With travel teasing to resume worldwide it may be time to tune up the skis, pull out the Topo maps and plan your next snow satiating adventure. Starting July this year, FinnAir will begin direct flights from Helsinki to New Chitose Airport, making Hokkaido a much more accessible destination for those coming from Europe. World renowned for its obscene amounts of powder snow and quirky cultural nuances, Japan should be high on the bucket list for anyone that hears the call of the mountains.
Colliding over the island prefecture of Hokkaido, tundra chilled jet streams are driven down from Siberia, gaining moisture as they swoop across the Sea of Japan – setting the scene for “snowmaggedon”. Flying directly into New Chitose International Airport, the mountain Mecca of Niseko is just 2 hours away.
Collectively known as Niseko United, four separate resorts wrap around Mt Annupuri, connected by a network of chairlifts and gondolas. To capture the essence of one – Niseko Annupuri – we sat down with resort representative Yasuhiro Maruyama. “This is the people’s mountain,” he explains, highlighting that because it is locally owned and operated the price point has been kept within the reaches of most travellers. As the quietest of the four, tradition remains intact through the family run lodgings and hot spring establishments that sprinkle the base area, ensuring that the spirit of Japan runs deep at Annupuri.
The slopes at the base are conducive to beginner and family learning, while the backcountry access from the top is some of the best in the region. At 1308 meters, Mt Annupuri sprawls in all directions, offering daily descents down different lines and aspects. Real time avalanche bulletins, topography and route maps as well as resort managed access gates make Niseko – quite possibly – Japan’s most easily enjoyed backcountry destination.
Another of the four is Niseko Village, a hybrid resort that seamlessly draws together luxury and family travel. In addition to the Green Leaf, the Ritz-Carlton also offers direct access to the slopes from the ski valet with a lift ticket vending machine available. Also, Hilton Hotel and Hinode Hills Hotel negate the need for shuttles and gear laden schlepping, and the wide open beginner and night ski areas make it suitable for all ages and levels. Within the resort bounds is an avalanche controlled backcountry gate in which the variation of slope angle and tree spacing would equally appeal to entry level off-pisters and seasoned shredders alike.
Neighbouring Grand Hirafu is the largest and oldest of the Niseko United Resorts. Balancing slope side convenience whilst reflecting its historical ties, Hirafu homes the steepest in bounds terrain and most diverse on piste options. The base village is a hive of activity, with shops, restaurants and bars decorating the streets. Serving up “Jingisukan” – a delicacy of Hokkaido – is Niseko Sanroku Jingisukan, bursting with salivating smells as each mutton strip hits the hot plate. Around the corner Toshiro’s Bar beckons, boasting a lineup of Niseko distilled gins and whiskeys, and not skimping on the production value in the creation of elaborate cocktails and concoctions. A tour and taste at the Niseko Distillery coupled with a visit to Takahashi Farm, which is a charming farm full of character in central Niseko, further reveals the agricultural prowess and home grown business acumen of the region. Learning about the region’s agricultural ties and the opportunity to sample their produce provides a great insight into other aspects of the Niseko tourism industry other than snow sports.
With a Park Hyatt cradling the base area, a 10 person gondola and brand new heated leather 6 seater chairlift – Niseko Hanazono Resort is the epitome of a luxury snow destination. Consistent in quality and service, HANAZONO Tube Park and snow play area are steps away from the hotel entrance, while an in house ski school and guiding operation see that all guest expectations are exceeded. While the lower slopes suit the lower levels, the mid mountain provides the perfect opportunity to learn and harness your off piste skills through tree glades and playful features. The upper mountain boasts backcountry opportunities, the northerly aspect of which is conducive to the lightest and driest snow conditions of Niseko United. For those partial to mechanised backcountry adventures, the Hanazono owned Mt Weisshorn is a dedicated Cat Ski mountain to the north of the resort.
The Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono is immaculate, with a full English speaking staff, plethora of dining options and designer retail outlets. The boxes are checked for all ages and interests, making Hanazono unparalleled for a luxury ski experience in Japan.
Anchored by bubble era hotels (such as The Westin) and stretched over three mountains, Rusutsu Resort is in a realm of its own. Quirky, charming and full of character, the slope variety is vast, while the neighbouring peak of Shiribetsu holds the region’s steepest (and possibly deepest) backcountry lines – accessible via helicopter with the Hokkaido Backcountry Club. Lunch in an igloo is a great way to switch gears, and the fairground themed hotel will capture the attention of anyone passing through.
No visit to Japan is complete without out sliding into a hot spring (such as Goshiki Onsen in Niseko) and the quaint, legacy village of Jozankei is so high in geothermal activity that the eco-minded Grand Blissen Hotel is mostly powered from it. Contrasting the simmering, atmosphere heavy public footpaths in the town centre, the hotel is modern and well appointed, with an excellent onsite restaurant.
With so many hot spots and ski resorts sprinkling the region – including the family friendly Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort – you need not settle for one destination, especially given the ease of access between the various places of interest. Perhaps then, it should just be Hokkaido United.