It was barely 10am, but the cold had corralled us into a tiny ramen joint. Outside it was 17 degrees F, and when the steaming hot bowls were put in front of us, we gladly tucked in.
In Hokkaido, the ramen boasts sweet corn kernels, silky potato purée, and fragrant slices of pork from Makkari – where the pigs graze on herbs. These are three ingredients which Japan’s northernmost island is well known for.
Tummies satiated, we continued on the journey to the mountains, awed by the towering snowdrifts which created a tunnel-like effect on some roads. We began to ascend as we passed the magnificent Shikotsu Lake, keeping our eyes peeled for Ezo Red Foxes in the snow blanketed valleys. We were on our way to Niseko, the alpine town that is now on the global radar.
This Japanese ski resort began to grow in popularity in the 90s, first attracting Australians chasing the ‘perfect pow’, then gaining the attention of investors internationally from the US, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
On my first visit, it was on the cusp of exploding – becoming that must-go annual winter destination which celebrities, Asian billionaires, Olympic skiers, Instagram fashionistas, and just about anyone who is anyone flock to today.
We arrived two hours later to an idyllic winterscape. The skies were clear blue, and directly opposite us, dormant volcano Mount Yotei loomed majestically. At our backs, Mount Niseko Annupuri gleamed, thick with that featherlight powder the area is known for. Some buildings were almost covered in snow – the annual snowfall averages 49 feet deep.
That first winter, I got to know the ski resorts that make up Niseko through ski instructors and friends living there – they not only taught me how to ski from zero and helped me find the best slopes for my ability, but also gave me tips on where to go and what to do aprés ski.
I fell in love with the entire experience. Waking up every morning and sipping my coffee while looking out into the silent white wonderland, gearing up for the day then taking to the mountain with an on-mountain cafe in mind for lunch, coming back and going through the rites of going to the onsen.
The onsen are gender – specific bathhouses where the pools are fed from geothermal springs with temperatures up to 107 degrees Fahrenheit. The waters are said to have therapeutic properties because of their warmth and mineral content, and guests are required to strip and wash before dipping in – the rules are: no clothes, no noise, no mobile phones.
Onsen ritual completed, I would find a bar for pre-dinner tipple, followed by dinner – be it at a traditional Japanese izakaya, Michelin-standard restaurant or even takeout from a food truck.
Niseko is made out of four resorts, and my initiation to these began at Niseko Village, which holds a special place in my heart because it is intimate, convenient (but not overcrowded) and has two fabulous outdoor onsen.
I would not be lying to say that when staying at Niseko Village I have never once taken a shower in my guest room – always choosing to shower in the bath house then soak in the onsen twice a day instead.
From a slopes perspective, Niseko Village has a series of tighter, narrower runs as well as access to Mizuno no Sawa, the extreme, off-piste avalanche zone. These lead down to four luxury ski-in, ski-out properties – the Hilton, the Green Leaf boutique hotel which was designed by New York City’s Champalimaud Design, the luxe, butler-served Kasara townhouses, and the new Hinode Hills condos.
Here, the Milk Kobo dairy farm – where light-as-air choux puffs filled with crème patisserie are a must-try, became a regular snack stop.
On the western side of the mountain, Annupuri is quaint and quiet, home to superb beginner runs that are long and gentle, and some of the cosiest restaurants in Niseko. Del Sole is a must- go for pizza pilgrimage, while Rakuichi Soba, the tiny sobadokoro which was highlighted by the late Anthony Bourdain in his hit TV series ‘No Reservations’, is a truly authentic experience.
Annupuri has only a small number of lodges and chalets available for stay, and this adds to its small town charm. Newly opened, the luxury villas, apartments and townhouses at Annupuri Garden have access to the cafe, bakery and restaurant at Ichiseko, but the best part of staying here is the facetime with nature – the entire area is part of a national park. The development is only 2-minutes from the Niseko Annupuri Kokusai Ski Area, and dedicated concierge is all part of the package.
With something for everyone, Grand Hirafu is the crowd pleaser. Wide runs for skiers of every level flank this part of the mountain, and don’t miss Boyo-so – the log cabin midway up the mountain (accessible only via a short black run) for a rustic Japanese ski lunch.
Accomodations run the gamut, from luxury resorts lining the base of the mountain, to self-catering apartments, pensions and chalets. I always choose to stay in the quieter Lower Hirafu, and curated stays there by Elite Havens Niseko never dissapoint. Their added service of complimentary driver is a much-appreciated necessity, especially for getting from your doorstep direct to the ski lifts – nobody wants to lug their ski gear up and down the slippery roads.
Hirafu town is home to the best restaurants and bars in the area, from the renowned Bar Gyu+ with its iconic fridge door entrance, to Michelin-starred Kamimura, the Hokkaido seafood bounty of Ezo Seafoods, Jam Cafe Bar with its funky vibe and Wild Bill’s for a raucous ending.
East of Hirafu, Hanozono is the quietest of the resorts (for now, but there’s a great masterplan to expand) – its runs aren’t for complete novices, and there’s some thrilling tree skiing for intermediates, and the Hanazono 308 base is known for its King Crab Ramen.
A handful of inns and chalets are scattered around the area, but the stylish, soon-to-be-open Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono will definitely be worth consideration.
French-influenced, one-Michelin star Asperges offers a fine dining experience there, while Somoza Gallery, located in a 150-year-old traditional Japanese kominka tucked in the alpine forest, is a tranquil escape to peruse art and indulge in Italian-Japanese cuisine.
There’s much to take in at Niseko when not skiing, snowboarding, enjoying the food or sinking into the onsen: snowshoeing through the snow fields – like walking in a dreamland; exploring the nearby town of Kutchan – home to great little cafes, art galleries and a Natural History Museum; visiting the award-winning Nikka Whisky brand’s founding factory at Yoichi; wandering the scenic canals of Otaru on a day trip; or simply attending a cooking class at Hokkaidian Homestead.
And it is all this, the magnificent naturescapes, delectable cuisine, Japanese traditions and festivals, and the myriad of activities in pristine nature – not just in winter but also in spring, summer and autumn, which has fed my love for Niseko and brought me back again and again, and again.