Dubbed the’ Whistler of Asia’, Niseko is the largest of Hokkaido ski areas with four interlinked resorts, Annupuri, Hirafu, Hanazona and Higashiyama . They collectively provide over 2000 acres of ski area with 37 gondolas and ski lifts, open from 8 30am to 9pm daily. Niesko also has the largest lit area for night skiing in Japan but be weary, the night temperatures can get as low as -20 degrees celsius. Face masks are essential to prevent frost bite.
One of the myths I believed before skiing in Japan was it is expensive and crowded. Fortunately, both are incorrect, with no lift queue to talk of and slopes spartan with skiers. Ski passes are reasonable and the main accommodation and entertainment village, Hirafu, has a good range of apartments, pensions, and hotel to meet all budgets.
Air New Zealand has daily flights to Tokyo with connections to Sapporo, offering very reasonable airfares during the ski season. An hours bus ride from Sapporo airport to Niesko will have you there within the hours, condition allowing.
On and off the mountains the food is plentiful, affordable and delicious. A satisfying bowl of noodles and a beer can cost a little as $20, but the option of fine dinning is also available.We found it hard to go past the miso raman noodles and pork curries on the mountain. Off the mountain there is plenty of choice of Japanese and international cuisine. Hokkaido is very proud of their fresh seafood caught locally. On our second evening we stopped at a small yakatoi bar one night before dinner and ordered a scallop. Exquisitely presented, the scallop sat on a wire mesh sat above a small candle. As the candle was ceremoniously lit, we watched the scallop cook in its own juices, herbed butter and lemon – the best scallop I have ever eaten.
After skiing five days skiing at Niseko, we decided a change of location was in order so booked ourselves on the local bus to Rusutsu Resort, one of several close ski resorts. A 40-minute bus ride had us at the base of the East No 1 gondola. The resort has three peaks West Mt, East Mt and the highest Mt Isola, where spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean back to and Mt Yotei can be viewed. But the most memorable and unusual feature of this ski resort is the inclusion of a theme park. Operational in summer only, numerous roller coasters and rides are an unusual sight as they sit dormant in the snow.
After our second day skiing with weary bodies we decided try an onsen. Onsens are public baths with water sourced from the hot springs found across the volcanic islands of Japan. But this is a too simple an explanation for such a wonderful and authentic traditional Japanese experience. Described by the locals as “ a warm blessing from the earth in which we can find calmness and rest” an onsen is a memorable and satisfying experience. Traditionally, onsens were used as public bathing houses but today onsens to the Japanese people, are a way to relax and revitalise, as many are rich in minerals providing numerous health benefits. Many of the old rituals have been adhered to and the activity has developed into a fine art with its own etiquette as we found out.
Getting naked with total strangers is not for most of us the cultural norm but shy foreigners should know that the Japanese perceive bathing as a great social leveler and all revel in the anonymity that nudity allows. Traditionally men and women bathed together, but single sexed bathing has steadily become the norm.
To enjoy this experience and the rituals of onsen bathing there are a few simple rules you need to know.
Take your shoes off, leave them at the door and pass though the curtain selecting the appropriate changing room, women and men. This is where you will de-robed, leaving your clothes and belongings in the baskets provided.
Upon entering the onsen naked, you are expected to wash you body completely and rinse thoroughly before entering the onsen. Typically, there will be a row of small stools to sit on, a mirror, a bucket, a removable shower faucet and shampoo and soap. The Japanese are very meticulous and entering the onsen not completely cleansed or with traces of soap on the body is considered unacceptable.
Once spotlessly clean proceed to the bathing area. The most important rule, and one you learn to appreciate, is the baths are for soaking only, not cleaning. The cleaning has been done already.
You will often hear the term wash cloth or modesty towel. This is a small towel, which can provide modesty when walking between baths. Best to forget about modesty and not cover up but if you feel the need for a wash cloth you must obey the etiquette and fold it neatly on the side of the pool or place it on your head as they are prohibited to be placed in the water.
Test the waters before you get in. Some baths are temperate, some incredibly hot, and some are freezing plunge pools. But most importantly take time to really relax and reflect, and in my view there is no better place than in the outside baths. Our favourite onsen in Niseko, Yumoto Niseko Prince Hotel Hirafu has indoor and outdoor pools. The women’s outside pool looks out at the splendour of Mt Yotei and the men’s pool has an exquisite view of Mt Annupuri. With the onsen so close to the ski fields patrons are shielded from the night skiers by traditional Japanese screens of narrow slated bamboo. With the hot water lapping your shoulder, a chilling outside air temperature and night skiers gliding down the mountain it is not hard to feel reflective in this somewhat surreal environment.
Relaxed, mellow and hungry we regrouped with our friends from the men’s onsen and set off in search of the perfect meal to end a perfect day of Niseko powder.