Three Days in Niseko: A travelogue

Travel - April 3rd, 2009

by Natasha Williams and Dora Marquez

Considering its relatively size, Japan is an amazing country in terms of the variety of weather conditions and types of terrain one can encounter, all within a couple of hours by plane from Tokyo. Weekender sent two best friends to Niseko on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, to find out what a weekend of snowboarding might be like for two girls from Tokyo. They came back raving about their trip and ready to go back as soon as possible—ski season goes into the spring in Niseko, so there is still time to fly up for a quick chance at the world-famous powder. Read on to find out about where they stayed, what they did, and where they suggest you spend your time in Niseko.

Natasha: Friday morning, early.
Taking the day off work to go to Niseko on a Friday morning is paying off already. On our 7am flight from Haneda, we share seven seats between the two of us, despite the fact that the Sapporo–Tokyo routing is one of the busiest air links in the world. It’s hard to believe, just over an hour after we leave Tokyo, that we’re about to land in the same country, so deserted is the snowy ground around the runway. I’ve never snowboarded before, but from all accounts this is one of the best places in Japan to ski or snowboard and I can’t wait to see the mountain of An’nupuri, which gives the area in which we are staying its name. We get on the bus, settle in to catch up on our sleep, and wind through forests that remind me of Canada before pulling up to our hotel, the Niseko Northern Resort An’nupuri.

Dora: Friday afternoon
We’ve checked in, explored the hotel, and are relaxing while anxiously waiting to hit the slopes. The hotel is secluded and nestled to the west of two other major ski and resort areas, Niseko Village and Grand Hirafu. The building itself is amazing and spacious and the staff so welcoming and helpful. From the entrance hall to the rooms, lounge, library, and restaurants, Scandinavian décor is themed throughout, giving it a very modern and relaxed, cozy winter feeling. The hotel is a ski-in and ski-out resort, literally minutes from the lifts and even has night skiing for die-hard skiers. The hotel can handle all your rentals, schedule lessons for you, and gladly adjust your bindings or wax your snowboard. The view from our window is mostly trees and pillows of untouched snow. To the right we can see the course and one of the more intermediate slopes. Ah so inviting, we’re off to hit Niseko’s most infamous powder!

Natasha: Friday evening
By 4pm, we’re on the slopes and Dora heads off down the family course, which offers a nice round trip from the four-person gondola at the bottom of the bunny hill. I stay behind to try and get my feet—literally when it comes to snowboarding—something I’ve never tried before. The hotel offers certified ski and snowboard instructors and my teacher, though Japanese, is able to give me the basics in English. He teaches me how to put on the bindings and begin slowly gliding down the hill, helping me up where necessary (I am so glad Niseko’s powder is lovely and soft!) while also giving me enough tips and tricks to get started. I’m by absolutely no stretch of the imagination an expert at the end of our lesson, but I feel myself starting to get the basics and tentatively head off down the bunny hill on my own after we finish—there’s plenty of time to brave the gondola tomorrow. Once Dora and I meet back up we’re off to dinner at one of the hotel’s several restaurants, Eclat; choosing to try the buffet. An interesting mix of Western and Asian, there is plenty for everyone to choose from, and it satisfies both of us despite the fact I don’t eat seafood and Dora doesn’t eat meat. We enjoy our meal overlooking the slopes and watch visitors, both good and bad, as they take full advantage of the night skiing.


