‘It’s the worst season for 12 years: no decent powder since December.’ Not what European snow refugees want to hear of Niseko, Japan, the powder Mecca of the world!
We had a tough time reaching our destination, which gave rise to high hopes of the fluffy white stuff: plane two hours late because of snow storms. On arrival we find we have missed the last bus – it is now 11.45 pm – so we manage to track down a taxi. As he slithers off in the swirling snow, we wonder if he even has snow tyres; visibility is zero, Ross reclines his chair and his eyelids drop; I – wide-awake – notice that the driver is constantly consulting a map and making frantic phone calls. Oh dear! We trundle though banks of snow, at least four feet on either side, with only red arrows marking the way for company. I, too, eventually succumb to sleep, to be woken sharply by a sudden stop: a traffic light – we must be nearly there! After more wrong turns and reversals (both awake now) we finally see the Hilton hotel, all 520 rooms of it, looming like a spaceship in front of us. It’s 3 am…
We wake late and set off to hire equipment. The reason we chose the Hilton is because it’s one-stop shop – equipment hire and gondola are right there, true ski-in, ski-out. It’s Chinese New Year though, and we are late: the equipment is limited and there is no helmet large enough for Ross’s huge head. So he has to buy a silly hat.
We have a lesson booked with Gabe, a friend of our chum George, who is an instructor in Champery by winter and runs a surf school in Polzeath in summer. Well, it’s a lesson for me as I am still nervous about skiing after my numerous accidents and continuing whiplash and sore back. Told it’s going to be heaving in Niseko due to the holidays so I am doubly anxious. Gabe gives me some new techniques which convince me I do know how to ski – we even do some trees on our first outing – and he shows us around the resort. In fact there are four main areas which all link at the top by little baby lifts – a couple are one-man chairs, which I’ve never seen before, especially with no safety bar!
It seems more than strange that the normally rule-bound Japanese play little heed to lift safety – virtually none of the lifts have safety bars or foot-rests, but they do brush down every seat obsessively, snowy or not, bowing and saying the equivalent of ‘Have a nice day in Japanese’ – it is a polite society, as you know. Yet if you go under a rope or into the strictly off-limits terrain, which divide each area, your pass is confiscated and, in severe cases, you are punished!
My Japanese ski-teacher, Chie, with whom I had a morning on the last day while Ross went gully-jumping in Rusutsu with the head of the ski school, tells me it’s all down to who has invested in which resort. The worst lifts are in the Japanese-owned area, Hirafu, while the Malaysians, who own Hanazono, have the most high tech gondolas and lifts – some even with wind visors and footrests!
I am pleasantly surprised by the emptiness of the slopes despite the warnings from the gloom-mongers. We decide the slowness of the lifts contributes to this, regulating the flow of skiers, no bad thing. In addition the slopes are extremely wide, but what is unique are the great trails through the white birch and larch trees, which cover the slopes. There is even some remnant of the soft stuff there, and we can carve new trails. One morning after a light dusting of snow, Ross has me skiing half-pipes, gullies and ridges, then winding through the trees like a bobbin on a loom. Even he is surprised at how I manage – but I put it down to the snow which, while considered poor in Japan, is pretty good by European standards…it’s like spring skiing towards the end of the week as we have uninterrupted sunshine and magnificent views of the active volcano Mt Yotei, rarely seen in February (its normally blizzarding and providing six feet of powder every day!).
Eating on the slope is more of a challenge though – most of the restaurants are American-style monstrosities serving burgers and hot dogs, but on Gabe’s recommendation we find a Japanese restaurant, Boyo-so, where we queue up for different types of ramen and miso soup every day. Tea and water are free, but Ross enjoys a large bottle of Sapporo to wash his soup down.
The only downside to Boyo-so was the loo, a long drop. I did laugh when Chie, who is going to Meribel for her honeymoon said, ‘Is it true in France the toilet is a hole in the ground – no paper?’ I reassured her that this was a thing of the past and certainly Meribel is very up-market these days. ‘How do you like Japanese toilets? Hot seats, water jets?’ I said I wasn’t sure about the water jets. ‘Me too, but good for poo. Very clean. I don’t like the dryer though.’ Yes, dear reader, they have bottom dryers too. Who wants hot air up the fanny, apart from Gwyneth Paltrow?
Anyway, loo chat aside (later when I had a massage, birdsong erupted from the loo as I sat down! I think sound-masking is one of the USPs of Japanese loos) she taught me a new technique, called ‘Open door, shut door’. Basically you don’t plant your pole when doing more gentle piste skiing but move your arms as if you are opening and shutting a door. It seems to work quite well but don’t recommend it when doing steeper slopes, trees or gullies!
Off the slopes and back in the hotel we adore the onsen or hot spring. Niseko is famous for its health-giving sulphur waters (420 C). Each afternoon, I don my kimono, grab two towels, one for drying after and one for ‘modesty’, though few people seem to use them for this purpose but rather put it on the head – it doesn’t do to get a cold head, and set off for the onsen.
First you must wash yourself very thoroughly; there are several cubicles each with a stool, a shower attachment and shampoo, conditioner and shower gel. Then I go into the indoor pool for a bit – it’s only 18 inches deep so you crawl crab-like along the bottom to get a mountain view; after 10 minutes or so I go outside – yes, outside, completely starkers too – and lower myself as quickly as possible into the steaming outdoor pool, which has stupendous views of Yotei and big carp swimming in the natural overflow area. There I meditate and practise my breathing. After 15 minutes or so, I emerge and take a cold shower. It is surreal and timeless in the onsen: there is no doubt that the Japanese women are so much more beautiful and elegant with their pale marble skins than we lumbering Caucasians; they come in family groups, mothers, children and grannies and gently murmur while the steam swirls around them. It could be the 18th century.
We also eat lots of delicious Japanese food – and some not so delicious. I find I am a bit squeamish when it comes to snails/whelks/sea urchins (actually quite a special taste), gelatinous and bristly types of fish and hairy crabs. The hotel is pretty expensive but we try the teppanyaki set menu one night on the German manager’s recommendation. Beautifully prepared and executed, but we get a meal for two and even three in Hirafu town for less than half the cost of one hotel set menu! I will post a separate blog of food photos. The Chinese are naturally here in droves because of the holiday: the first night we witness a rowdy group of young, acting like Bullingdon Club members: ‘I wanna vomit; I have vomited’; seems more like a practice in English declension. When they leave they are literally legless, and a couple have to be supported out of the restaurant.
So how does it compare to Europe? Well, the snow – the off-piste looks tantalizingly amazing, you can sense what it would be like in good conditions, real back country terrain – and the relative lack of people are definite winners for the keen skier; but the restaurants and safety elements leave a lot to be desired. If there was a next time I would not stay at the Hilton but rather in Hirafu village where cheaper accommodation and food can be found, in which case you could probably have a slightly less expensive holiday than we did. But we would miss the onsen!