Wednesday March 13, 2013
On a slippery slope
So Aunty, So What?
By JUNE H.L. WONG
It was an assignment that could either land our columnist in hospital or earn her bragging rights. Luckily, it was the latter.
SNOW. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that something so alien to my life could be so much fun.
But there I was revelling in it; happy to literally fall into its embrace, leave footprints all over it, be covered in it and even taste it.
For a tropical creature like me, close encounters with snow had been rare; a family holiday in Vancouver, Canada, with a brief side trip to Whistler Mountain many years back was the first. I still remember the awesome winter scenery as we drove up the mountain.
But we were ill-prepared to do anything beyond standing and shivering on top of one of the world’s most famous ski resorts.
A fortnight ago, I was standing in another ski resort. This time it was in Hokkaido, Japan. I was part of a media group invited by YTL Hotels to visit its Niseko Village at the base of the 1,308m-high Niseko Annupuri Mountain.
I knew YTL owned a slew of classy hotels in and outside Malaysia but a ski resort? What would a hot and sweaty Malaysian company know about running a hotel in snow and ice?
My curiosity was piqued. Then the detailed itinerary arrived. It was beginner ski lessons at Niseko Village Snow School morning and afternoon every day.
What me ski? I am no spring chicken and my first thought was: can my knees take it?
Second thought: what if I broke something? My niece went skiing in Europe and ended up with a badly injured leg which required surgery.
After Googling and checking with Aja Ng, YTL Hotels director of public relations, and a well-travelled snowboarding friend on what to expect, I felt ready to take on this really tough assignment.
I was going to risk life and limb on the ski slopes of Niseko and bravely eat my way through some of the finest and freshest seafood and produce in the whole of Japan.
I am supremely proud that I aced the assignment with the agile Aja by my side. We both learned to ski really quickly from our instructors and loved every minute of it. And my knees didn’t hurt one bit.
I also chomped through every single meal with great delight, be it wagyu beef, succulent salmon and sushi, snow crabs, shellfish or delectable Milk Kobo cream puffs.
My trip was so enjoyable simply because YTL runs an excellent resort. Its Niseko Village has two hotels, Hilton and Green Leaf, which offer what they call a “ski in, ski out” experience, meaning everything is conveniently available, from accommodation, to complete outfitting (including gloves, beanies and goggles), to rental of ski equipment, to storing them with the ski valet, to ski lift passes and top-notch instructors.
Niseko is also fast becoming a top ski and snowboarding destination for its highly sought-after powder snow.
This is snow that is light, fluffy and freshly fallen, which means it must snow regularly. Sure enough, it snowed every day I was there, in different degrees of intensity.
Powder snow is soft. That’s why skiers and snowboarders love it because if you fall, it’s like landing on forgiving pillows.
Snow makes everything look beautiful and pristine. The whiteness and stillness it brings to the surroundings has a zen-like effect. And it’s fascinating to look at close-up: the snowflakes looked like fine salt, tiny sand granules and spun sugar.
It was also bone-numbing cold, especially when I was riding up the ski lift, and my nose was chilled to drippiness. Yet I was breathing in air so fresh my sinuses cleared up.
After six glorious days, any doubts over YTL’s ability to manage a ski resort had vanished.
Since buying Niseko Village Ski Resort in 2010 from CitiGroup for six billion yen (RM224mil), it has established itself as a respected name in winter tourism in Hokkaido.
I was impressed by the drive and dedication of its management team. The CEO is Singaporean Long Shiau Wee and the resort director is Malaysian Panch Ratnavale.
Both admit that it was tough in the beginning; for one, they had to prove to their Japanese team and staff that they got what it takes to run a complex resort that requires, among other things, regular controlled avalanches by dynamite and a ski patrol to rescue injured skiers.
And then there is the adorable Luke Hurford, YTL Hotels vice-president for sales and marketing, who is the perfect ambassador for Niseko. He was general manager of Niseko Village under CitiGroup and his intimate knowledge and obvious affection and enthusiasm for the place wins over everyone.
No one can beat the Japanese in terms of service, efficiency and pride in their work.
I think what YTL has brought is its wide experience in international marketing and development expertise. There are plans to expand the facilities – a small shopping centre and villas – in the 617ha Niseko Village.
At Niseko Village – whether it’s Japanese sales manager Noriko Sasaki, Malaysian director of sales Augie Vong, British executive chef Rob Shipman or Canadian ski instructor Keri Reid – they all talk about being part of an international “family”.
Hurford, who’s Australian, and the others credit Datuk Mark Yeoh, executive director of YTL Group who oversees its hotels and resorts division, for this with his vision and leadership.
I felt like a newfound relative who was warmly welcomed into the family. I also felt really proud to be a Malaysian in Niseko. And I am going back.
> Apart from a few badge of honour bruises, this aunty believes her pain-free skiing experience was largely thanks to her skinny-dipping in the onsen, or hot springs, of Hokkaido. Ah, the things she has to do for her job.