Japan’s Powder Playground
When North Americans think of skiing, they rarely think of Japan. They should.
It is the stuff that skiers’ dreams are made of. Feathery white piles of frozen water particles blanketing mountain slopes, bowls and chutes, waiting to reward the faithful with hours of pillowy pleasure. As surely as surfers scour the seven seas for the ultimate wave, skiers and boarders will search far and wide for that holy grail of snow sports – perfect powder.
On a blustery February winter’s day my brother and I arrive at the ultimate powder playground, made in Japan. It’s called Niseko, the country’s largest and most famous ski resort. Located on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, Niseko encompasses four interconnected ski areas radiating from the same volcanic peak that together span nearly 900 hectares of mellow terrain and a decent thousand metres of vertical. It doesn’t just snow in Niseko. It never stops snowing. From the moment we check in to our hotel at the base of the mountain until we board the shuttle bus to catch our flight home the flakes keep falling. And falling.
Geography and orography have blessed Niseko, which averages over five meters of fresh snow during a typical January; compare that to Whistler’s average of about a meter. Dry, frigid Siberian winds mop up moisture over the comparatively warm Sea of Japan before reaching mountainous Hokkaido, where water turns not into wine, but into the finest, fluffiest champagne powder falling directly on Niseko.
On our first morning on the mountain our guide – a longtime British resident named James Winfield who co-runs a boutique guiding company here called Hokkaido Collective – gives us an orientation tour despite the near white-out conditions. James has brought along backcountry beacons, probes and shovels, enabling us to safely follow him through the gates that demarcate the resort boundaries and into Niseko’s expansive ‘slack country’, where we slice leisurely down through expansive glades of powder-encased birch trees the locals call juhyo (‘ice trees’). The near zero visibility and untracked runs bring a welcome sense of serenity; we virtually have Niseko’s pitch-perfect off-piste powder all to ourselves.
Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu people first called this slice of alpine ambrosia Niseko, which means “a cliff jutting over a riverbank deep in the mountains” in their language. In 1912 an Austrian military trainer, Lieutenant Colonel Theador von Lerch Edora, is said to have been the first person to ski down Mount Yotei, the volcano facing Niseko that has been dubbed ‘the Mount Fuji of Hokkaido’ for its resemblance to Japan’s most enduring symbol. Word quickly spread of his achievement and skiing took off for a time here. But it wasn’t until 1961 that the first lifts were installed, and not until the 1990s that Niseko began to appear on the bucket lists of serious powder hounds.
Snow-smothered slopes aside, a visit to Niseko is also an immersion into rural Japanese culture. Sure, there are more ‘authentic’ parts of Hokkaido where the ratio of gaijin to locals is much lower. But even at this foreigner-friendly resort where you’re as likely to hear an Aussie-twanged ‘G’day, mate’ as you are a crisp Japanese greeting of ‘Ohayou gozaimasu’ (good morning!), opportunities for sampling the local lifestyle are still ample.
Soaking in Japan’s version of natural hot springs, called onsens, is one such pleasure. According to a Japanese law passed in 1948, an onsen is classified as ‘any water, water vapour or gas that gushes forth from the earth at either a temperature of over 25 degrees Celsius at source or containing one of 19 different minerals.’ Of Japan’s more than 21,000 onsens, Hokkaido’s 1165 rank as third most. They can be found all over this volcanic island, and provide a soothing, rejuvenating means of escape for Japan’s famously over-worked populous. Several of Niseko’s hotels have their own natural onsens like the one at the Greenleaf, where we ‘take the waters’ each afternoon.
In a rules-compliant society like Japan’s it’s not surprising to encounter strict onsen protocol, as outlined in the illustrated bathing manual prominently displayed in our hotel room. One must wash carefully while squatting on an upturned bucket, splashing soapy water on one’s privates before entering the water. Nudity is the norm, at least for men, who are nonetheless requested to have a tea towel size ‘modesty’ towel on hand for entering and exiting, placing it on your head while bathing. By the time we leave Niseko we are veritable onsen experts, addicted to floating in a Zen-like state of sulphuric bliss.
Mention must also be made of the exquisite food, an absolute highlight of any trip to Niseko We seize the opportunity to sample some of Hokkaido’s celebrated seafood, like ika (squid), ikura (salmon roe), hotate (scallops) and kani (crab). The frigid waters surrounding Japan’s northernmost prefecture are ideal breeding grounds for fish and sea vegetation. At the Crab Shack near the Hilton Niseko Village, we are surrounded by rustic fishing memorabilia as we dig into a steaming hairy crab hot pot. Also on offer, huge slabs of thinly sliced Hokkaido wagyu beef perfectly paired with fresh seasonal vegetables in a savory broth. After a day spent playing in Niseko’s giant snow globe, this hearty fare feels like the icing on the proverbial powder cake.
How to get there
Several daily flights from Tokyo’s Hanada and Narita airports serve Hokkaido’s New Chitose Airport. From there, shuttles reach Niseko in about 3 hours. Alternatively, you can ride the new Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Hokodate, on the southern tip of Hokkaido, and then connect to local trains to Niseko. This scenic trip takes about 8 hours. Obtaining a Japan Rail Pass is a cost-efficient way to go. (www.jrailpass.com)
Where to stay
Like any world-class resort, Niseko offers plenty of accommodation options, from 5-star luxury (The Hilton Niseko Village) to ryokans (traditional Japanese inns typically featuring tatami-matted rooms, communal baths). We opted for the Greenleaf Niseko Village, a four-star property with ski-to-door access, natural onsens and panoramic views of Niseko’s wilderness. (www.thegreenleafhotel.com)
If you’re stopping off in Tokyo en route to Niseko, the new Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho is a great choice. Spanning 7 floors of a high-rise in the Tokyo Garden Terrace Kioicho business and entertainment complex, this posh hotel is a 5-minute walk from Akasaka-mitsuke metro station. It has 3 stylish restaurants and 3 bars, as well as a sleek spa, an indoor pool, plus an art gallery and a garden. www.princehotels.com
Hiring a good guide to show you around the mountain and lead you safely on off-piste adventures is essential. Hokkaido Collective offers full service programs from groomers to the backcountry. (hokkaidocollective.com)