – unable to read Japanese, he prayed he was heading in the right direction.   The bus stopped at Furano where at 22 years of age, with not much more than a snowboard and a beanie, Luke Hurford discovered powder paradise.

What he first thought to be a sleepy Japanese country town, turned out to be a snow sports Mecca.  One run down the slopes and he unpacked his duffel bag and set up camp where he’s been for nigh on five years, promoting the town to inbound tourists and promoting himself to the local media who were curious about the only western man in the village.

It is only fitting that I meet the legendary Luke at Furano’s local 7-11 where he shouts me a hot coffee in a can before we hit Furano’s twenty-seven kilometres of groomed runs.

Luke’s legendary status in Furano has its drawbacks, as the ski patrol are on our backs, and the Japanese don’t like to break rules.  Exceedingly polite, they travel in packs and follow each other down the slopes daily, careful to avoid the pockets of powder on the edge of the groomed runs.

Furano ski patrols are no different.  Luke likes to go off-piste, and I am inclined to join him.   When we sneak behind the ropes, even the ski won’t follow and we are left alone –  until we find them waiting at the bottom to give Luke a “tsk tsk” when we arrive.  To be fair, they smile at me too – they are always polite.

There are no lift queues in Furano.  There’s the country’s fastest cable car covering  2.3 kilometres, and some dinky one-seater chair lifts to take you to the peak – but no queues.  This means first tracks can last up till mid morning and runs can be skied solo.  With an average snowfall of nine metres and no sea air the snow is exceptionally dry.

Don’t call it a ski resort

Furano isn’t a ski resort, it’s a traditional Japanese country town of 26,000 people that happens to have an awesome ski field with a vertical drop of over nine hundred metres. It’s the kind of town where locals don’t own house keys.  Crime is virtually nil and the main industries are farming and agriculture.

Luke is mad as a cut snake and Furano suits him.  He can get away with a lot here.  Offered the job of tourism officer within moments of his arrival, he wields free reign when journos are in town.  “There goes the crazy white man” they say as he throws himself off cliffs.

His enthusiasm seems to grow the longer he stays and mine goes along for the ride. He has brought along his Japanese extreme-skiing mate who carves through the trees as though they were toothpicks.  Remember, this is World Cup Downhill Ski racing territory.

First-timers in Furano need not despair, Luke has set up Ski Hosting with English speaking hosts offering a free mountain guide service to help you get round the hill on your first day.   The hill consists of two mountain zones on which to play and night skiing is offered daily so there is more time to spend on snow.

Time to get naked

Come sundown, however, and Luke and I get naked. Literally. Trekking four hundred metres in the nearby parkland to an illegal onsen where the locals have placed a pipe straight into the town’s volcano, filling a rock pool with fresh hot spring water.

As the snow falls upon our heads, our bodies immersed in wet warmth, there is not a sound to be heard.  This is a truly natural Onsen, though redressing in snow-laden clothes in our birthday suits is an experience not to be repeated.

The world’s smallest bar exists in Furano, or so it seems, as we enter Kitsutsuki, with only two tables and every inch of wall space covered with kitsch memorabilia.  It’s impossible not to meet people here simply because there’s only enough room for about fifteen guests.

It would be rude not to sign up for Karaoke when in Japan, though I fight Luke for the microphone at the local ten pin bowling and karaoke hall.  He’s convinced himself he’s a rock star, and who am I to contradict him? He wears Bon Jovi-inspired checked flannel and it seems the man is in the paper nearly every week, even if I can’t read Japanese.

Twenty-four hours is not enough in Furano, but twenty-four hours is all I had.  If I had stayed longer I could have walked with the penguins at the local zoo, checked out the set of Japan’s longest running soap opera (filmed in Furano) and crash-tackled Luke a second time for the Hello Kitty Karaoke microphone.

Rachael Oakes-Ash

About Rachael Oakes-Ash

Rachael Oakes-Ash is a journalist, travel writer, documentary maker, author of two books and ski writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.