Our Review

Our Review

Southern Hokkaido Powder Tour
Wagner Custome Skis
For general information on Iwanai Resort Cat Tours, see the Iwanai Cat Skiing overview page. Or click here to make an enquiry or to book your cat skiing trip.

Iwanai Cat Skiing Review 2018

It had been really busy at Niseko Ski Resort, so we were more than delighted to head out cat skiing at Iwanai Resort to get away from all that tracked snow. On our first day with Iwanai Cat Skiing we didn’t experience the primo Hokkaido snow, but we returned a week later to experience Iwanai Cat Skiing in all its snowy magnificence!

Despite us having an absolutely superb time, no cat skiing company is absolutely perfect for everyone, and it’s our job to review any minor inadequacies. Our review covers different aspects of the Iwanai Resort operation so you can determine if it is likely to align with your priorities. As a guide to the ratings below, a 5/5 equates to absolutely outstanding, 4/5 is excellent, whilst 3/5 is still a very good score. We’ve reviewed over 45 mechanized backcountry skiing operations around the world and you can check out our cat ski ratings to see how Iwanai Cat Skiing fares against other operations (including the highly renowned British Columbia cat ski companies).

We’ve also compared Iwanai Cat Skiing to the other Niseko and Japanese cat ski operations. They all have some similarities such as small terrain size, and the Hokkaido operations have amazing snow, but Iwanai is probably the best Niseko outfit as an all-rounder.

Iwanai was in its complete infancy as a cat ski operation when we visited in Jan 2018, and with a little more experience to iron out any bugs, it’s set to become a very polished operation for the 2018-19 season.

NB Since this review was written, additional terrain and a second snowcat has been added.

  • Iwanai, along with its neighbour Niseko, is renowned for receiving huge snowfalls.
  • The vertical skied each day is typically greater than other Japanese cat ski outfits, so it’s great for greedy powder hounds.
  • It’s a great all-rounder Niseko cat ski operation in that it has good terrain for strong intermediates as well as advanced riders.
  • No powder hound really wants gorgeous views because that means it’s not dumping, but on the infrequent bluebird days, the views across the sea are pretty special.
  • The snowcat cabin has been kitted out rather nicely, and it has huge windows so that you can appreciate those views (or at least watch it puking with snow!).
  • Some powder hounds like to snort powder for morning tea, but you’ll also get a nice snack and a fabulous lunch.
  • The day lodge is a pleasant spot to hang at the start and end of the day, and also to potentially have lunch. You can meet some of the charming locals.
  • The proximity to Niseko is a huge pro. You can combine everything that Niseko has to offer with a serene Iwanai experience. And if you stay at one of the local ryokan for a night or two, it provides a lovely quiet Japanese experience.
  • NOASC used to run cat skiing at Iwanai but it only involved skiing on the piste (zzzzzzzzz) and the snowcat had an open platform on the back rather than an enclosed cabin (brrrrr). The current operation is soooooo much better.
  • The cat skiing terrain isn’t particularly big. At least it’s a little larger than a couple of the Niseko cat skiing operations, and it’s likely to grow in coming years. And thankfully considering the massive snow dumpage at Iwanai, the resets are frequent, so the terrain size isn’t generally that big an issue.
  • The guiding lacked some finesse but this should evolve reasonably quickly over time.
  • There is no super challenging terrain, but this is common to most Japanese cat skiing companies.
Pro or Con Depending On Your Perspective
  • It’s a little more expensive than the other Niseko cat ski operations but you get more vertical for your yen.

Powder Snow
As with the other coastal Hokkaido ski resorts, Iwanai receives a mighty lot of snow. The quality generally isn’t central Hokkaido dry fluff considering its proximity to the coast (you know it’s coastal snow when you can see the sea!). As to be expected, some parts of the terrain have a tendency to become wind affected, but there are plenty of relatively protected spots to enjoy the Hokkaido powder.

A huge pro for Iwanai Cat Skiing is that the slopes are predominantly north facing. The top of the cat serviced terrain is at pretty good elevation. It’s not as high as the top of Niseko Resort but it’s high enough to keep the snow cold, without being so high that it’s fully in the alpine where the wind can play havoc with the snow.

The first day we visited, a big wind event had hit the area and the snow had a wind crust, whilst for the 2nd day the snow was divine and fresh & deep.

