A wintry windfall in Japan's heavenly ski region
By MARLISE KAST-MYERS | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: March 16, 2018
There are 195 countries in the world, many that can be envisioned before ever stepping foot on foreign soil. And then there's Hokkaido, a destination within a destination that will take every preconceived notion you have about Japan and crumple it into a little ball. In its place will be snow, more snow and the champagne powder that has turned sleepy farm towns into the next big thing since Whistler.
The impetus for traveling nearly 6,000 miles for snowboarding was Rachel, my San Diego crony known to chase a storm or two. Whispers of "Japow" and a record-breaking winter set us on flight alert to Japan's northernmost island. Some 12 hours and $550 later, we landed at New Chitose airport near Sapporo -- not to be confused with the beer.
Jet-lagged yet awake enough to know our limits, we booked a shuttle with SkyExpress. Despite the language barrier, we were in good hands; so much so that we passed out until Niseko two hours later.
This agricultural community in southwest Hokkaido is hot on the heels of major ski destinations. It's already throwing punches with 50-plus feet of annual snowfall and a season that runs November through May.
The cold, dry air from Siberia is the Good Samaritan of this majestic nirvana. As winds grab moisture from the Sea of Japan, Hokkaido is the target. Storms dump sheer volume on Niseko, as well as 10 neighboring ski resorts.
For our 10-day adventure, Rachel and I claimed Niseko as our base, with side trips to neighboring Rusutsu and Kiroro. For many powder hounds, Niseko is all they sniff out, and understandably so. Sprawled across one mountain are four resorts that make up the Niseko United family: Hanazono, Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village and Annupuri. All four are linked by gondolas and bus service, and boast night skiing and varied terrain.
The most developed village is Hirafu with plenty of bars, shops and restaurants. It's also home to Ki Niseko, a boutique ski-in ski-out hotel at the foot of Grand Hirafu. With views of dormant Yotei volcano, the property blends contemporary alpine style with Japanese sophistication. Rooms are like mini-apartments with kitchens, laundry facilities and our favorite amenity, heated toilet seats. These elaborate "washlets" have noisemakers, deodorizers and a bidet console. It's like a Nintendo for your fanny.
Every property where we stayed had an onsen _ a Japanese hot spring and bathing facility with a universal list of rules, including no alcohol, tattoos, towels, cameras or even swimsuits. Despite our cultural and literal nakedness, we felt the healing benefits of what became a nightly ritual of soaking in the geothermally heated pools.
From the onsen and ski valet to shuttle service and breakfast buffet, Ki Niseko delivered on all levels. For dinner, we visited An Dining, Ki's answer to traditional Japanese dishes coupled with regional produce. Awakening our palates were sake-steamed oysters, fried stingray, Wagyu beef with shiitake mushrooms and kingfish with bamboo marinade.
Ginger cocktails knocked us out, and coin-sized snowflakes woke us up. Straight to Rhythm we rolled, Niseko's leading ski and snowboard shop. Within the two-story building are more than 5,000 boards and skis for rent, plus outerwear, meaning Rachel and I traveled to Japan with no more than carry-ons. From their fleet, we both snagged top-of-the-line equipment, delivered straight to our door.
With gear in order, we met up with our guide, Bryan, from Next Stage Snow Sports. Giving us the lay of the land, Bryan has 23 seasons of instructor experience. His six-hour sessions are customized to ability and preferences, right down to what you want to eat for lunch.
Gondola conversations taught us the dos and don'ts of boarding in Niseko. No ducking under boundary ropes or riding below lift lines because you might hit your head on a chairlift (yes, there really is that much snow). For backcountry skiing, there are 11 gates in Niseko. Enter through them and I dare you not to "woo-hoo."
The fluffy, dry powder puts Utah's snow to shame. You can lay fresh tracks until 4 p.m., dodging silver birches and half-piping gullies in knee-deep cotton. Avalanche gear is a must, and a guide is recommended. You won't have many neighbors cramping your style. Most locals stay on piste to focus on technique, plus backcountry riding has been viewed as "rebellious" since it started in Japan in 2015.
So, we went rogue, convinced we scored our best powder on the front end. If only we knew. The snow almost never let up, floating down from the heavens like feathers pushed from the bed of God. Clearly, he never got comfortable.
Oh, but we did. On days 3 and 4, we found ourselves at the Hilton in Niseko Village. As the area's largest hotel, this ski-in ski-out property attracts a Japanese clientele with its eight restaurants, private onsen, shuttle service and Niseko Village gondola outside its doors. It's also close to House of Machines, one of the best spots for live music and craft beers.
We found our daily groove: snowboard -- onsen -- dinner -- repeat. Hungry bellies landed us at Enishi, a casual Japanese restaurant known for its smoked duck, chicken tempura and Hokkaido hot pots. Paper lanterns and non-English staff reminded us where we were (point at the photo to place your order).
For breakfast, we hit Musu in the heart of Hirafu. After Eggs Benedict, we indulged in the best coffee and pastries of our trip at Musu's sister property, Koko Bakery. Like the locals, Musu wears many hats: breakfast, bistro, tapas bar and nightclub serving wasabi margaritas and '90s hip-hop.
Musu snagged us twice in one day, just after our dinner at neighboring Alpinist, famous for their crepes, fondue and raclette. Sure you're in Japan, but for just a moment the flavors will transport you to the Swiss Alps with dramatic views of Grand Hirafu's night-skiing runs.
Annupuri became our stomping ground the next morning with Greg, our level-four certified guide from Propeak. Their 28-person team speaks seven languages, rides backcountry routes, and provides transportation and avalanche training. He knew Annupuri like a best friend, taking us far from groomed runs into the thick of the white.
