Growing up in Saigon, where it is hot and humid 11 months of the year, I found winter to be a luxurious concept. At the age of 20, I moved to Vail, Colorado. I saw snow there for the first time and became fascinated with the freezing cold. Once every year, as an “addict,” I find myself flying to a cold country to ski. My destination is often Niseko, the northern mountains of Hokkaido in Japan.
Mount Niseko-Anupuri (literally meaning ‘cliffs’) has an altitude of 1308 meters. The winter resort is known as a powder paradise and is the most famous in Japan. Every year, monsoons from Eurasia pull moisture away from the warm waters surrounding Japan and create huge snow clouds. The snow in Niseko is dense, smooth and dry as cotton. This helps an amateur skier like me feel more confident when I dive down the mountain slope – even if I fall, it will not hurt so much.
Winter in Niseko lasts from mid December to March, but the best snow experience is from late December to February.
Traveling to Niseko is easy. After a direct flight on Vietnam Airlines from Saigon to Osaka’s Kansai International Airport (KIX), I spend some time visiting the charming capital of Kyoto (an hour away from Kansai Airport on JR Lines Haruka express train). Then, I take a domestic flight from Itami Airport (50 minutes by Osaka Airport Bus from Kyoto) to New Chitose Airport of Sapporo. Niseko is located about 100 kilometers south of Sapporo, with frequent buses from New Chitose Airport. Like everything else in Japan, make sure you pre-book a few days before your arrival. Another option is to rent a car at the airport. Travel time from Chitose Airport to Niseko is around two-and-a-half hours. All the roads are covered in snow, and are slippery but the scenery is breathtaking.
Niseko United is a relatively small ski area compared to European ski resorts. It consists of four interconnected areas: Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu and Hanazono, of which Grand Hirafu is a mountain region with the most skiing slopes. From the foot of Mount Niseko, you can take the cable car to the highest peak to ski down. After feeling tired of Niseko’s slopes, you can also travel from Niseko Mountain peak to Grand Hirafu, but the path will be hard since you have to carry two skis, two sticks and walk in heavy skates shoes for about 500 meters on high snow-capped mountains. The weather and temperature at the top of the mountain are very harsh.
When I was there, I often had to walk in a snowstorm, with a temperature of minus 12 degrees. Within 24 hours, 25 centimeters of snow covered the mountain. The first day I stepped out of the gondola on the top of the mountain, when I just dropped my skiis, I was swept by the snow winds that I could not see anyone around me although they were standing just one meter away. I could not even see the snow under my feet. Skiers were groping in the misty white snow like the sight of ‘North of the Wall’ in the famous television movie Game of Thrones. A feeling of both fear and excitement is hard to describe.
An interesting experience in Niseko is skiing at night. The sides of the mountains are lit with golden lights, glimmering just enough to see the snow. It is colder and the wind stronger. Sitting on the two-seater lift chairs being dragged through the ravine, the cold gets into your bones. Our group of six went for a run in the middle of the night to escape the cold. It was very quiet, with only the sound of groomers shattering and shooting the snow backward. After seven hours we were tired and rewarded ourselves with a relaxing, 20-minute soak in the natural hot spring water (onsen), a special feature of Niseko.
A a popular tourist resort, Niseko has many dining options. The most unique place is the Rakuichi soba noodle restaurant in Annupuri – a Michelin Star restaurant where you must book two months in advance. It is a small wooden cabin with 12 chairs and three staff – the chef is the husband and the waitresses are his wife and daughter. I was lucky enough to experience eight dishes from the Soba Kaiseki menu (10,000 JPY) at this restaurant for my 30th birthday. Each serving is tiny but prepared with delicate sophistication. Diners feel amazed and long for more after finishing each dish. The famous duck soba is served last, before dessert, and is completely hand-made by the chef. When eating this noodle, or any ramen or udon in Japan, you need to make loud slurping sound, otherwise you make the chef feel sad.
Photos and article by: Trang Phan
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