Perhaps you worry Japan is bathing in the light of nuclear radiance. As our flight path seems to pass directly over Fukushima I look out the window. Rest assured, I saw no Simpsons-like green glow.
On arrival at New Chitose airport were met by a charming man who spoke not a word of English. As he was holding up a sign with our names we followed him to his van. What ensues is a driver with no English, passengers with no Japanese, a night of pitch darkness, very deep snow, and a two hour drive up a mountain. The snow is so deep there are no roadside reflectors: instead flashing lights hang vertically from elevated wires. It is 11.00pm before we arrive at our hotel and my nerves are slightly frayed. I felt sure we were going to end up in a snow drift, freezing to death overnight. I do tend to catastrophise.
|No, not Mt Fujiama, it's Mt Yotei in the distance.|
It is the promise of Niseko's famed deep, light powder snow that has attracted us. That and the opportunity to experience Japan for the first time.
What luck! It is a warmer season than usual (all that nuclear radiance perhaps) and 10 metres of base snow notwithstanding, we do not experience the knee-deep "champagne powder" we expect. It is probably just as well, as I have enough trouble skiing on firm, groomed slopes. We by no means complain! The snow is still extremely skiable, the scenery is magnificent and the food outstanding.
There are four ski fields on Mt Niseko Annupuri (Annupuri, Hirafu, Niseko Village and Hanazono) and you can access them all from about two thirds of the way up the mountain. This is useful, as if it is a little windy or too busy on one side you can move across the face to another area. There are 64 runs over 2,000 acres (I read this factoid - between us we ski less than half those runs) and about 40 chairlifts (covered and uncovered) and gondolas.
Skiing here is neither crowded nor expensive (at least no more expensive than anywhere else). The not crowded part may be due to our visit late in the season (24th Feb to 4th March). I understand Australian and New Zealand school holidays can overrun the place. I don't think we ever waited more than 5-7 minutes for a lift.
The only thing to do after a day on the slopes is to go to an onsen, a natural hot spring bath. These are unisex and there is quite an etiquette involved. You begin by stripping naked and washing yourself completely, rinsing off every skerrick of soap and shampoo - the pool is for soaking, not washing, and no swimwear is permitted.
The washing area is typically a row of low seats in front of a mirror (yes, really, who needs that?) There is a small wooden bucket, a flexible shower hose, shampoo and soap provided so you don't need to arrive prepared. That is other than for assaults on your modesty. You do have the benefit of a tiny "modesty towel" if you feel the need but there seems to be little point.
The pools are hot, about 40 degrees C, and if you are lucky the onsen you visit has baths both inside and out. The outside pools are especially delicious when the air temperature is zero degrees and it's snowing.
|ready to cook in a pot of stock at the table|
Everything was good and nothing more expensive than at home. Niseko is close to the coast so there is always fresh seafood, and the whole island of Hokkaido is more or less the garden for Japan. On the trip back to the airport, in daylight this time, we see huge snow covered farms that our driver tells us are potato fields.
Our daytime trip is more terrifying than the trip up in the dark: our driver speaks English this time and cheerfully informs us he has been to New Zealand to go rally driving. He shows us photos of himself and his rally car, though it must be said he was far younger in his rally driving days.
He proceeds to show us his skills are undiminished by time as we hurtle downhill (in a van, not a rally car) on a road that has a thick layer of snowy slush as a dividing line. As it is not in his nature to follow another vehicle at a safe distance, we frequently aquaplane across the watery median as he overtakes everything in his path, never mind the oncoming traffic.
Fortunately, he delivers us unscathed.
Would we recommend Niseko for skiing? Heck yes - but if you are looking for the powder experience wait til the last minute and check the season's snow reports - then book if it looks good.
|So you see the snow base is quite deep|
|and the fields are wide and open|
|and there's no-one there!|