Perfect Puzzle – Ski Niseko, Japan
Perfect Puzzle – Ski Niseko, Japan
Ancient traditions, unbeatable powder, and a healthy economy come together to form Niseko, a resort better enjoyed than contemplated.
Mid-afternoon on day five in Niseko, the cloud cover broke for about an hour. I gazed first at a tiny ring of crystalline blue sky, and watched it widen until it dropped to the eastern horizon. And there, taking up the whole of that horizon, was Mount Yotei. It was a perfect cone of volcanic glory, a mini-Fuji, so close and so massive and so storybook perfect that the experience was like discovering there was a walrus in my bathtub, and he’d been there for the better part of a week using my conditioner.
In that moment of clear sky, I had a moment of clarity. I grasped some pure truth about this mountain resort, its history and future, its clash of cultures, its destiny. And then the clouds rolled in, and the snow began to swirl, and I lost it all again in the powder.
What it is. Niseko United is the name of the Hokkaido resort that people call “Niseko.” It is actually composed of four independently owned resorts, Niseko Grand Hirafu (Hanazono area), Niseko Grand Hirafu (Hirafu area), Niseko Village Ski Resort, and Niseko Annupuri. One pass gives access to all four areas, but they are only connected near the peak of the mountain, and then only by traverse when the snow pack is sufficient. Between the areas are steep gullies labeled “Strictly off limits” for very good reasons, so getting from one base area to the other must happen at the peak or by bus.
The mountain where all this happens isn’t called Niseko — that’s the name of a potato-farming villageY in the valley nearby — but Mount Annupuri, and it hosts, on other flanks and in adjoining valleys, an additional three resorts (if you count a ski-jump-only hill) that are not part of Niseko United. The slopes aren’t steep — somewhere between 30 and 40 degrees — but the silver birch trees form perfect glades.
At the base of the hill are three villages and an actual Japanese city. Beneath Annupuri is, fittingly, Annupuri, more a gathering of large private homes (some going for millions) than a true town, though it offers both lodging and dining options, some slope-side. At the foot of Niseko Village Ski Resort is the hotel-centric Niseko Village, though the name of the town was Higashiyama until the resort — in a triumph of marketing over history — renamed them both (locals, and the post office, still use the old name). Hirafu is the true ski town of the bunch, and sits at the base of the Grand Hirafu that shares its name — developmentally it sits somewhere between Crested Butte and Park City — and teems with bars, restaurants, and tourists. The other half of Hirafu, Hanazono, ends at a beautiful new day lodge and little else — at least for now. Nearby, should you want something like groceries or a crash course in actual Japanese culture, is Kutchan, the business hub of the area and a place where English and sign language will only get you so far.
Overlay this with maps printed by various business concerns that have conflicting views of the region’s physical reality, and it’s easy to miss the good stuff. So find a good concierge, and probably a driver.
Why you’ll go. Those who know Niseko speak of The Flake in reverential tones, as if it is some minor deity they both revere and fear. And yes, they speak of it with capital letters.
It is legendarily light, geometrically improbable. It exists in more dimensions that one can readily comprehend — perfect six-sided crystals attached at the points in triplets or dozens, each twisted on the other at an angle, building a box to capture a square inch of the upper atmosphere and deliver it to the mountain. That mass of crystals can’t really be said to fall, being too light to attend to Newtonian obligations, and instead hangs on the slightest breeze until it happens to run into a tree branch, or a goggle lens, or a pile of millions of its brethren.
When the snow comes — and storms here are measured simultaneously in meters and in weeks — it comes faster than it can be dealt with. At the bottom of every chair, some hapless liftie spends all day darting between chairs with a snow shovel, scooping away drifts that grow before his eyes. Along the roadways, lanes are marked with 15-foot metal poles that hang flashing red and green arrows above the traffic; by the end of the season, the poles are completely buriedY and the arrows stick out of giant walls of snow, and a daily commute becomes less highway than Habitrail.
On the hill, the powder is bottomless. Cloud cover and a constant temperature — around 10 degrees Fahrenheit, day and night — mean that the snow doesn’t glaze over in a freeze-thaw cycle, so there’s almost never a crust to break through.Y When you’re riding Niseko, you’re not just riding in the two feet dropped by the current storm, but in the dozens of feet that have fallen since the season began. It gets heavier the deeper you go, but you’ll never reach the bottom.
Where you’ll stay. Your optionsY are mostly dictated by your nationality and foresight. If you’re Japanese or are trying to be, you’ll head straight for the Hilton Niseko Village, which has glorious
public spaces and top-notch restaurants, but which is only three floors into the remodel of its rather cozy rooms. A few other inns here and in Annupuri also cater to the short-stay domestic market.
If you’re an English-speaking family or group on an extended holiday, you might book yourself in a chalet like those offered by Country Resort, where the bars are far away and the silence of the woods surrounds you, but a full-time shuttle van and a knowledgeable staff make the daily (and pre-) planning easy.
If you’re a high-rolling captain of industry from Asia, you may have had the vision (or money) to build your dream house in Annupuri. If not, you may be renting one of the luxury suites in Hirafu, in a modern lodge like The Vale Niseko or the 10-loft superluxury Suiboku.
If you’re a ski bum, you’re likely living four to a room in Kutchan when you’re not on the hill or serving coffee, having the time of your life.
Who you’ll meet. The culture here begins with the Japanese, but even they are relative newcomers, having first made an effort to cultivate the wild north island only in the 1880s. This is their land, their history, and their strict visa and bank regulations, so their local governments will have the last say in the development of Niseko.
