Famed for its powder, the northern Japanese ski resort of Niseko is one of the snowiest places on earth. It also happens to have plenty of character off the slopes as well.
A decal-splattered fridge door framed by snow opens onto Bar Gyu, a rustic, dim-lit boîte with worn wood floors, unfinished beams, olive-green ottomans, and shelves packed with vinyl records. It’s the tail end of the ski season in Niseko and the crowds are beginning to thin; inside Gyu, the jazz soundtrack is mellow and the conversation subdued. Too subdued, apparently, for some. When Mike, my drinking companion, utters “Holy sh*t” (or something to that effect), I turn to look out the window. There, dancing on the sill-high snowbank in the moonlight, is a willowy Japanese beauty who just minutes ago was downing shots of plum wine with friends at the table behind us. Now, she’s wearing nothing but furry boots, a beanie, and panties. The impromptu spectacle doesn’t last long—it’s minus 8°C outside, after all—but it definitely warms up the atmosphere in the bar, which the girl re-enters moments later through the aforementioned fridge door, fully clothed and giggling. Mike steadies himself with a slug of whisky and shrugs. “Guess she must have lost a bet.”
The Japanese aren’t the only people letting their hair down in Niseko. Come winter, the ski resort, a three-hour drive southwest of Sapporo on Hokkaido, fills with Australians who are leaving their own summer behind to spend a week or more on Niseko’s powdery, birch-lined slopes. That, and to party: with
its varied collection of bars and restaurants, Niseko—specifically the main village of Hirafu—has the liveliest après-ski scene in Japan, making it a sort of cold-weather Kuta for college-age Aussies. On our bar hop that night, Mike and I stumble from an unbearably raucous pub to an underground rave party before retreating to the relative sobriety of Bar Gyu.
By day, of course, it’s all about the snow. Niseko may only have 55 kilometers of groomed slopes across its 60 or so runs, but it has plenty of light, dry powder; from mid-December through April, the snow falls almost every day, delivered by Arctic winds that blow across the Sea of Japan from Siberia. I’m told there can be more than 15 meters of snow per season, which, judging by the towering snowbanks that wall in the streets of Hirafu, is easy to believe.
“It can make you feel like a mouse in a maze,” says Anthony “Chook” Trovatello as we drive through the backstreets of the village on a crisp gray morning. Chook is a director at SkiJapan, the Australian tour operator I’m traveling with, and though this is his sixth season in Niseko, he still exudes some of the wide-eyed wonder of a first-timer. “So much snow!” he continues. “They have to haul it away continuously with dump trucks. In the countryside, farmers sprinkle ash on their fields to help melt it.”
Strung out across the foot of Mount Niseko Annupuri, Niseko comprises four main resort areas: Hirafu, Higashiyama (a.k.a. Niseko Village), Hanazono, and Annupuri, all of which can be skied on the same pass. Though it doesn’t have the big resort hotels of Higashiyama (which is owned by Malaysia’s YTL group) or Annupuri, Hirafu is the hub of the action, laid out across a sloping plateau on the edge of Shikotsu-Toya National Park. It was here that Niseko’s first ski lift opened in 1961, but it wasn’t until the late ’90s that the sleepy backwater began appearing on the map of international skiers and snowboarders, particularly Australians, for whom the combination of affordability, proximity, and all that snow proved unbeatable. Singaporeans, Hong Kongers, and mainland Chinese have since discovered the place, but Australians still account for half the international visitors, as well as a good share of Hirafu’s business and condominium owners.
“Niseko has become a very cosmopolitan place,” says Kohei Nikahara, who manages a Swiss-chalet-style pension that his father opened 25 years ago, Grandpapa Lodge. “Eight percent of Hirafu is now owned by foreigners, can you imagine? They have bought up all the old farmhouses and pensions and turned them into condos. It’s good, because it means that me and my friends could come back home to work, instead of moving to the big city.”
Boosters have taken to calling Niseko the “Aspen of Asia,” and with hundreds of millions of dollars in the works to upgrade the area’s facilities, it may be only a matter of time before it emerges as the Japanese equivalent of St. Moritz or Whistler. For now, though, it has plenty of character of its own, including Hirafu’s kooky amalgam of building styles: I spot log cabins, half-timbered chalets, and concrete cubes among the more utilitarian condo units.