01: FAST TRACK TO FIRST TRACKS
Niseko might be teeming with ski enthusiasts come winter, but it is not impossible to enjoy the slopes in peace – if you know where to go. Lim Hui-Juan, co-founder and COO of boutique agency Quotient Travelplanner, shares this insider tip: Head for Mt Weisshorn. “There, the powder enthusiast can relish the freedom of having an entire mountain to himself,” she reveals. This former ski resort – now used on an exclusive basis – takes only a maximum of 12 guests each day, and the thoughtful full-day package even includes safety gear and lunch. Patrons are ferried in snowcat machines across untouched and pristine snow-covered slopes – all free of crowd and queues. This means you can dedicate all the time you have to skiing and snowboarding.
Two hours away from Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport is a ski resort that offers a less crowded alternative to Niseko. Blessed with even heavier snowfall than Niseko, yet visited by fewer tourists, Kiroro Snow World is where locals go for a winter escape with the family, and where those in the know go to experience the thrill of tree-skiing. Off-piste skiing isn’t allowed officially, but this hasn’t deterred enthusiasts from making first tracks on fresh, untracked grounds. Our advice: Go with a local guide who will be able to tell you the dos and don’ts.
02: PREFER NOT TO SKI?
Those who prefer the big picture can opt for a different way to experience Hokkaido’s national parks: a helicopter flight. Lim recommends a fly-by over the caldera Lake Toya for a different perspective. “During the scenic air journey, you will be able to admire the lake and its four islands collectively called Nakajima, as well as observe the lake’s surrounding attractions, particularly the active Mount Usu with its signature volcanic plume, the Nishiyama crater and Mount Yotei, also known as Hokkaido’s Mount Fuji.” Also of note, the scenic location was where dignitaries attending the 2008 G8 summit were hosted.
You don’t have to go all the way to Alaska to go mushing. At Tokachi subprefecture in central Hokkaido – known for its hot springs and nature reserves – you can enjoy the rush of zipping through vast snowfields on a dog sled, driven by yourself. This experience created by Mushing Works Sled Dog Tours covers a 12km backcountry trail that takes one across the ancient snowfields, among conifer trees and along the river. “Participants will get to soak in the breath-taking scenery, with frequent stops along the way,” enthuses Lim. “It’s a great outdoor activity for families too; children as young as six years of age can enjoy this experience. Guests who do not wish to ride the tandem sled can opt to sit in the snowmobile with the guide.”
03: GETTING THERE
Train Suite Shikishima – East Japan Railway Company’s new luxury train to be launched early next year – lends weight to the saying “getting there is half the fun”. Passenger experience for this all-suite sleeper train that offers itineraries around the Japanese archipelago starts with pre-journey libations at a plush lounge located within Ueno Station in Tokyo. Once on board, luxuriate in sleek modern compartments outfi tted with their own shower and lavatory. The aesthetic is distinctly Japanese but, with design of the trains overseen by award-winning industrial designer, Ken Kiyoyuki Okuyama – best known for his work with Ferrari – one can also expect a sleek, futuristic edge. This can be seen in the design of the observatory cars at the front and rear of the train, which have wall-to-ceiling windows offering panoramic views. The train, which carries only 34 passengers, will offer different itineraries throughout the year, leveraging on the best experiences to be had in different seasons. A four-day, three-night journey offered from spring till autumn takes one from Tokyo to Hokkaido and back, stopping at Hakodate, Niseko and Noboribetsu for sightseeing.
04: PUT YOUR FEET UP
Image: The Vale
Patronised by ski enthusiast Pippa Middleton (the sister of the Duchess of Cambridge), The Vale sets itself apart from the competition by being located right on the ski run. Yes, this means that you can literally ski out of this 49-room boutique chalet. And when you are done, ski right back to the welcoming arms of the resort, which boasts penthouses outfitted with private onsens on a balcony overlooking Mount Yotei.
Image: Zaborin Ryokan
With a name that literally means “place among the trees to sit and forget”, Zaborin Ryokan is hidden within a birch forest just outside of Niseko – so you are secluded, yet close enough to the action. The 15-villa estate marries modern design with zen aesthetics to create an ethereally tranquil space for relaxation. Situated directly above a natural spring, the property boasts indoor and outdoor onsens in each of the villas – a true luxury. An experience of Zaborin Ryokan is completed with a sampling of a kaiseki meal prepared by local chef Yoshihiro Seno, who paid his dues in the Japanese restaurants of New York City and Tokyo, before returning to Hokkaido.
Read more: 3 stunning ryokans to stay at in Japan
A sleek, modern seven-room hotel in Esashi, made entirely from wood. An inn with just 19 suites, each with its own private hot spring bath fed by local thermal springs of Otaru. A 5,382 sq ft vacation rental home in Niseko, designed by acclaimed architect Makoto Nakayama and lovingly decorated by the owner so that it truly feels like home. Such unique properties are all part of The Sekka Club, which, apart from off ering luxuriously beautiful accommodation options for the discerning traveller, also offers travel itineraries. A Gourmand Explorer Package takes you to little-known eateries, while the Open Road Explorer programme takes you to never-written-about places and routes known only to true insiders.
05: SIP & SAVOUR
Savvy travellers to Niseko have been visiting Japanese kitchen & bar A-Bu-Cha for its hearty, no-frills nosh served in a friendly, cosy environment that puts everybody in a celebratory mood. Now that the original establishment has closed, A-Bu-Cha Second has become the insiders’ go-to place for a boisterous evening out. The expansive menu ranges from yakitori items to snow crab shabu shabu, and you can wash it all down with a selection from its drinks list of more than 400 offerings.
One of Niseko insiders’ best-kept secrets, family-run Torimatsu located in the town of Kutchan is where the locals go for simple yet well-executed yakitori dishes. This is also where one can feast on a variety of grilled seasonal seafood, ranging from little-known local fish to the prized Hokkaido hairy crab. 1 Kita 3-jo Nishi, Kutchan-cho, Abuta-gun. Tel: +81 136 23 2893
Read more: 9 tips on how to eat like a local in Tokyo
While set meals are offered at Sobatei Rakuichi, food enthusiasts from around the world visit this nondescript hole-in-the-wall run by a husband and wife team for its handmade soba. Housed in a wooden hut with just 12 counter seats, this restaurant is where you can get a taste of artisanal soba made with premium quality buckwheat grown in the northern regions of Japan and natural spring water from Niseko. 431 Niseko, Niseko-cho, Abuta-gun. Tel: +81 136 58 3170
Image: Bar Gyu+
Hiding behind a vintage fridge door covered with a messy collage of stickers is Bar Gyu+. Also known as The Fridge Door Bar, for obvious reasons, it is a must-visit in Niseko. While families are welcome in this cosy, candle-lit joint, after 8pm it is an adult-only playground buzzing with soulful jazz music – the perfect accompaniment for an evening of soul-warming whisky after a day on the slopes.
This story was originally published in The Peak.