In Niseko, Japan, ski on an active volcano with lots of powder

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A wicked Siberian wind can find its way through layers of thermal clothing and take the temperature to well below -20 C (-4 F), but for those who summit Japan’s Mount Yotei, any discomfort is worth the effort.

The reward isn’t just reaching the top of the volcano to see spectacular views from nearly 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) above sea level in western Hokkaido.

The real reason climbers summit Mount Yotei is to ski into its bowl-shaped crater on perfect powder snow.

“It’s the one thing that people should do, if they get a chance,” says Sam Kerr, head of Niseko Xtreme Tours, one of a number of local companies that take visitors on backcountry ski adventures around the winter sports town of Niseko, one of Japan’s most famous ski resorts.

“There’s really nothing else like it,” he says.

To many of the area’s ski and snowboard visitors, Mount Yotei is rarely even visible let alone surmountable because of the area’s regularly clouded skies, which dump around 15 meters (49 feet) of snow on the region per season.

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When the sky does clear it’s an inspiring sight, rising from the snow-blanketed landscape of Shikotsu-Toya National Park; the peak is often referred to as Hokkaido’s Mount Fuji.

Kerr has skied Yotei’s crater more than 70 times.

That sounds like a lot but over the seven years the former New Zealand ski patrolman has been in the region it equals only around 10 trips a year.

The earliest time in the season he’s managed it was early March. Usually there’s too much snow until late February.

Snowshoes and avalanche equipment are necessary to climb the mountain, with the ascent taking between five to seven hours depending on weather conditions and fitness level of the skiers.

From the ridge of the crater, the nearby resorts, runs and forests of snow-covered pine and silver birch can be seen stretching into the distance.

“The run is not the most epic but it is the best snow conditions you’ll find for any backcountry skiing,” says Kerr.

Usually skiers will only get one or two runs into the crater, which is a few hundred meters long. “It can be done in around 15 to 20 seconds,” says Kerr. “But then you get to ski down the outside of the mountain, which can take around an hour.”

It’s potentially dangerous, as all backcountry skiing can be, says Kerr, with the threat of avalanches real.

However, Kerr says any snowboarder or skier who can do the runs in the regular ski resorts can manage Yotei.

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Back-country skiing in Niseko

As a winter sports destination, Niseko is renowned for its abundant powder, which blankets the region and allows for skiing from November to early May.

Add to that the natural thermal hot springs and relaxing onsens and it’s no surprise that Niseko is increasing in popularity with skiers of all abilities from around the globe.

Ross Findlay set up the Niseko Adventure Center (NAC) in 1995 to cater to those in search of off-trail adventures.

When he arrived in 1989 the area was mostly popular with domestic tourists, but since the 1990s when Japan’s economy took a dive, he’s seen more Western visitors flocking to the area’s mountains in search of all manner of winter sports.

“Fifteen years ago you could ski through Niseko’s gullies, but now that’s totally banned, so backcountry skiing is popular,” he says.

Access to the region’s backcountry ski areas is reached through special gates near the resorts. As well as guided off-trail skiing, Findlay and NAC offer snowshoeing for low-speed adventures through the tree line, while taking the company’s Caterpillar-track vehicle up Mount Weiss Horn provides a unique way to make fresh tracks in virgin snow.

It’s well worth the expense as you’re unlikely to see any other skiers, says Findlay, who believes Niseko has just about the best snow in the world.

“Up there it is often like cream cheese,” he says. “It’s about two to three feet deep but you just float on top of it.”