It’s all white when one is wintering in the skier’s dream of Niseko Village, Hokkaido.
Averaging an incredible 18m of snowfall per annum, the skiable area of Niseko United is every powder hound’s dream. Renowned for its super light, super dry and absolutely reliable powder snow, it has long been a draw for those in the know. Every winter, regular as clockwork, winds from Siberia sweep across the Sea of Japan, interact with moisture there, and form a mass of snow crystals. These hit the sweeping volcanic slopes of the mighty Mount Niseko Annupuri – and the rest, as they say, is history.
Unfortunately for those in the know, this annual event is now well publicised – and Niseko is no longer a little-known destination. With four areas arranged around the base of the volcano, numerous accommodation options and 2,191ac of skiable terrain, the cat is truly out of the bag! What was once a diehard backcountry destination is now a popular ski station with pistes and facilities to suit all levels of capabilities. In fact, since the World Ski Awards were launched in Kitzbühel in Austria in 2012, Niseko United has consistently won the award for Japan’s Best Ski Resort. Often referred to as ‘the Oscars of the travel industry’, this is no mean feat.
So, what does all this development mean for Niseko? Of course, there are pros and cons. On the plus side, access is far easier. The resort is well served by Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, the largest commercial airport in Hokkaido, with plenty of domestic and international flights operating on a daily basis. Trains, taxis, coaches and more ply the well- maintained route from Sapporo to Niseko, and the journey is scenic and peaceful. On arrival, infrastructure on the ground is much better these days too.
Development has also meant improvement in the lift system and better maintenance of terrain, more places to stay, greater choice in retail, food and beverage, as well as first-class ski tuition, guiding and the like. Demand for luxury apartments has seen a decline in options for the budget end of the market, but expansion has resulted in infinitely more choice in hotel and apartment offerings, as well as for après-ski options.
The village of Hirafu is the main hub for international holiday makers as it is the most developed. However, with plentiful restaurants, a very active nightlife and lots of shops, it can get over busy. Other villages around the base of the volcano offer more in terms of peace and quiet, less lift queues, easier access to the mountain — and a somewhat more ‘authentic Japanese’ experience.
Take Niseko Village, for example. It offers an English ski school at the base of the lift and more than a few options for accommodation, wining and dining. Also, in an area renowned for its onsen, you’ll probably find the prettiest hot spring bathing options here.
The Hilton, at the base of the gondola, and the ski in/ski out Green Leaf Niseko Village are popular accommodation options, with repeat visitors making up a decent percentage of guests. For those with a penchant for boutique lodgings, the art-inspired Green Leaf nestles amongst trees and overlooks a run that is floodlit until 8pm for an eerily quiet, yet unique, night skiing experience. There’s a cosy lounge and bar, decked out with alpine and Japanese touches, and the first-class restaurant has wonderful views of the perfect Fuji-lookalike, Mount Yotei, on one side and skiable terrain on the other. A five-minute drive round the base of the mountain brings you to the Hilton, a monolithic building that dominates the surrounding landscape. Inside, there are no less than eight dining options, as well as spacious guest accommodations.
Both hotels are also well located for a hot spring bathing experience. Niseko’s volcanic geology results in an abundance of hot springs (onsen) that range from simple stone baths to vast luxurious pools. Some of the suites at the Hilton have their own private dipping pools, full of mineral-rich spring water – soothing muscles over-worked from a day on the slopes is bliss here. For the communal experience (but segregated into Women’s and Men’s sections) is the Hilton’s traditional indoor and outdoor onsen that overflows into a large pond stocked with sleek carp. The outdoor pool, called a rotenburo, contains sodium-filled waters – useful for joint pain – and superb Mount Yotei views.
For a more intimate experience, head to the Green Leaf’s onsen, where the baths are found within natural rock pools. Fed by a 1,000m deep spring that is packed with minerals, it is what the Japanese term a bijn no yu or ‘onsen of beauty’. Certainly, there is nothing quite like sitting in its super-hot, steaming waters, all the while looking out over a freezing, white landscape interspersed with evergreen trees, the branches of which are laden with powdery snow.
