“Every other ski resort in the world looks the same,” Chook says as we dive past snowbound food trucks advertising Indian curries or paella or tequila shots. “But here, you have this eclectic mix of things, from the architecture to the food.”
The food is undeniably a draw. Hokkaido is renowned for its seafood, produce, and livestock, so visitors can expect to eat well pretty much anywhere. One dinner, at a Japanese-Italian restaurant called Dragon, involves succulent Makkari pork dressed in mustard sauce; the next night we gorge on beautifully fresh fish—sushi and sashimi, smoked and grilled—at an izakaya recommended by Chook. I can also attest to the quality of the chili burger at farm-to-fork Green Farm Cafe, right on Hirafu’s main drag. And Grandpapa Lodge, by all accounts, makes a mean fondue.
Most people, of course, spend their days on the mountain, skiing or snowboarding the groomed slopes or schussing through the trees —Niseko is one of the few ski areas in Japan that permits you to go off-piste. There’s good accessible backcountry, too, as well as night skiing, with some lifts running until 10 p.m. And for those who tire of the slopes, there are plenty of other things to do. One outfit, White Isle, offers snowmobile excursions in the fields outside town (the machines are on the old side, but not enough to diminish the fun of plowing tracks through the blinding-white terrain). Another evening I try my hand—or rather, foot—at snowshoeing, heading into the forest with a guide from the Niseko Outdoor Center, our way illuminated only by a wan moon and flashlights.
When it comes time to warm up, there are the onsen, or thermal baths. Hokkaido is dotted with volcanic springs, and Niseko is no exception. I visit a bathhouse located outside Annupuri on the assumption that the farther from Hirafu it is, the less crowded it will be. Sure enough, I’m rewarded by having the place—or at least the men’s side of it—pretty much to myself. After stripping down and scrubbing, I step outside into the alfresco pool and lower myself gingerly into the steaming water. With snowflakes falling around me, I can feel my slope-sore muscles finally begin to melt. I’m not sure I achieve the blissfully immersive state that the Japanese called yudedako (literally, “boiled octopus”), but after an hour of soaking, I’m ready to strap on my boots again.
My last morning in Niseko opens to a bright blue day. The low clouds are gone and the snow-capped summit of Mount Yotei, a Fuji-like volcanic cone to the east, has finally revealed itself. Leaving my skis behind, I ride the Hirafu gondola to its upper station on Niseko Annupuri one last time to take in the full panorama. The centerpiece of Shikotsu-Toya National Park and a Hokkaido landmark, Yotei doesn’t disappoint. Intrepid powder hounds can hike to its top—a six-hour trek, according to Chook—for the thrill of crater skiing. Chook’s only tried it once. “It’s pretty wild,” he says.
Too wild for me, at any rate. But then, I already have more than enough reasons to revisit Niseko next season.
Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport is served by direct flights from Bangkok, Hong Kong, and, with the December 1 launch of a seasonal service by Singapore Airlines, Singapore.
Planning Your Trip
SkiJapan is Niseko’s leading inbound tour operator, specializing in packages that include transfers, apartment or hotel accommodation, lift passes, and off-mountain tours. The company also runs Niseko Base Snowsports, the area’s top ski-instruction and rental center.
Where to Eat
The finest restaurant in Hirafu is chef Yuichi Kamimura’s French-Japanese dining room Kamimura, where degustations showcase the best of Hokkaido produce. Grilled local venison awaits at Dragon Restaurant, which also has one of the best wine lists in town. For a taste of the island’s marine bounty in more casual surrounds, try Ezo Seafoods; for burgers and pasta with a front-row seat onto Hirafu’s main drag, there’s the Green Farm Cafe. Nearby, Niseko Ramen Kazahana is famed for its creamy potato ramen (a Hokkaido specialty), but the kitchen here is equally adept at other homey Japanese dishes.
This article originally appeared in the December/January print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The White Stuff”)