Out of the many ways to explore Niseko's backcountry, one of the most fun is cat-skiing. I spent a day each with two of the most popular operations - Niseko Weiss Powder Cats and The House of Powder - to get to know how they differ so we can recommend the best option to our customers.
Both operations run at former ski resorts on mountains either side of Niseko so you get to ski the piste and off-piste terrain that used to make up the resorts. In fact, at you can still see the lifts in place!
Firstly, I joined Niseko Weiss Powder Cats on 13 December...
Niseko Weiss Powder Cats - 13 December 2017
Wherever you stay in Niseko, a free pick-up and drop-off service is available.
The Weiss Cat Tour departs from Hanazono 308, Niseko Hanazono's base lodge where you register and have the safety briefing.
The lead guide will explain the tour's outline, and also give you some safety instructions. You will practice how to use the safety equipment both inside the building and out on snow.
Your guide will test your avalanche beacon and your skill before you jump on the cat.
The cat and half of the guide team have already been up the mountain for a recce before customers arrive.
It was very windy and cold today. One of the many good things about a cat tour is that the tour can't be cancelled by high wind, as long as the cat can go up the mountain! When it's very windy, ski lifts could be closed, but cat tours not cancelled.
You might be excited for your first run, but please listen to the guide's instruction. They will tell you where to ski, how long the run is, what the snow is like and where to wait. This is very important for your safety. You could get lost or cause an avalanche if you do not listen to the guide.
Weiss Powder Cats only accept 12 customers per day. Can you imagine, there are only 12 skiers/snowboarders (plus four guides) on the slopes... Powder everywhere from the morning until the evening!
The guides always watch customers, making sure everyone makes it down and helping anyone stuck.
You can ski from five to seven runs per day, depending on snow, weather and fitness level.
If the all customers are good skiers/snowboarders, and the weather is good, then the guides can take you to somewhere much more challenging!
Another good thing about cat tours is that you will enjoy talking with other customers in the cabin on the 10-15 minute ride to the top.
The tour ends at Hanazono 308. It is one of the most popular restaurants on the slopes in Niseko, but I like here not just for lunch but for the best coffee!
Chisenupuri Cat Skiing with The House of Powder - 19 December 2017
The House of Powder also offer a free shuttle service to Chisenupuri which will pick you up from your hotel around 8 am and take you to the car park before 9 am (I drove there from Kutchan town, which took about 45 minutes).
The base lodge is 100 m from the car park by the slopes.
Once everyone had arrived, we had a safety briefing in the lodge.
Rental avalanche safety equipment (beacon, shovel, probe and backpack) are provided if you do not have your own.
Since they only have three or four staff to look after up to 25 customers, they can't guide everyone as they would in a backcountry situation. Therefore, they call themselves "ski patrol" instead of guides, although they act like guides and check everything for safety.
If you are not familiar with safety equipment, don't worry! You will have training before you get on the cat, both inside and out.
First, one of the guides showed us how to find a beacon using another beacon and probes, and how to dig it out by shovel and hands. Then, it was my turn!
You would never know if you don't try. It's too late to learn after your friend is buried in the snow!
There are two cats in Chisenupuri, taking up to 25 skiers/snowboarders per day.
Please do not hesitate to use powder skis or a powder board. You can't enjoy a cat tour very much with skinny skis!
The cabin is not as luxurious as Weiss's but is still comfortable enough and it takes only about five minutes to get to the top.
Since Chisenupuri used to be a ski resort but closed four years ago, there are still some runs. Those are wide and steep enough to enjoy, and the best thing about it is almost no avalanche risk!
There are three or four open-wide runs and some tree runs we could choose from.
There are some tree runs with a lot of drops and pillows on the back side of the mountain, more suited to experienced skiers and boarders.
If you keep to a certain speed you can easily control your skis/snowboard on powder, even better if you can read the terrain.
Yuki-Chichibu is an inn and restaurant at the base of Chisenupuri. You can access the restaurant from the car park, or ski over the onsen pools!
If you ski down the back side of the mountain, you get to the onsen pools at the bottom of the valley.
After I enjoyed power in Chisenupuri, this is what my car park looked like back in town - about 10-15 cm in only four hours. Time for another shovel party.
Which Should You Choose?
I would like to end by comparing Weiss with Chisenupuri, as both of them have similar price and similar set-up, so it's helpful to know the difference between them to know which to book.
Weiss is a bigger mountain than Chisenupuri, with more vertical drop:
Chisenupuri: 260 metres
Weiss: 450 metres
Weiss's runs are much longer, but Chisenupuri's are much steeper so Chisenupuri is a bit more enjoyable than Weiss for advanced skiers and boarders in terms of runs.
Depending on ability, you'll typically do 5 to 7 runs per day on Weiss and 10 to 12 runs on Chisenupuri.
I've found Chisenupuri gets slightly better snowfall, as Weiss is a bit more wind affected.
Both tours have very good safety briefings and avalanche equipment introduction.
Weiss's cat is a lot more comfortable than Chisenupuri's one, but it's the most comfortable I have ever been in, and both of them are based on the same Pisten Bully 300.
Weiss has three or four guides for a maximum of 12 customers per day, Chisenupuri has two or three "patrols" for 25 customers per day. They are there for safety and not for guiding so if you're looking to have a guide nearby at all times then choose Weiss.
Pick-up and Lunch
Both operations offer free pick-up and drop-off service within the Niseko area.
The Weiss tour has a lunch break at Weiss Hotel, just a couple of minutes walk from the base area.
Chisenupuri tour provides lunch for guests in their base lodge.
So Which is Best?
I recommend the Weiss Cat Tour for powder first-timers or customers who want a bit more comfort and luxury than normal on a backcountry tour.
The House of Powder Chisenupuri Cat Tour is a more laid back operation and has more runs than Weiss, so I would recommend this for more experienced customers who want to ski/snowboard powder as much as possible.
Ski Niseko with Kenji
Join our Niseko Powder Week in February 2018, hosted by Kenji, a Hokkaido local. Running from 25 February to 5 March, when you can expect excellent conditions and quiet slopes, the trip includes seven nights at Always Niseko (B&B), six day Niseko All Mountain Lift Pass, two days professional guiding, a group dinner in town and return flights and transfers. Kenji will be on hand throughout to share some of his favourite secret powder stashes, local bars and relaxing onsens.
To book cat skiing as part of your Japan ski holiday, let us know when you make your booking or speak to your tour co-ordinator.