After four days in Niseko, we rented a car and drove southeast of Mount Yotei to Rusutsu. Niseko's Toyota Rent-A-Car had us covered. With the best fleet in town, their cars have 4-wheel drive, snow tires, ski racks and roadside assistance. Rachel drove like a champ, getting us safely to The Westin Rusutsu 45 minutes later.
Unlike bustling Niseko, Rusutsu has no town. It's comprised of The Westin, Rusutsu Resort, a 72-hole golf course, and an amusement park. As the largest ski resort in Hokkaido, Rusutsu has three mountains (West, East and Isola) all operated by Kamori Kanko Company.
Steep terrain and wide runs are a magnet for skiers; but it's the off-piste tree dodging and thick powder that kept us on repeat. Drop in at any point and you'll find birch-and-pine forest sheltering you from the wind. Bonus draws are the covered lifts, cozy gondolas and non-existent lift lines. Below the 8-foot base is a pillow of bamboo tundra (sasa grass) meaning you'll never hit a rock. With expansion on the horizon, Rusutsu is just getting started.
Recognizing a very good thing is The Westin, smack dab in the heart of it all. Walk out the backdoor and you're at the foot of the East Mountain chairlift. Walk in the front door and you're in a massive atrium-lobby flooded with light and decor reflective of Hokkaido's nature.
All 210 rooms are bilevel with kitchenettes, forest views and space to sleep 4 to 7 guests. Signature Heavenly beds and showers are part of The Westin bliss, along with an onsen that is unique to this location. Keeping you fit are mountain guides, ski shops, a gym and superfoods menu available at both restaurants.
When the mountain loses its luster (yeah, right), they have dog sledding, horseback riding, ice fishing and snowmobiling -- the last of which we experienced. Racing through open fields, we found ourselves plowing through powder so deep that only our expert guide could keep us from getting stuck.
Named Japan's best ski hotel in 2017, The Westin is also home to Kazahana restaurant, our most authentic meal of the trip. Paired with Hokkaido wine and Classic Sapporo (the beer, not the city) were rice bowls with grilled cod, fried tofu, sashimi and purple potatoes with salmon roe.
Snowboard -- onsen -- dinner -- repeat.
Acquainting us with Rusutsu's backcountry trails was Ed, our 30-something British guide from Pure Hokkaido. Chaperoning parties of no more than four, the "Pure" crew makes sure no two days are the same. They'll document your adventure with GoPro footage, meaning you can lean back until your guide yells, " ... and scene!"
Sprinkling in one more ski town, we headed to Kiroro Resort. This family-friendly destination with ski schools, restaurants and rentals is the mecca of powder (70 feet per season). It's also land of base flats, meaning snowboarders should tuck for speed or grab hold of a skier's pole. There's so much snow, they have a Powder Academy introducing newbies to the fresh stuff.
There was so much we loved about Kiroro: fresh tracks all day, spicy ramen at lunch, cocktails at Mountain Bar and ocean views on a clear day.
For proximity and comfort, we stayed at Kiroro, A Tribute Portfolio Hotel. After a major renovation in 2016, this massive Starwood property is home to eight restaurants, 281 rooms, a fitness club and small "town." An upscale version of an all-inclusive means you can throw down meal tickets at Fuga Sushi or at Ice Restaurant, a fondue house inside an igloo (dress warmly and don't lick your table).
Defrost at neighboring Popke Bar, known for plum wine and karaoke, or head to the Tribute's lobby with a fireplace and live music. After two nights in Kiroro, we drove one hour back to Niseko to finish our adventure where it started.
We sprawled out at Niseko Landmark View, a condo complex next to the Hirafu gondola. These two-bedroom apartments sleep up to six, with room for two couch-crashers. Kitchen, laundry room, ski lockers, Apple TV, fast Wi-Fi, neighboring coffee shop ... check and check. Big perk: floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Mount Yotei.
For our second-to-last dinner, we hit Ginger, one of the area's newest restaurants. Here, subdued Japanese cuisine meets farm-to-fork with crunchy shrimp spring rolls and buttery Hokkaido cod topped with miso sabayon.
Returning our beloved boards to Rhythm left our final hours for snowshoeing with Niseko Adventure Center (NAC). As the king of winter activities, NAC offers cross-country ski tours, cat skiing and backcountry riding.
We also hit secret spots with Aaron Jamieson, Niseko's legendary photographer who has spent more than a decade capturing Hokkaido's comeliness. When not guiding film crews and pro athletes, Jamieson hosts photography workshops ranging from three hours to six days.
For beyond-memorable apres cocktails, we headed to Toshiro's Bar, where Toshiro and his kimono-clad wife, Yoko, shook up ginger gimlets, Earl Grey coolers and espresso martinis. Whisky aficionados can choose from more than 100 varieties, including smooth Suntory Hibiki 21.
Putting a bow on our time in Hokkaido was dinner at The Barn by Odin. This lively restaurant is housed inside a glass-architectural masterpiece that lures the cool kids. From the second-floor loft, Rachel and I recapped our 10-day trip, raving about those powder days that end with scallops carpaccio, sake-steamed mussels, sushi foie gras and Basque cheesecake ("I'm sorry, did you want that last bite?").
We circled back on the highs and highers, considering for a split moment what it would take to move there. Just then our waiter arrived, commenting on the snowfall, the ski town and the exponential growth of tomorrow.
"It's almost like you're not in Japan," he said.
He was right. We were in a destination unlike anything I had experienced, where snow falls as if it never will again; where fields resemble white oceans; where powder horizons connect to infinity.
It might have been the snow that attracted us to Niseko, Rusutsu and Kiroro, but it was everything else that left us falling madly in love. So maybe it's "not Japan," but whatever it is, I'm pretty smitten.
Kast-Myers is travel writer based in Vista, Calif.