Dora: Saturday, early afternoon
After a very restful sleep, we both wake up a little sore yet eager to get back out on the slopes. A quick glance out the window and you can see the fresh layer of powder that fell overnight and animal tracks weaving in and out of tree lines and the outer hotel wall, maybe a red fox that calls these parts of the Niseko home. We grab a buffet breakfast at Eclat that includes an array of traditional Japanese fare and your normal pastries, eggs, cereal, bacon, and drinks. After fueling up we change and head down. The resort has lockers assigned to each room, so we can lock up our boards and gear, rather than trudge everything up and down to our room. The powder is awesome today and it makes falling and trying new things so much easier. We make a couple of runs together and then I venture off a few times on my own, trying to perfect the art of carving and boarding toeside. There aren’t as many foreigners on the slopes as I anticipated but considering it is a Saturday, I never have to worry about running into anyone either. The wind picked up throughout the morning and it started lightly snowing by mid-afternoon. We never ventured to the top of the mountain on the An’nupuri Gondola, which drops you off 2,274m high; in fact it closed in the afternoon due to the high wind. With the wind and snow picking up, we decided to call it a day of snowboarding and agreed to venture into Niseko’s Hirafu area for a late lunch and exploring.Following up the meal with Hokkaido soft cream, we call it an early night—after the trip up from Tokyo and a busy day of snowboarding, it’s all I can do to watch 15 minutes of TV before collapsing into a deep sleep.

Natasha: Saturday, late afternoon
The Hirafu area is, to be honest, more along the lines of what I was expecting when we decided to head up to Niseko. While the An’nuppuri resort and area is perfect for families, romantic couples, or like us, friends who want to spend lots of time with each other and on the mountain, the Hirafu area boasts the Aussie-based social life Niseko is famous for. When I go to buy snow pants at one of the many gear shops in the area, I’m greeted with a casual, “Hey, how you going?” from an Aussie guy working at the till, and when we head into Paddy McGuinty’s, the Irish pub up the street, English menus are the default, our servers are bilingual, and there aren’t actually any Japanese patrons. Like I’d read, parts of Niseko are very much like being in Australia, and this seems to be one of those areas. If you’re single and looking, on your and warm place for a pint. The Niseko Visitor’s Information Center. An-on, the hotel’s Japanese restaurant. Dora particularly enjoyed the Hokkaido crab. If you’re hoping for some casual night life after the slopes, this area is probably your best bet. We spend a couple of hours in town eating lunch, doing a little bit of shopping, and pointing out the different shops and cafes, all cute and one-of-a-kind. As enjoyable as the town is, I’m happy to get back on the resort-area bus and head ‘home’ to our hotel, which is incredibly warm, cozy, and as casual as it is ‘designer.’ The huge windows in many of the hotel’s public spaces make it the perfect place to be in this weather, picture-3which turned into near-blizzard conditions while we were enjoying our pints. Since we wouldn’t be able to see where we were going thanks to all of the snow, we’ve called it a day in terms of snowboarding, but I’m excited to see all of the powder piling up for tomorrow.

Dora: Sunday morning
Ughhh, I’m sore, every muscle in my body aches. It’s still snowing but not nearly as much as last night. I think the crab is still digesting in my stomach from last night’s dinner. We ate at An-on in the hotel and had a delicious six-course Japanese set meal. The sashimi was delicious and just melted in your mouth. I’d been dying to have Hokkaido crab, and ordered some grilled legs as a side, mmmm, so moist and tender, a true regional delicacy. The crabs here are abundant and huge and can be found at most gift shops; you can even have them shipped home! I can’t believe today is our last day here in An’nupuri! I still haven’t experienced the hotel to its fullest and gone to the spa, received a massage, or relaxed in the indoor onsen. In fact, there is so much more to do than just ski or snowboard. The hotel can help arrange snow trekking, cross country skiing, winter rafting adventures, and a variety of activities suitable for children. So much to do in so little time…well, we’re off for our last hurrah on the slopes!

Natasha: Sunday, late afternoon
Like Dora, I can’t believe our weekend in Niseko is over already! We’re on the bus on the way back to the airport, and in just a few hours we’ll be back in comparatively balmy Tokyo. I can’t wait to come back to Hokkaido, and not just for skiing—the so called ‘green season’ is just around the corner and there are lots of fun activities coming up then too: horseback riding, white water rafting; even the chance to milk a cow! For those looking for a weekend away to escape the dreadful heat of Tokyo in August, this might be just the place to do it.