The powder and the glory
Hokkaido’s Niseko is a winter wonderland
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