Japan’s Winter Wonders

Hokkaido’s Niseko region is a center for winter sports

By: Arin Greenwood

This is the first Image
Skiing and snowboarding in the
Niseko region of Hokkaido has
become very popular.
I’m happy to see that nobody seems annoyed by the unathletic people trying to snowboard and trying the patience of their snowboarding instructors. Make that one unathletic person. Make that me.

Here we are me, my boyfriend Brian and our friend Kate enjoying winter on the northern island of Hokkaido, in northern Japan, around 60 miles west of Sapporo. We are in the Niseko region, a mountainous area of Hokkaido.

Niseko is famous for its deep powder. It has three main resorts Grand Hirafu, Higashiyama and Annapuri that share one lift pass. (You can take a series of lifts to the top of the mountain where the three resorts connect.)

There are almost 60 runs in the area, ranging from bunny hills to moguls to highly advanced unmarked tree-filled backcountry. Niseko has become a popular resort for Japanese and Australian skiers and snowboarders, and Americans are just starting to make their way to the land of the falling snow.

Brian, an American and avid snowboarder, has been wanting to come to this area for years. The combination of excellent snowboarding and Japan is irresistible including the draw of a whole day spent on powdery runs, followed by hearty bowls of hot noodles. Brian rents his gear from a little shop in Hirafu and buys his inexpensive lift ticket (an all-mountain pass is around $40 per day), and away he goes, morning until night. And after dark, there’s night snowboarding here too.

Kate’s a skier. On her high-performance skis, she also swooshes down the mountain morning until night (but she stops after dark).

This is the second Image
There are three ski areas in Niseko
joined by a series of lifts.
And then there’s me. No one has ever accused me of being athletic, but still, I’m game. I rent my snowboard, find an Australian snowboard instructor at the bottom of the slope and commence spending an awful lot of time on my rear end. After lunch it’s off to the bunny slopes for some more falling.

Luckily, Niseko has delightful distractions for the non-skier/snowboarder, including excellent, eclectic restaurants and bars. We enjoy a hidden bar with a secret door where mulled wine is available in front of an open fire. There’s also an ice bar an igloo with drinks created by an artist named Hirohiko Takenaka. Down the street we eat in a Mongolian yurt/restaurant. We also eat a bounty of noodles; traditional Japanese food in a restaurant in a building shaped like a ship; some astonishingly good pizza; and a lot of camembert. (The Hokkaido region is known for its dairy products.)

Outdoor activities also abound in Niseko: snow rafting (like whitewater rafting, but on snow), snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, ice climbing and the activity I choose snowshoeing.

Mieko Shiraki is the founder of Discovery U, an outdoor recreation school in Niseko. Discovery U focuses on activities that will have little impact on the environment; Mieko introduced “leave no trace” outdoorsmanship to Japan and she is an environmentalist as well as an adventurer. Her snowshoes are traditional Hokkaido snowshoes a few bent pieces of wood with some heavy string holding them onto our boots.

Mieko takes me to the base of Mount Yotei, said to be a dead ringer for the more famous Mount Fuji, where we strap on our snowshoes and walk through the woods over the thick powder snow, looking for birds and foxes. We sit for tea beside a beautiful frozen lake.

And no matter what daytime activity we choose, at night the onsen a traditional, public, single-sex bath calls to us. It’s perfect for a snowboarder’s (or a snowshoer’s) weary muscles. Niseko has a bounty of hot springs that feed into onsen all around the area; there are buses that will take you from one to the next. Our onsen, right across from our pension in Hirafu town, has an outdoor hot pool. Every night we go to the onsen, sit on the pool’s smooth stones in the steaming water amidst other bathers and tall banks of snow and watch more snow falling in the black night.

THE DETAILS

The three main snowboarding and skiing areas in Niseko all have accommodations, from luxury resorts to condominiums to pensions with shared bathrooms. Most hotels in Niseko are within walking distance of the slopes; those that aren’t will be serviced by one of the slope’s shuttles.

The Hotel Niseko Annapuri is a luxurious hotel with a Japanese atmosphere at the foot of Mount Niseko Annapuri.
www.nikko-annupuri.co.jp

The Niseko Company offers luxury accommodations in several properties in the Niseko area.
www.thenisekocompany.com

The Niseko Higashiyama Prince Hotel is a resort in the Higashiyama area with a Japanese atmosphere.
www.princehotels.co.jp

The Pension Grandpapa is a moderately priced Japanese-owned pension in Hirafu town, and has English-speaking staff. Rooms have Western-style beds, and bathrooms are shared.
www.nisekograndpapa.com

Snowgum Lodge , in the town of Hirafu, has both Western- and Japanese-style rooms (Japanese-style rooms have tatami mats and futons rather than beds) and is run by Australians.
www.snowgumlodge.com

There are a lot of English-speaking snowboard and ski instructors. Among them are Niseko Base Sunsports and SAS Snowsports . SAS Snowsports arranges other outdoors activities in Niseko as well.
www.nisekobase.com
www.sas-net.com

Discovery U
www.discoveryu.join-us.jp

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