If you seek what is Japanese about Niseko, you will find it in handmade soba served in a hand-built restaurant, Rakuichi in Annupuri. There, Tetsuro and Midori Rai, who fell in love with the natural beauty of the area and defied family to build their dream, do everything the traditional way. Or you can look at the paintings of Ken Miyamoto, a Tokyo native who fell in love with the landscape and now produces paintings that blend traditional themes with the swirling colors and bulbous shapes of Japanese pop design. You can bathe in one of the 30-some-odd onsen — traditional hot-springs baths — that are scattered across the countryside (but read up on the etiquette first). You can sample real ramen just off the slopes in Hirafu, or amazing sushi at the Hilton Niseko Village. And you can enjoy the Japanese modernist aesthetic that’s found in almost every hotel and restaurant in the area; Japanese design is more than just tatami mats and bamboo.
Niseko’s purest expression of purity of design, awareness of nature, and global thinking may come in the person of Taro Tamai,Y the founder and hand-designer of Gentemstick boards (that’s right — no CAD, just sketches). Gentems come in shapes from fishtail to traditional and offer otherworldly control in Niseko’s powder, and high-performance results on just about any terrain. To the local boarding community — and that part of the global boarding community that knows he exists — he is part Dalai Lama, part Leonardo da Vinci. Each year, he produces five or six completely handmade boards, elevating equipment beyond art and into the realm of fetish object.
In a larger view of Niseko’s Japan-ness, there is the Japanese tourist market, which still makes up the majority of riders on any given day. They take short trips of two or three days, usually with family in tow. They fueled the growth of the ski industry in the 1970s, and are the overwhelming demographic served at Japan’s roughly 700 ski resorts. They are still the engine driving this train.
Except in Niseko, where they are no longer in control. Here, though tallying smaller numbers, the rest of Asia rules. The wealthy elite of China, Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore are the ones buying $5 million houses in Annupuri, and renting the luxury suites slope-side in Hirafu. They pack the restaurants and the lessons, and the bars (except where those are already full of Australians).
Australians — and the occasional New Zealander — are the greaseY that keeps the wheels of commerce turning here, brokering real-estate deals and opening businesses catering to English-speaking tourists (like those wealthy Asian visitors, most of whom speak English in their daily lives). Deposited by the original foreign tourism wave of trekking Antipodians in the mid-’90s, they laid down the infrastructure that makes Niseko a viable international destination today.
At its worst, the relationship between the Aussies (and Kiwis) and the Japanese seems economically predatory. At its best, it’s appreciative and preservationist. At the beautifully minimalist café, lounge, and restaurant J-Sekka, Katherine Bont and Kim Wejendorp cater to the Anglophone market with delicious dishes made from the best Hokkaido meats, cheeses, and produce, which they have sourced by scouring the island for small providers — it’s Japanese food that tastes European. And the area’s best international restaurant is Kamimura, run by Yuichi Kamimura, a native islander who learned to cook at the elbow of Tetsuya Wakuda, perhaps Sydney’s most famous chef.
What’s to come. Here’s where it all falls apart; where the rumors swirl like snow, and the bullshit piles as deep. Some things you should know, or pretend that you heard from reputable sources:
The Hilton Niseko Village — and its village, ski slopes, and two golf courses — has been sold, and the new owner plans to enact the Niseko Village Master Plan. That plan, already approved by the powers that be, includes another luxury hotel, fractional ownership, condos, private homes, a true base village, two new lifts and a village quad for transportation. Timeline: Unknown. To date, there has been no official announcement of who even bought it.
In Annupuri, a Capella resort — the very same that claims, and delivers, a six-star experience in Telluride — is slated to begin construction. Timeline: Unknown, though several of the ownership units have been sold. Interestingly, the planned site has no direct access to the ski hill, sitting nearly a mile away on the wrong side of a major road.
On the Hanazono side of the mountain, Hong Kong billionaire Richard Li has recently bought himself into sole ownership, and put no small amount of money into the nicest day lodge in Japan. His plans call for 14,000 beds’ worth of lodging to be built over the next 10 years at that base village alone (the whole of Niseko United is served today by 8,000). Timeline: If Richard Li says 10 years, it’s probably to keep investor interest high.
In Hirafu, every block has a giant sign promoting some new luxury development, from single-family homes to condominium towers to creekside country living, and the wrecking balls and cranes are in evidence everywhere. Timeline: Last week.
Then there’s the granddaddy of them all. Plans have been approved for an extension of the Shinkansen — Japan’s famous bullet train — under the strait dividing Hokkaido and the main island of Honshu, where it will emerge at Kutchan station before continuing to Sapporo. Timeline: Funding has yet to win approval, though a Shinkansen
line will reach Honshu’s north coast in the next few years.
When to go. Now. Japan is a string of mountains that just happen to be sunk into the ocean. It’s littered with great ski hills, and the entire western coast of Hokkaido gets visited by The Flake. Black Diamond Tours,Y which runs off-piste and back bowl tours around Niseko, also offers multiday tours farther north in the range, where the slopes often get much steeper both in the backcountry and in the smaller local resorts. Even if Niseko does turn into some pan-Asian Whistler, there will still be a Japanese Selkirk range to escape to.
The dollars (or yuan, or yen, or won) aren’t limitless. But the snow sure seems to be. Go to Niseko now. If it’s ruined in 10 years, you can say you went there when. And if it’s a fantastic resort with responsible development and oodles of great things to do, you can rent a condo and curse yourself for not buying when we told you to.