Niseko: Powder Playground
by Matet Lester.
With over 700,000 skiers and snowboarders visiting each season (December through March), Niseko is one of Japan's most popular ski destinations. There are a large number of foreigners about, especially Australians, who in recent years have been responsible for popularising the resort areas with the skiing and snowboarding community outside of Japan.
Niseko attracts powder hounds of all types. It caters for holidaymakers simply looking for a relaxing winter wonderland, as well as thrill-seekers intent on a cross-country skiing adventure. For first-timers, I would recommend booking at least three consecutive morning lessons, so you can learn proper techniques (especially stopping and falling correctly), then practise what you've learnt in the afternoon.
Group or private one-on-one lessons are available for adults, and kids as young as three. Not only is this a great way for children to develop their 'en piste' skills, but also an opportunity for parents to enjoy some private time on the runs.
Where to stay
Niseko is located on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, and you can either fly into New Chitose Airport direct from Hong Kong or fly via Tokyo to Obihiro Airport. The two main ski resorts are spread across the foothills of the highest peak in the volcanic chain, Niseko Annupuri, which offers runs suitable for all skill levels.
Niseko Annupuri International Ski Resort is known for its long gradual slopes, whereas you can enjoy stunning views of Mount Yotei on the Niseko Grand Hirafu ski runs.
Even for the more experienced, trying to walk in ski boots on icy roads is somewhat challenging, so the distance of your accommodation from the ski lift is critical. For families, Club Med Sahoro offers ski-in ski-out accommodation, with lessons, equipment hire, transfers, all meals and drinks and even evening entertainment as part of the all-inclusive experience.
For couples or groups of friends, apartment-style condominiums may be more suitable. Hokkaido Tracks offers one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments that are a convenient walking distance from the Grand Hirafu ski lift at the top of Niseko Village. This way you get the best of both worlds, as you are close to a ski lift but not limited to always eating at the resort.
Where to onsen
Aside from the powder, it's the onsen (natural hot springs) that draw visitors to Niseko. These outdoor pools contain healing, mineral-rich water naturally heated by a geothermal source. Due to the volcanic nature of the area, there are numerous onsen indoors and out. Men and women bathe separately - no clothing is worn.
After a long day on the slopes using muscles you did not even know you had, there is nothing quite like sinking into a steaming outdoor bath with snow falling all around you, soothing your tired body in a peaceful and picturesque setting. Head to Hilton Niseko Village's onsen, open to both hotel guests and the public, or into Niseko Village to enjoy some privately owned, more low-key baths.
What to eat
The village is full of tempting dining options for all tastes and budgets, which comes as no surprise since Niseko is on most foodies' radars. The Sea of Japan surrounding Hokkaido is well-stocked, so the area is known for some of the freshest seafood in Japan.
Don't miss the teppanyaki (skewered grills) and okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes), and for a flavourful protein-fix, try jingisukan (barbequed lamb with onions and cabbage). Sapporo beer is another local speciality, brewed since 1877 and named after Hokkaido's largest city.
There are also a wide variety of pubs, bars, ramen (noodle shops) and izakaya (bars that serve food) dotted along the main Niseko Village strip, Hirafu-zaka Street. Of them all, A-Bu-Cha always has a lively atmosphere with a healthy mixture of locals and tourists enjoying the impressive drinks' menu and satisfying food. Fine-dining restaurants, like Kamimura, have an impressive degustation menu if you are visiting for a special occasion.
Rather than another beach getaway, why not make at least one holiday each year an active break, and lock-in an annual Niseko trip. You won't be disappointed! Niseko caters for holidaymakers simply looking for a relaxing winter wonderland, as well as thrill-seekers intent on a cross-country skiing adventure
Summer in Niseko
Rather surprisingly Niseko is a year-round destination. From nature hiking, horse riding, rafting or golf to mountain biking, canoeing and cultural tours, there's plenty to do out of ski season. Once the snow caps have melted, the Shiribetsu River flows between Niseko Annupuri and Mount Yotei.