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Put Rusutsu on your ski plans
East Mountain, West Mountain and Mt Isola give Rusutsu more than 200 hectares of skiable terrain. Picture: SkiJapan

If Niseko is the crown jewel of Japanese skiing, then Rusutsu is one of its most lustrous, and least known, cluster diamonds.

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It's only 40 minutes away by car but still relatively unknown to the gaijin, or foreigners, Australians prominent among them, who have fuelled Japan's skiing boom of the past decade.

Its three linked mountains - East Mountain, West Mountain and Mt Isola - give it more than 200 hectares of skiable terrain.

Its snow cover is every bit as good as Niseko, the most famous resort on the northern island of Hokkaido, but its comparative obscurity means there are fewer people to share it with.

Locals say it's what Niseko was like about eight years ago in terms of more untracked snow, very few foreigners and hardly any English language signs.

With just five million of Japan's 127 million population, Hokkaido is sparsely populated to begin with, so Rusutsu's snowy slopes are a long way from crowded.

There are few lift lines and most people seem to ski on-piste, leaving fresh tracks for those who want to dive into what Rusutsu and Japan are best known for - powder snow.

Run your fingers or ski tips just below the snow surface and they remain visible, showing how this powder is light, dry and as transparent as a politician's lies.

When there is plenty of it - which is often - it can provide conditions matched by few resorts in the world. The 212 hectares of groomed runs come highly commended, too, but why eat chicken if the buffet offers caviar?

Skiing deep powder in the glades delivers many advantages - the snow is deeper, it's protected from the weather, there are fewer people in there and the trees offer points of reference when visibility is low, which it often is.

You can ski straight off the lifts into the best tree skiing in Hokkaido, then straight back out onto the lifts, so you get more powder turns and more "bang for your bucks". But the groomers are brilliant, too, offering long, consistent fall lines.

There are plenty of activities for kids too, including tubing, dog sledding and snowmobiling.

Constant snowfalls mean that sunny bluebird days are uncommon. Apparently there's a stunning view over Lake Toya and the Sea of Japan, which I missed.

But I was more than compensated by boot, knee and sometimes thigh-deep powder which at one point gave me face shots of snow at every turn.

I don't recommend somersaulting over ridges at the best of times, but when it happened accidentally to me I was pleased to land in a big white pillow that acted like a high jumper's mat.

Lift tickets are cheap - 4300 yen ($A52) a day for adults and 2150 yen ($A26) yen for kids.

There's no real village to speak of, just some pensions and one big tower resort hotel. But it's within easy reach of Niseko for a memorable day trip.

If you go in summer there are four golf courses, but no powder. Why would you bother?

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FAST FACTS


Season: December-April
Average snowfall: 14 metres
Top elevation: 994m
Vertical: 590m
Runs: 37, spread over 42km of groomed runs
Longest: 3.5km
Steepest: 37 degrees
Lifts: four gondolas, 14 chairs
Skiable terrain: 212 hectares
Type: 30 per cent beginner, 40 per cent intermediate, 30 per cent advanced.
Snowmaking: not needed

GETTING THERE


Via Tokyo, Hong Kong or Seoul with Japan Airlines, Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Korean Airlines. SkiJapan.com provides a door to door transfer service from Chitose Airport.

STAYING THERE


The Resort Hotel offers seven-night packages from $1105 per person (twin share) including breakfast daily, return airport coach transfers and six day all mountain pass.

For further information, visit www.skijapan.com or phone (02) 9938 9900.

The author travelled courtesy of SkiJapan.com.