Niseko has an Australian flavour; nearby Rusutsu resort has epic runs and a family atmosphere, writes Susan Bredow.
Statistically, Rusutsu is perfect. With 30 per cent of its terrain suitable for beginners, 40 per cent for intermediates and 30 per cent for those who reckon they know just what they're doing, Rusutsu is Hokkaido's quiet achiever.
One of the best surprises for those venturing onto Rusutsu's acclaimed off-piste terrain is ending up in a field at the bottom of a run. In a region renowned for its powder, getting carried away is just part of the fun, so farmers are accustomed to skiers and boarders asking for directions back to the resort.
Rusutsu's spectacular scenery and long, wide groomed runs on undulating slopes are reminiscent of some of the best in Colorado. Fir trees frame the pistes and it's packed powder snow underneath. The resort is a 40-minute drive from Niseko, along backroads between fields that in the summer produce a large proportion of Japan's food crops. At 950 metres above sea level, Rusutsu is a couple of hundred metres below Niseko's 1150 metres but the advantages include the trees at the mountain-top that protect the runs and help skiers maintain visibility. Rusutsu's three gondolas and seven quad-chairs access 37 trails for more than 42 kilometres of downhill riding. With no waiting in lift lines, this means a lot of skiing on any given day.
Three areas - West Mountain, East Mountain and the highest, Mount Isola - are connected by gondola and a monorail runs between the resort's two main hotels. Rusutsu Tower, an all-suites hotel, is a glum brown high-rise that from the outside looks as though it was built by an Eastern European regime. The Rusutsu Resort Hotel, by contrast, looks as though its construction blueprint came via a Disney theme park.
At night, just off the resort's Stardust Avenue, is an indoor carnival site with two-storey merry-go-round and musical fountains. A roller coaster in the middle of town operates only in summer but there's enough rocking and rolling thrills to be found on the slopes, as well as dog sledding, snow mobiling and a children's snow park. The carnival atmosphere and facilities such as wave pools, tubing and night skiing on easy trails makes Rusutsu well suited to families.
Those seeking a big apres scene should head for Niseko, where new developments, including the Shiki Apartments - with on-site restaurants, bars and shops - is due to open in December. Likewise, Niseko's Chalet Ivy, a boutique hotel with restaurants and onsen, is expected to open in January.
At Rusutsu, lifts, hotels, shops and ski school are owned by one company. West Mountain is considered the resort's beginners' area; East Mountain has lovely views to Mount Yotei and is the best place for intermediates.
Given Niseko's established Australian flavour, it's easy to understand why many skiers haven't heard much about Rusutsu. Then again, those already in the know may want to keep it to themselves.
Susan Bredow travelled courtesy of SkiJapan.com.
Korean Airlines has a fare to Sapporo/New Chitose Airport from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1170 low-season return including tax. Fly to Seoul (about 11hr), then to New Chitose (2hr 30min); see koreanair.com. Buses run daily to Mount Rusutsu from the airport. Day trips to Rusutsu from Niseko town, about 20 kilometres away, are available. See en.rusutsu.co.jp; skijapan.com.
China, South Korea take off
Massive makeovers, no queues
The China Ski Association predicts that 20 million local residents will ski by 2014, up from 5 million in 2005. International skiers can enjoy relatively empty slopes, new facilities and low-cost air fares from Australia. The pick of the fields are at Yabuli, Changbaishan, Nanshan and Xiling.
Resort developers are investing with gusto. At Changbaishan in north-eastern China, Westin and Sheraton are opening a ski-in, ski-out resort. The French-owned Club Med has opened a dedicated ski village in Yabuli, near Harbin. Along with luxury stays and well-groomed slopes, the newly opened $100 million Sun Mountain area at Yabuli is to get VIP gondolas with sound systems and heated seats. Meantime, a Malaysian developer is set to open the Genting Secret Garden resort, inter-skiable with Wanlong, about three hours' drive from Beijing.
A date with 2018
No fewer than 12 South Korean resorts have excellent connections to the capital, Seoul. Pyeongchang, about 180 kilometres from Seoul, is the host city of the 2018 Winter Olympics. A 250km/h KTX line is to be built between Seoul and Wonju via Pyeongchang, reducing the travel time to Seoul to less than an hour.