Unlike the other Niseko cat ski outfits, Iwanai cat skiing doesn’t have a cancellation policy if it hasn’t snowed in a while, although this is something they may introduce over time.
Overall Terrain
The Iwanai cat ski terrain isn’t large but at least it’s bigger than Chisenupuri cat skiing and a little bigger than the Weiss cat skiing. The operators state that they’ve got enough terrain for 4 days of freshies, but perhaps it’s really only about 2-3 days before having to fossick for fresh lines. Thankfully the powder resets are frequent.

The length of the runs is not what you’d score in BC Canada, but the vertical per run is decent and more than the other Niseko cat ski operators. They claim the runs are 600-800 vertical metres in length but this would only be if you hiked to the peak and always dropped down to the day lodge. In reality, the run lengths are more typically a maximum of 500m (877 to 370m) if the snowcat heads to the top of its snow road.

Despite having to wait for the snowcat on most runs, the vertical per day is pretty good and enough to satiate the appetite of most powder hounds. Notwithstanding starting late (on both days) and also returning to the day lodge for lunch (when conditions are good they give the group the option of having lunch on the go in the snowcat), we managed 4,650 metres (just over 15,000 feet) which is more than other Niseko snowcat ski companies, and typical of what you’d get in BC Canada.

Currently the snowcat only has one road which runs up the guts of the resort. This saves some time with respect to the snowcat getting up the hill, but it means that the outer runs (they sort of feel like sidecountry runs you’d find at a small Japanese ski resort) require a bit of traversing to get in and out.
Alpine Terrain
The cat ski terrain was a former ski resort, so it includes 4 piste runs. Whilst not theoretically alpine terrain, we’ll include the piste runs under this category considering they’re open and treeless. These piste are ideal for strong intermediates getting more practice at riding powder, and also incredibly fun for more experienced skiers and snowboarders wanting to charge at it.

Iwanai Resort also has some sub-alpine towards the top of the cat serviced terrain, and only true alpine terrain if you hike up further. You’d probably only experience this if the whole group was keen for a hike.

As with other Japan cat skiing, there is nothing super steep, no chutes, or anything reminiscent of Alaskan heli skiing.
Tree Skiing
Iwanai Cat Skiing has some fun tree skiing in the “sidecountry” zones on the peripheries of the terrain. The tree spacing varies from sub-alpine where there are just smatterings of vegetation to lovely open trees further down and a small number of evergreens along with the many deciduous trees. Nothing’s particularly steep, but it’s pitchy enough to have plenty of fun.

The trees either side of the piste are generally too tight to ski, and the egress back to the resort from the skiers’ left bowl is very vegetated. Over time, they are likely to glade some of the trees to provide more tree skiing terrain. In addition to this, more points would have been awarded if there were very steep trees (as per some BC cat skiing operations).

Strong Intermediate Terrain

Iwanai Cat Skiing is generally not as mellow as nearby Chisenupuri or Weiss Cat Skiing, but it still caters well to strong intermediate skiers and snowboarders who are getting used to the joys of powder. The four former piste are the equivalent of steep blue runs (by Japanese standards), and with plenty of room to manoeuvre, they are ideal for intermediate riders. The third guide can stay with those who want to take it easy, whilst more gung-ho riders can head off to explore with the other guides.
Advanced Terrain
The Iwanai terrain is rather ideal for advanced skiers and snowboarders. With a little more terrain variety and less traversing, it would rate more highly.
Expert & Extreme Terrain
There were minimal technical trees and no super steeps at Iwanai to provide some challenges for experts. The steepest pitch we hit was 37 degrees, which was probably on the far skiers’ left of the terrain boundary. Nevertheless, most experts should be pretty happy just ripping the powder.

There isn’t really anything in the way of features to launch off: no cliffs, rocks or other hits. If you’re looking to huck it, you’d be better placed at Rising Sun Cat Skiing.
The guides had negligible guiding experience (one was primarily a mechanic), but it’s expected that the quality of the guiding should improve significantly with time.

There were a few issues evident on the first day. The guides didn’t provide instructions about decent spacing between riders, and there was a frenzy once the go ahead was given, and there were multiple times where there were near-miss collisions. No feedback was provided to ensure everyone had their fair share of freshies and a couple of powder pigs went first every single time (which would be considered sacrilege at other cat skiing operations). There was also a lack of regrouping (and hooting and hollering) prior to a few big traverses out of bowls, and as the guide didn’t ski the outermost line it was no great surprise that a few people missed the traverse on a couple of occasions. We noticed a marked improvement in the guiding from our first day to our second day a week later (possibly due to our feedback).

