The pow­der and the glory

Hokkaido’s Niseko is a win­ter won­der­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination - LES­LIE WOIT

FOR­GET the boot-heaters and the hand-warm­ers. When you’ve been wind-slapped by a Siberian air stream, noth­ing achieves to­geth­er­ness of body and mind like a heated loo seat.

Vis­it­ing Ja­pan’s north­ern is­land of Hokkaido in win­ter is a bit like step­ping into a paint­ing. Sil­ver birch boughs drape like sculp­tures. Mount Yotei tow­ers in vol­canic sym­me­try. Bow­ing gon­dola work­ers equipped with ny­lon brushes po­litely dust snow from our heads. And with the po­etic pre­dictabil­ity of a haiku, ev­ery toi­let that I perch my­self upon is fit­ted with nifty spray and toast­ing func­tions.

On the same lat­i­tude as the North Korean-Rus­sian bor­der and a world away from Alpine cheese and chintz, Niseko has a moun­tain aes­thetic all its own. Ski­ing in Ja­pan is not just a pretty pic­ture. Use the flight to Sapporo via Tokyo to med­i­tate on this: cold weather de­scends from Rus­sia, picks up mois­ture over the Sea of Ja­pan, and falls as feath­erlight pow­der snow. The statis­tics speak for them­selves: last De­cem­ber, Niseko Vil­lage was blan­keted with 17cm a day, on aver­age, for a month.

I am stay­ing at the base of this vil­lage, 110km west of Sapporo’s New Chi­tose Air­port, at the Green Leaf Ho­tel. The ho­tel’s best as­set is its ski-from-the-door lo­ca­tion, from which you can ven­ture into the 48km of pistes and 30 lifts that con­nect the ar­eas of Niseko, Grand Hi­rafu and An­nupuri. But for its tra­di­tional out­door baths and minimalist decor, the Green Leaf’s low-rise de­sign would be at home in any 1960s North Amer­i­can ski town — a whiff of Asian-style Aspen with­out a hint of pre­ten­sion.

On the first morn­ing, I slip into a ho­tel- sup­plied cot­ton yukata and make for break­fast, but am po­litely asked to change into suit­able at­tire. Once dressed (ski gear is fine), I face a mas­sive morn­ing buffet, rang­ing from French toast and ba­con to raw fish and sea­weed.

As my friend Rosie and I head up the moun­tain, snow piles on our heads as we amuse our­selves with chair­lift names such as Ban­zai, Swing­ing Mon­key and, most in­trigu­ingly, Su­per­sti­tion. We are keen to ap­pease the gods — on this trip we have al­ready left 5am of­fer­ings at the Shrine of the Fish­er­man at the Tokyo Fish Mar­ket, a move that ap­peared to re­sult in the finest Ja­panese din­ner ever at the Park Hy­att.

So we pole to­wards the Su­per­sti­tion drag lift. The air is bathed in the eerie echo of a woman’s voice over the loud­speaker, an­nounc­ing things in Ja­panese to the beat of a Min­istry of Sound club track.

Be­neath Su­per­sti­tion’s many warn­ing signs — ‘‘Ex­pert only’’, ‘‘Ap­proach with cau­tion’’ — on pan­cake-flat snow, Rosie trips on her edge and flops like a wet squid at its gate. A fit­ting dis­play of hu­mil­ity and re­spect.

The gods take the bait: later that morn­ing, af­ter three days of clo­sure, Niseko’s pow­der-filled re­sort- in- a- re­sort opens. It’s called Mizuno no Sawa, a con­trolled off-piste area more than 2km long, filled with deep gul­lies, rolling glades and the oc­ca­sional cliff. To get in here, you must pay Y= 2000 ($ 23), sit through a 20-minute safety pre­sen­ta­tion (oc­ca­sional bits of which are in English) and buddy- up at the gate for ev­ery run.

Af­ter deep-pow­der days, the high­light of Ja­panese apres-ski is lolling in the on­sen (tra­di­tional out­door vol­canic ther­mal baths). There are sev­eral around Niseko, each said to have its own health­giv­ing properties. The wa­ter at the nearby Hil­ton is meant to pro­mote cir­cu­la­tion while the min­eral con­tent at the Green Leaf Ho­tel is good for the skin.

With an hour’s mas­sage at the spa cost­ing nearly Y=12,600, the on­sen is es­pe­cially en­tic­ing as it’s free to ho­tel guests. We en­ter the women-only half, first squat­ting on low stools to shower, then slip­ping naked into the wa­ter, as is re­quired. The steam rises and snowflakes fall from an inky sky; the eti­quette of bathing also re­quires si­lence.

The typ­i­cal os­akaya restau­rants and small bars in the town of Hi­rafu, a 20-minute free shut­tle away, are lively. On the moun­tain, Restau­rant Ace does good chilli beef and rice, Look­out deals in burg­ers and noo­dles, and there’s good cof­fee at Hi­rafu base lodge (brace your­self for the bill).

Keen to try ev­ery­thing, we learn how to make sushi and hire cross- coun­try skis and snow­shoes. Rosie takes a yoga class led by an Aussie guru. Most of the week we travel about within a snow-shaker of flakes, in gales of up to 80km/h. Trips to the heated loo seats be­come a most wel­come event.

Mount Yotei dom­i­nates the Niseko land­scape, while the Green Leaf Ho­tel, left, boasts a ski-from-the-door lo­ca­tion

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