Niseko’s perfect powder and impressive facilities make the long journey to Japan worthwhile for skiing fans, writes Alec Marsh
As the Japan Airlines Boeing taxis across tarmac on the northern island of Hokkaido, I realise that I’m going to like skiing in Japan. An announcement concludes by asking passengers to refrain from making mobile calls as they may ‘bother’ others.
Next, I can see heaps of snow in the airfield. Just as well. Having spent 14 hours on two aircraft to get here, I’ve calculated that the snow needs to be about five times better than the Alps for the effort and air miles.
The drive is two and half hours and affords stunning views: villages, lakes, steep-roofed farmsteads and fields all sweep by, swathed in oodles of snow, hemmed in by snowdrift barriers three metres high. We cross a winding river and I see a mountain; white as Moby-Dick and the triangular wedge of a child’s drawing of a volcano. That’s Niseko, says a fellow passenger and Spear’s contributor, Rory Ross, who describes the place as ‘the Aspen of Japan’.
We arrive at our digs, the luxuriously appointed Kasara Niseko Village Townhouse, a two-minute stroll from the Green Leaf Hotel, which is where we’ll be collecting our ski gear and trying out the bar, restaurant and onsen. The townhouses are spacious, finished to a high quality and, well, very Japanese in styling: there’s dark wood and lacquering, futons, silk prints, a handsome timbered bath that will bring back happy memories of You Only Live Twice, and a loo with more chrome buttons than Elon Musk’s latest rocket.
As we arrange our ski gear, we are welcomed by Raymond Rozells, the guest service manager, who has been at Niseko Village for six years and exudes a sunniness of his native California. ‘Niseko is a gaijin town,’ he explains cheerfully, using the Japanese word for ‘foreigner’. The resort is also known for its ‘really light, really dry’ snow, owing to the ferris wheel shape of the individual flakes: ‘Because they have a lot of branches they fall together, creating more volume, they’re less compacted,’ he says. ‘It gives you that really nice deep powder – and it has such low moisture content you don’t get wet. Everybody calls it jappow.’ A Google confirms the snowflakes are called stellar dendrites.
But there is bad news. It hasn’t snowed for seven days.
Over dinner at Two Sticks, a newly built traditional-style Japanese restaurant, we meet Panch Ratnavale, the man in charge of the resort, which includes the Green Leaf Hotel, our townhouses and the nearby Hilton. He points out a new 79-key Hinode Hills apartment block, opening this December, and explains that the resort is halfway through a 15-year plan, which includes a new Ritz-Carlton due for December 2020.
If Panch is anxious about the lack of recent snowfall, he’s not showing it. And for good reason: Niseko gets 14m of snow a year, even though the ski area is just 300m to 1,200m above sea level. ‘We’re an hour south of Vladivostok,’ he explains. ‘That’s how far north we are.’
The peak powder month is mid-January to mid-February. ‘It dumps every day,’ Panch tells me over a traditional Shabu Shabu dinner of black pork and Wahoo beef, where you cook the slices of meat yourself in a boiling bowl of seasoned water at the table. (The Wahoo is something else – a sweet, salty, savoury adrenalin shot.) Still on snow, Panch laughs: ‘Some Europeans are not used to it. We get complaints: “Why is the sun not shining? There’s too much snow!”’
Trees a crowd
Next morning we are met by our ski guide Ryan, a young Canadian with a ponytail and the cheerful disposition of someone on holiday. We ski down to a chairlift that deposits us at the top of a breezy slope that runs down to a gondola that in turn takes us up to the main Niseko ski area. It’s immediately obvious that the snow is a cut above most of the stuff you’ll find elsewhere. And trees are everywhere.
‘The trees are nicely spaced out so you can go faster between them,’ smiles Ryan. ‘It’s fun, and they’re beautiful – when it snows every little twig gets covered.’ The deciduous woodland – mainly Japanese white birch, resembling our own silver birch variety – is charming, and very different from the Alps or North America.
We pop out at the top of the Niseko gondola and zoom down the first run. The snow is incredible. It’s smoother than an ice cube sliding across marble and my skis love it. If this is what Niseko is like seven days out from the latest snowfall, I’ll take it. All around us branches poke through the snow – they’re the tops of submerged trees. And the view is stunning: directly ahead, another Toblerone-shaped mountain, Yotei, protrudes from the vast, undulating landscape of fields, hamlets and distant towns.
We ping-pong between the top of the mountain and explore the neighbouring ‘Niseko United’ resorts of Hirafu, Hanazono, and Annupuri, 27 miles of pistes serviced by 32 lifts. We end the day at the hotel for a drink and, of course, an onsen. Here the mineral-rich water comes out of the ground at 60°C, so the hotel dilutes it with cold water. Rory and I sit in the steaming water, digesting the day and talking Brexit. What else is there to do?
We dine at Sisam, the Hilton’s Japanese restaurant, which comes with a rather striking Hokkaido white wine – Kerner 2017. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. ‘Makes a huge statement,’ notes Rory, before moving on to something French.
By the next morning it has snowed: good as the pistes were, now they are even better – powder flies from the back edges of the skis like pixie dust. We are surfing on flakes of stellar dendrites. As we slide from the Niseko gondola we leave the track and pop over the edge. Surging down into the bowl we go, skis brushing treetops. The pace builds, I go to turn and… oops. Over I go, and snowball in short order.
‘The secret to deep powder is to keep your balance,’ says Ryan. ‘It exaggerates mistakes like imbalance. Get it right and it’s amazing,’ he grins. ‘It’s what people come here for.’
Off the super-comfy King Hooded quad chair (no one does chairlifts like the Japanese), we enter a deep ravine, skipping through the top branches of trees, and charge through the woods in a run called Rinkan. The light dapples through trees – it’s magical and thrilling – and the goggles give the landscape a bronze gloss like a Japanese silk print. Soon we’re out of the trees, up another lift, and heading down a delicious red run that’s broad, exposed, deceptively steep and would blow the cobwebs off a Formula One car. We break for hot chocolate, feeling like gods.
After more champagne powder, we lunch at 1,000m at a wooden café perched on the mountainside, offering spectacular views – and chicken katsu curry, which right now knocks tartiflette for six.
The afternoon is filled with magical skiing; the sun shines down on pistes that are deserted by European standards, where the snow is on point – consistent, dry – and so obliging that you ski like a pro. After the exertion there’s just time for tea in a farm café, where choux cream pastries make me wonder why Japan doesn’t suffer higher levels of obesity. With views of Mount Yotei, this is a super spot for family-friendly après ski.
After that we find space for a refreshing glass in the Green Leaf ’s bar, followed by an onsen, and then dinner at a traditional izakaya in the nearby town of Hirafu. ‘It’s always that combo – ski all day, beers and onsen,’ laughs Sotashu, Niseko Village’s ski school director. ‘That’s skiing in Japan.’
Alec Marsh is the editor of Spear’s