Snow sports fashion is mind-blowingly awesome; the variety of designs and styles out there are certain to awaken your inner shopaholic. A trip to a few snow sports shops to browse last year very quickly turned into an uncontrollable shopping frenzy. After three hours…jacket, check. Pants, check. Inner wear, check. Goggles, beanies, socks, all check. All that remains now is just some snow. Not so easy if you live in the tropics or suck at predicting weather!
With advice from several powder hounds in the office and some feverish researching, it was a toss between Hakuba, Nozawa Onsen (both on Honshu, Japan’s largest island) and Niseko (on Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island).
While Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen both boast great slopes and an authentic Japanese ski resort and village experience, we snow sports virgins chose Niseko because of its powder snow, plentiful F&B establishments, English speaking community and seafood. Yes seafood. We have a thing for seafood and seafood from Hokkaido is reputed to be the best in Japan.
Niseko’s well-known powder snow attracts many international skiers, snowboarders and holiday-makers every year. Of the six different ski areas in Niseko, Hirafu is the largest and our choice for a base.
Falling in love with Niseko was all too easy.
Everything in Japan is refined, even the snow. Powdery soft snow descends almost every day. Such generous high quality snowfall produces a snow cover that looks and feels like a plush carpet of coffee creamer. Snowsure all season, this winter wonderland is every snow bunny’s dream come true.
Niseko is equipped with an efficient lift system of gondolas and chairlifts and a network of lodging options to suit every budget, ensuring convenient access to the slopes. The terrain at Niseko is varied with long steep runs guaranteed to keep the adrenaline of experts pumping and beautifully groomed and gentle slopes at the base of the mountain for newbies like us. The powder snow is extremely fall-friendly for snow sports students and beginners, something we can speak for from experience!
Niseko is also unique for its night skiing. Almost the entire mountain is lit at night, taking on a surreal and enchanting look and feel. As senses heighten with nightfall, the tranquility and natural beauty of the environs seem to ring louder and clearer. Do make sure to wear a little more as the temperature dips significantly when the sun goes down. Lifts are open until 9pm every night of the week in Niseko.
Hirafu village where we were based is also where you can find most accommodations, restaurants, bars and shops.
We stayed at J-Sekka Suites, right smack in the centre of the village and a stone’s throw away from the village’s main convenience store Seico Mart and the Ace Family Run. Located in the basement of the building are ski and snowboard lockers and even a cheery studio where yoga classes are conducted daily in English.
We stayed in the studio and the one-bedroom apartments. The rooms are minimalist in design and well appointed with spacious glass-walled bathrooms for the showy. The one-bedder has a very generous living and dining area with kitchen. The studio is cosy but self-sufficient with a kitchenette and laundry amenities.
On the ground floor, be pampered with gourmet produce and wholesome breakfast made from the freshest local ingredients at J-Sekka Deli & Cafe. It’s the perfect place to kick off your ski boots and chill out over coffee and cakes. Their daily muffins are possibly the best we have had, ever.
Not far from our apartment is the popular Abucha which is a bakery by day and a restaurant-bar by night. Stop by this laid-back cafe to load up on savoury and sweet breads and pastries ahead of the day’s activities.
Have we mentioned we have a thing for seafood? One good deed you can do for yourself when you arrive at Niseko is to make a reservation at Ezo Seafoods. Immediately. This unassuming and charming seafood restaurant run by Keiko and James Gallagher was the highlight of our culinary adventure in Niseko. The restaurant fills up very quickly and without a reservation, you are really taking a losing punt.
We started with oysters shucked and served simply with lemon, which were followed quickly by seasonal hairy crabs steamed and served cold with a ponzu dip. They were phenomenal.
Sea urchin (“uni”) are a must-do delicacy in Japan and they don’t come any fresher than the ones in Hokkaido. Our uni rolled with rice in seaweed had a combined warm-cold, creamy-chewy texture that made every mouthful sheer estasy. Some say chocolate is better than…, we’d say uuuniiii…
Our scallop, trout and tuna sashimi gorgeously presented were impeccably fresh and delicious. The thick and crunchy scallop in particular deserved a standing ovation.
We ended our meal with a request for ochazuke – a very comforting and satisfying bowl of rice in tea soup.
If you fancy a tipple, look no further than Gyu + Bar (aka “The Fridge”) in Lower Hirafu. Keep your eyes peeled for a small colourful vintage fridge door tucked conspicuously within large mounds of snow.
Duck in and you will find yourself transported into a quaint local drinking hole much like a good friend’s lounge room. Choice seats are by the bar where a respectable collection of rare whisky, sake and shochu is in full view.
Skiers, riders or not, Niseko is an all-round entertainment venue for all. Can’t wait for next season!Written by Jack.D
Photographed by Jack.D and Leni.B