Another high-end accommodation option in Niseko Village is the Kasara Niseko Village Townhouse. Consisting of eight exclusive double-storey townhouses, their architectural style is inspired by Japan’s heritage townhouses that were inhabited by craftsmen and wealthy merchants towards the end of the Edo period. These are no old-fashioned homes though, as the luxe interiors were designed by the award-winning Singapore interior design firm, Design Intervention. Custom-crafted furniture and furnishings combine with Japanese artworks to create relaxing, yet elegant, spaces.
"Every winter, regular as clockwork, winds from Siberia sweep across the Sea of Japan, interact with moisture there, and form a mass of snow crystals.”
Easily accommodating up to six adults, each townhouse has three luxurious bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms, a designer kitchen and a tatami-floored dining area that can be converted, Japanese-style, to accommodate two futons for children if required. Marrying traditional form with contemporary function, the designer has taken the Japanese concept of shibumi as its starting point. This refers to a particular aesthetic of simple, subtle and unobtrusive beauty – one that is sensitive to setting. Obviously, this is a sensible approach in a place of such outstanding natural beauty.
The experience at the townhouses is not just one of comfort and aesthetics, however. “The townhouses give more options to families or small parties of friends to experience a more homely feel,” explains General Manager, Panch Ratnavale. “For example, skiers and snowboarders have more space to stow away equipment in their own heated storage room. Self-driving visitors can park their vehicles in the privacy of their own garage, and in-residence ski and snowboard fittings, as well as a morning mountain orientation, can be arranged. Kasara also complements our high family returnee market, allowing all members of the family to stay under one roof versus staying at the Green Leaf and Hilton. In simplicity, we offer options based on their budget and needs while improving their experiences.”
As such, members of staff are incredibly helpful, delivering first-class service in the form of a personal concierge and complimentary on-call driver. They will also undertake restaurant bookings, organise massages, advise on lessons and so on.
“Even with the retail, dining and accommodations, it is really Niseko Village's pristine natural surrounds that so beguiles.”
The facilities of Niseko Village have recently been given a boost with the construction of a fresh dining and retail concept. Built to mimic traditional Japanese artisan architecture, with a paved walkway lined by wooden townhouses, or machiya, this is the perfect place for a bit of après-ski dining, drinking or shopping. Hokkaido is famed for its fresh, organic produce, so you can’t go wrong. Ranging from tapas and fresh seafood to traditional sushi, tempura and teppanyaki, as well as a scrumptious patisserie, you’ll be well catered for here. Ratnavale says that the 2014/2015 season benefited from the added variety of cuisine. “The Crab Shack has been a hit due to the popular Japanese live seafood harvest served there from seafood hot pots, to grilled crabs, fish and shellfish.”
Niseko Village is still a work in progress, with moreaccommodation options planned and development underway to improve some of the older lifts on the mountain. One of its strengths is that there is plenty of space and solitude to be found here – even though there is first-class retail, dining and accommodations, it is really the pristine natural surrounds that so beguiles. Adrian Camp of The Powder Guides, a local guiding company, has been working in Niseko for the best part of a decade. He’s seen the staggering rate of development around the base of Mount Annupuri first hand, but still raves about the area’s unprecedented skiing and boarding experience.
“In terms of lift-access ski resort areas around the world, without doubt Niseko receives the most consistent and largest snowfalls anywhere on the planet,” he notes. “Its combination of snow quality, consistency and sheer volume is simply unmatched.” He is more than happy to take guests to all the mountain’s secret spots so they can ski fresh powder all day long – an experience I have enjoyed on more than one occasion. Whether it is climbing to the top of the volcano and dropping down the other side, or accessing many of the off-piste areas through the ‘gates’, there is nothing quite like a day out with a guide. The plentiful tree coverage means visibility is more often than not pretty good (even if it is snowing, which it is frequently); and if you fall over, it doesn’t matter... you are always guaranteed a soft landing!