Photo:Lucy Morrell

Snowriding at Furano Strikes the Right Balance

People in the town of Furano, located in the very centre of Hokkaido, know that when your snow is this good, your locals are this friendly, and your food is this delicious, you are bound to be discovered by foreigners.

In Furano, this discovery has been welcomed, with foreign snowriders increasing each winter. But the place is not westernized for visitors, and so it balances welcoming the winter influx with remaining a distinctly Japanese town.

For example, little English is spoken or displayed in Furano. Foreign visitors are often relieved to discover the English-speaking information services located at the ski resort and train station. Some of these visitors raise concerns about the scarcity of western influence in Furano, but it is natural in Japan to write signs in Japanese, to speak in Japanese, and to offer Japanese experiences. Occasionally, signs and menus are produced in English, but communication is most often intuitive.

Furano’s locals do want to make visitors comfortable and to help them fulfil their holiday plans. For this reason, residents who speak English, Chinese, Korean and other languages volunteer at the tourism office in town in the very busy summer season. This is when the flower farms and picturesque nature of the area draw ten times the number of tourists that the winter snows do. But Furano is still very popular in winter.

Furano Elementary School students ski during gym class. Photo Lucy Morrell
Furano Elementary School students ski during gym class. Photo: Lucy Morrell

Furano’s resort, a Prince property, donates lift passes to English-speaking local volunteers who host foreign visitors on the mountain. The service is managed by the Furano Tourism Association, which also puts an English-speaking information officer at the base of the resort in the snow season.

Four women heading into the backcountry from Furano resort. Photo Lucy Morrell
Four women heading into the backcountry from Furano resort. Photo: Lucy Morrell

The Japanese cultural balance is aided by the many domestic tourists who visit in winter and other seasons. They are attracted to the great snow in winter and the beauty and adventure in other seasons. Japanese visitors feel they know Furano, thanks to a long-running television show called Kita no Kuni kara (From the North Country). The show was about a heartbroken father who brought his children to the wilds of Hokkaido.

Starting anew in Hokkaido is not a rare thing. Japanese people who feel stifled by the city or just wish to leave the south, often move to Hokkaido to start a new life of freedom and individuality. Perhaps for that reason, another balance found in Furano is between families living there for generations, and the relative newcomers. Perhaps it is this blend in the Japanese community that makes it so welcoming of foreign visitors.

Furano resort gets more bluebird days than other parts of Hokkaido. Photo Lucy Morrell
Furano resort gets more bluebird days than other parts of Hokkaido. Photo: Lucy Morrell

Furano, perhaps most importantly, balances its atmosphere and ‘vibe’. The town feels safe, quiet, relaxed and welcoming. The feel of the place definitely rings true to its motto: ‘to each, his own’.

The family feel is particularly strong in Furano in winter, and the resort helps this enormously by giving children 12 and younger free lift passes. The local children receive theirs at school and visitors simply ask at a ticket desk. By making families so welcome, the resort enhances Furano’s nurturing atmosphere.

Children receive free lifts passes to ski at Furano resort. Photo Lucy Morrell

Children receive free lifts passes to ski at Furano resort. Photo: Lucy Morrell

Young snowrider navigating Furano. Photo Lucy Morrell

Young snowrider navigating Furano. Photo: Lucy Morrell

And winter nightlife is in exact balance in Furano, with just enough bars and Izakayas to fit everyone keen for a drink. It is a bit quiet, so revelers might think the balance is tipped against them, but Furano is hardly a dry town. Beers are on tap and in vending machines across the resort and local wines are sold in most shops, including convenience stores. But even with these drinking opportunities, in Furano, after a day on the snow, you tend to meet your friends in a bath, not a bar.

One fabulous exception of boozy fun is the annual Furano Beer Party, which is held in conjunction with a cultural performance night for tourists. It’s an all-you-can-drink affair in February, where multinational friendships are struck over cold beer, hot food, and traditional music and dance. This boisterous event is perhaps the most genius cultural balance Furano strikes of them all, as the locals become loosened up and the visitors feel let in on a local secret. Conversation is lubricated by streams of Hokkaido’s superb amber ale.

So as unsettling as it might be for overseas visitors sometimes, the lack of foreign influence in Furano is likely to be its savior. It might just preserve this bucolic and friendly town as winter starts to gain on summer for tourism popularity.

Furano’s winter tourism rates might grow faster if there were signs in English, Chinese, Malaysian, Thai, French, Dutch, Finnish, German and Spanish available. But if it grew too quickly, or too obviously, it also might also change the place into a snowy theme park where Japanese people are ill at ease, foreigners miss out, and the locals do not recognise their home town.

When you come to Furano to ski or snowboard, try and relax, and expect some communication challenges. You can also expect some excellent snowriding at a resort so high in caliber, it has hosted about a dozen skiing and snowboarding World Cups. Perhaps most importantly, come to Furano because the town maintains a delicate balance between Japanese tradition and foreign discovery. And the people of Furano are achieving this balance elegantly, with genuine Hokkaido hospitality.

The view to Tokachidake from Furano resort. Photo Lucy Morrell
The view to Tokachidake from Furano resort. Photo: Lucy Morrell

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History of skiing in Furano :

Kita no Kuni kara :

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