A couple of the guides were very personable which added to the fun of the day, and they knew the terrain intimately. Another pro was that there were 2 to 3 guides which enabled some flexibility to break into two groups where there was a discrepancy in ability levels.
The snowcat cabin was rather lovely, especially the fantastically large windows that allowed 360 degree views including vistas across to the ocean (when it wasn’t snowing). The cabin was spacious and everyone had their own coach seat, and the steps up the back make it easy to get in and out (although it could benefit from a handle on the cat). The luxe cabin was a far cry from the primitive snowcat set up that NOASC had when they previously operated at Iwanai.

The snowcat seemed to lack a little power (compared to some of the beasts in BC), otherwise any other inadequacies were very minor and should evolve with time. This included a lack of storage for drink bottles, jackets and other gear.
Avalanche Mitigation Strategies
The approach to managing any potential risk seemed rather minimalist, probably because the guides felt that avalanche risk is always very low because there haven’t been any slides in the past couple of decades (possibly due to a strong maritime snowpack, mostly mellow slopes, and mostly treed terrain).

Guests were provided with a beacon but not a shovel and probe. Snow safety wasn’t discussed during the day, and the guides didn’t dig pits to assess the snowpack. We were a little wary one day when it was snowing heavily and we were skiing in a decent sized bowl of 30+ degrees (where we could see some glide cracks), and most of the group traversed the bowl together then skied it as a group.
Safety Briefing
The safety briefing was somewhat typical of what we’ve seen with some other Japan cat skiing and USA cat skiing operations (and nothing like the standards of BC Canada cat skiing). An orientation to the area and the day was provided, but there was very little covered about safety such as what to do in the event of an avalanche or the snowcat being a hazard. The orientation to the beacon consisted of how to turn it on and off and between search and receive, but not how to use it or a practical demonstration.
Iwanai Cat Skiing offered some very nice frills. Firstly having the day lodge at the base was a huge bonus, as it was a comfortable place for morning orientation, après ski drinks, and to utilise the bathroom facilities. And depending on the conditions and the group’s wishes, there was also the option to return to the day lodge for lunch.

Hot doughnuts and coffee were offered for morning tea, and lunch included absolutely amazing sushi. Or for anti-pescatarians or those who were just a bit over fish, there were a range of other hot options. The only thing really lacking was the provision of water during the day so BYO.

Other frills included the transport to/from Niseko, and the option to rent powder skis on site. No photography or video service was provided (unlike some other Niseko cat skiing).

It wasn’t the most polished operation and it seemed rather disorganised in the mornings and again when trying to get people back out after lunch. Assumedly this was just because the operation was in its complete infancy.
Value for Money
The price of the Iwanai day cat skiing was essentially the same as Shimamaki Cat Skiing, minus the accommodation and associated meals. The Iwanai cat skiing was more expensive than other day Niseko cat skiing, but you get more skiing and snowboarding in, so you get decent value.

It’s somewhat difficult to compare value for money on a global scale because it depends on the currency exchange. Iwanai was pricier than most USA cat skiing, but the Hokkaido snow is much better. The rates were similar to Canadian cat skiing but significantly less than multi-day snowcat skiing in backcountry lodges, although the Iwanai terrain is much much smaller.

All in all, it’s money well spent on pursuing Hokkaido powder joy and escaping the tracked out slopes of Niseko Resort!
We stayed a night at the Iwanai Kogen Hotel. It’s a 3 star hotel that’s not really a ryokan but it’s somewhat typical of a traditional Japanese hotel. It’s the antithesis of what you’d find in Niseko with its luxury westernised hotels and condos, and that was a major part of the appeal. The onsen was a highlight and the meals were fantastically Japanese and showcased the local seafood. Dinner consisted of multiple courses and each was a complete surprise package. We stayed in a western room (with ensuite) with a tatami sitting area. The room was a bit dated (which is typical of many Japanese hotels), but very functional. Our room offered a sea view but we couldn’t see it because it was snowing! If you want to go the full Japanese experience, we’d recommend staying in a full tatami room and sleeping on a futon.

Notes Regarding Review The review is largely based on our experiences, but also on discussions with staff, other guests, and information available on their website. Our review has some limitations as it’s not possible to ski every run and in all possible snow and weather conditions. We acknowledge that everyone’s experience will be slightly different. The ratings are from our perspective only (from reviewing 45+ mechanized backcountry operations). The photos and video have not been filmed using professional riders; they aim to show an example of the sort of experience that average people like us would get.

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