Saturday February 16, 2013
More than a winter wonderland
By SHARMILLA GANESAN
While its perfect snow is much sought after by skiers, this Japanese resort also offers treats that satisfy other pleasures — and not just in winter, either.
IT couldn’t get much better than this: sitting by large windows, gazing out at the icing-sugar snow being sifted down onto the majestic white mountaintops as we feast on bowlfuls of piping hot, flavourful ramen (noodles) laden with juicy-sweet Hokkaido crab.
Outside, skiers and snowboarders whizz by down the slopes, which are densely carpeted with the fine, smooth snow – champagne powder – that these mountains of Niseko, Japan, are famed for. Off in the distance, the 1,898m-high Mount Yotei, crowned with pristine snow and bare boughs, gazes down at us, providing a spectacular backdrop to the action on the slopes.
Even if skiing isn’t your sport, it is difficult to be blasé about this breathtaking corner of Japan.
A town on the northern island of Hokkaido, Niseko is increasingly making a name for itself among powder-hungry snowsport enthusiasts with its four ski areas: Hanazono, Hirafu, Niseko Village, and Annupuri.
Our introduction to the slopes of Niseko was at Hanazono, at the Nihon Harmony Resorts KK, where, besides skiing and snowboarding, you can also try your hand at snowmobiles, winter rafting, sledding, tubing and winter ziplining. The resort also offers lessons and gear for rent.
Boasting the lightest powder snow and a long ski season that begins in late November and lasts until early May, Niseko is particularly popular with Australian tourists and, of late, Asians as well, who no doubt appreciate having a top-notch ski resort that isn’t halfway across the world.
This is thanks to the consistently heavy snowfall brought from Siberia by northern weather patterns, coupled with stunning mountain vistas that offer both gorgeous slope views and breathtaking back-country ski routes. Often hailed as the Aspen of the East, Niseko was voted the second snowiest resort in the world by Forbes Traveller Online.
Humisato Iwamoto, administration manager of PROSKI Niseko (which offers rentals, lessons and equipment tuning), says Niseko’s attraction lies in its powder snow and terrain.
“The terrain is an ideal mix of expert, intermediate and beginner slopes, and when the snow is this light, resistance is reduced, making you feel like you’re floating. Once you get used to it, you don’t want anything else,” he explains.
Niseko’s appeal, however, is not just in its ski slopes but also its charming surroundings. Unlike most ski resorts, which tend to be fairly isolated, the slopes here are a mere stone’s throw away from Hirafu village. With accommodation, restaurants, ski shops, bars, and markets all clustered near each other, it has everything one could want to keep busy when not hitting the slopes.
The village is also a lovely mix of an authentic Japanese lifestyle and a more international melting pot of cultures, thanks to its growing popularity as an international holiday destination. Foodies will delight in the plethora of choices available, from Japanese favourites like ramen, udon (wheat noodles) and sashimi (raw fish), to a whole range of cuisines like Mexican, Italian and Indian.
And for those seeking to see more of the beautiful island of Hokkaido, day trips to nearby cities like Sapporo (the island’s capital and largest city), Otaru (a port city famed for its sushi) and Furano (known for its lavender fields and vineyards) are easily arranged.
This winning combination of factors was what prompted Malaysia’s Low Yat Group to situate its luxury condominium resort, SHIKI niseko, right in the heart of Hirafu. Built a mere 200m from the ski lifts, the resort features fully-furnished one-, two- and three-bedroom condominiums, which are available for both rent and purchase.
Restaurants and nightlife are a short walk away while those hankering for fine cuisine can dine in-house at the Kamimura Restaurant, helmed by Michelin-star winning chef Yuichi Kamimura.
“Niseko has always been renowned as a winter vacation spot, but we thought it needed a luxury-quality resort,” said Low Yat Group executive director Low Su Ming during a recent media visit to Shiki, which opened its doors in December. “Shiki is the largest serviced condominium here, and the only one with hotel hospitality service.”
As the demand for sophisticated lifestyle options among Asia’s wealthy increases, Low points out that owning a winter home is not uncommon, adding that Niseko is close to home for them.
“You can travel here easily from Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore,” she says.
A holiday in Niseko, she notes, is also perfect for the whole family. “Everyone from the grandparents all the way to the grandkids will enjoy themselves here. Everyone likes Japanese food, and while in Hirafu, you get this beautiful village setting that you don’t get anywhere else. And for those who have skiied all over the world, they will know that the champagne powder snow here is like no other.”
While winter is Niseko’s forte, the town is a lot more than a one-season wonder. With gorgeous mountain scenery and lush natural beauty, there are plenty of draws here for other times of the year as well – a message those involved in the Niseko tourism industry hope to spread.
Ryunosuke Tanaka of the Niseko Mt Resort Grand Hirafu shares that Niseko is already a popular summer holiday destination with local Japanese tourists, and hopes that with the resort’s heightened popularity, international visitors will soon follow suit.
Activities available in warmer months include gondola rides over the scenic peaks, cherry blossom viewings, mountain trekking, cycling, golfing and white water rafting. Not to mention, summer would be the perfect time to visit some of Hokkaido’s beautiful national parks.
Of course, winter or summer, a trip to the mountain regions of Japan would be incomplete without a visit to an onsen, traditonal Japanese hot springs fed by naturally hot, mineral-rich water from geothermally-heated springs. Most hotels and resorts in Niseko feature an onsen, usually with both indoor and (secluded) outdoor options.
“The bath culture is very Japanese, and we adore our onsen,” explains Tanaka. “We believe that the hot springs aren’t just relaxing and enjoyable but also provide health benefits. I believe tourists will really enjoy this part of the Japanese culture.”
While for first-timers the thought of a shared bath sans clothing may be rather intimidating, little compares to the utter relaxation of immersing yourself in a steaming hot outdoor spring in sub-zero temperatures after a long day of skiing and snowboarding.
Follow this with a delectable dinner – perhaps some barbecued Hokkaido pork – and a tokkuri or two of sake, and we’re ready for our comfortable beds at the Shiki, eagerly anticipating another day in this winter wonderland.