White fluffy snow, hot-spring onsen, superb fine-dining, luxury accommodation – Niseko is carving up the international ski scene.
A potato-farming community on Hokkaido (the northernmost of Japan’s major islands) is fast becoming the destination of choice for in-the-know Australian skiers and snowboarders, trouncing better-known resorts in Europe and America. The allure of Niseko lies in the white gold that falls from its skies – some 15m of it each winter season, from December to March. That’s three times as much snowfall as Val d’Isère in France, and a third more than leading ski fields such as Whistler Blackcomb (Canada) and Vail (Colorado, USA).
Niseko snow is no garden-variety blanket of white, either. This part of the world is graced with the sort of deep, fluffy flakes normally reached only by an expensive helicopter ride to remote mountain climes. The floating sensation of skiing through deep powder snow is one of the most coveted feelings for a skier and Niseko offers it straight off the lifts. The reason for such abundant snowfall is that Hokkaido is in the Sea of Japan across the water from Siberia. Storms that brew on the opposite coast pick up even more moisture on their way across the water, then deposit their loads on the island’s mountains.
A two-hour drive west of Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo, Niseko has some of the best-value lift tickets in the world; not to mention a dramatic backdrop in the form of a volcano, Mount Yotei. Sitting directly opposite the ski fields, it’s visible from virtually every turn.
But there’s more to do than hit the slopes. The region has plenty of onsen – traditional Japanese bathing houses centred around hot springs – and, thanks to an influx of Aussie entrepreneurs, no shortage of Western-style lodgings and fine-dining restaurants.
Five linked resorts make up the Niseko region: Grand Hirafu, Higashiyama (now known as Niseko Village), Annupuri, Hanazono and Moiwa – the first four are skiable on the one ticket. Lifts open at 8.30am and run until 9pm, offering some of the most extensive
day-to-night skiing operations on the planet.
Hirafu, the liveliest town, is favoured by the bulk of visitors. It is easily managed on foot and offers a plethora of bars and excellent restaurants. Hanazono is serviced by three lifts that give access to some of the area’s most coveted back-country powder slopes. At the base area, Nihon Harmony Resorts is developing luxury accommodation alongside the new on-mountain restaurant and adventure park offering a zipline (flying fox), snowmobile rides and Niseko’s only “bag jump” – where novice ski jumpers can practise aerial manoeuvres before landing safely on a large air mattress. The cornerstone of Niseko Village is the revamped Hilton Hotel, a truly impressive property that offers a very good lunch buffet. Annupuri is best suited to intermediate skiers.
This coming season, skiing Niseko will be even more affordable than usual due to the dip in tourism following the earthquake and resultant tsunami. Even though it was unaffected by the catastrophe, Niseko is suffering the same fate as the rest of the country. Ski tour operators are offering dramatically discounted packages, some well under $1000, including deluxe accommodation and lift tickets for a week, to attract customers. Here is our guide to making the most of Niseko’s white gold.
Food & Drink
+81 136 232 727.
Wonderful atmosphere in this traditional jazz venue housed beneath the popular pension of the same name. This hot spot has regular live music and is run by a friendly Japanese family.
Gyu + Bar
+81 136 211 432.
One of Niseko’s coolest drinking spots, also known as The Fridge because it is entered via a retro red-and-white fridge door in the side of a snow-covered hill. After descending a few steep stairs, a warm and cosy room opens up, the walls of which are lined with exotic liquor and rare Japanese whiskey. An absolute must-see.
+81 136 230 888.
This upmarket establishment offers a Western-style bistro, with the bar upstairs being the local real estate agents’ haunt. On offer is wine from the owner’s vineyard in Burgundy, France. Top-notch staff.
+81 136 230 913.
This enormous new on-mountain restaurant and cafe can’t be beaten for a hearty meal to satisfy the hunger generated by skiing deep-powder snow. The hero dish is definitely crab ramen – a tasty broth with noodles, crab claws and meat – but diners can also hoe in to hamburgers, snack on salads, or indulge in patisserie-style cakes and excellent coffee.
+81 136 212 288.
The Tetsuya’s of Niseko, run by his disciple Yuichi Kamimura, whose dishes are an inspired twist on his teacher’s creations. Possibly the highest-quality, most sophisticated restaurant of any ski resort in Japan.
+81 136 217 700.
Only the freshest of regional produce at this elegant restaurant with a cosy, dark-wood interior, 50m down hill from Seicomart intersection in Hirafu. Dishes are a fusion of traditional Hokkaido cuisine and European styles, such as grilled rosemary lamb with the owner’s secret green sauce. Hokkaido venison and Bifuka beef are highlights. Locals say that Dragon is a taste of what was on offer in samurai times.
Ezo Seafoods Oyster Bar
+81 136 223 019.
One of Hirafu’s best seafood experiences. Dishes range from oysters (a specialty) to the most succulent sashimi, oversized scallops and delicately baked white fish and crab soup.
194-5 Aza-Yamada Kutchan-Cho,
The property Hirafu has been waiting for – a luxury apartment-style ski-in/ski-out hotel. Indeed, it is being trumpeted as being on the same level as Badrutt’s Palace in St Moritz and the Pan Pacific in Whistler. Inside its gleaming black marble interior is a popular bar and restaurant and a heated swimming pool. The Vale is a place of pure indulgence, not least because some rooms come with private onsen.
Hilton Niseko Village Hotel
Higashiyama Onsen 048-1592,
Niseko N, Niseko-cho,
+81 136 441 111.
One of the most upmarket Western-style hotels in which to stay and a favourite with Asia’s elite. The Hilton offers six restaurants/bars, among them one of the region’s best teppanyaki eateries, Ren.
+81 136 233 503.
Hokkaido Tracks offers some of Niseko’s best and most sought-after accommodation. Eight years ago, the Australian couple behind this company, Joasia and Simon Robinson, recognised Niseko’s appeal to internationals and built modern Western holiday apartments and houses, among which are the most upmarket options in the village such as Youtei Tracks and Yama Shizen.
Shinsetsu Mountain Guides
+81 9062 141 065.
Run by Australian Adam Streete, this is easily the most experienced guiding service in Niseko. Streete and his team tailor trips for all ability levels, from novices to expert ski-tourers. The service extends to off-piste activities including recommending the best restaurants and onsen, or a visit to local dairy Milk Kobo for freshly churned ice-cream, profiteroles and cheesecake.
On Snow Activities
+81 136 216 655.
Right in front of the enormous on-mountain cafe is an adventure park offering snowmobile rides, sledding/tobogganing and snow-tubing. Snowmobile riding is especially popular, as clients may drive their own machines, and scenic tours around the area are available every day.
Source Qantas The Australian Way December 2011