Winter Tales From Niseko Village (Japan)
Japan will not be the first country to spring to mind when it comes to skiing (if you are living in the west). It is more associated for spring blossoms, sushi, ancient temples, Mt Fuji and high tech gadgetries among other things. But there is a winter wonderland surprise in the backcountry of Niseko Village in the northern island of Hokkaido. Accessed by a 3-hour road journey through mountainous road from Sapporo, it is as different from Tokyo as yin and yang, a perfect place for a spot of Zen. This is rural Japan with swathes of farmlands punctuated by hamlets and villages against awesome mountain ranges. The winter landscape is a symphony of powder snow and stunning landscape– the dream of skiers and winter sports adrenalin junkies.
This travel article is about our experiences in Niseko Village in December.
Niseko Village is a premier and most famous ski resort in Japan and is the winner of Japan’s Best Ski Resort in 2015. It boasts of the best and longest skiing and snowboarding trails through beautiful natural forest. It also offers one of the steepest courses for ski wizards while the gentle slopes are perfect for beginners. From December to April, skiers from Japan, Australia and Asia descend upon the normally quiet village as ski resorts reopen for the season.
Green Leaf Niseko Village
I am staying at the Green Leaf Niseko Village, a purpose-built ski hotel with ski-in-ski-out facilities right at its doorstep. It was originally built to cater for school parties so the design is more functional than luxurious though my delightful corner suite is like an observation deck with floor to ceiling windows that command a stunning vista of the snow-covered landscape. The resort is built at the foot of Mt Niseko An’nupuri that rises to an altitude of 1,308m with groomed ski runs for beginners as well as the experienced. It shares a gondola service with Hilton Niseko Village, the posh sister hotel of Green Leaf Niseko Village and winner of Japan’s Best Ski Hotel.
Aside from skiing, there are other snow frolics to enjoy. I decide to sign up for a snowshoe trek that entails large contraptions that look like tennis rackets on steroid strapped to my snow boots. My guide Naomi commandeered my party of four into the woodland by Hilton Niseko. It is quite laborious to walk on these snowshoes through the thick snow and we look like a family of yeti clumsily leaving giant footprints on the snow. With adrenalin still pumping, snow mobile is next on my agenda. Goggles and helmet on -checked, ski pants and snow boots on-checked. Riding tandem with a resident guide, off we go sledging through the powdery snow. Every time we encounter a dip or mogul, the guide will accelerate to spice up the thrill of a rollercoaster. I cling on to the machine for dear life while we navigate the vast snowfield, which is a golf course in the summer under the shadow of the majestic Mt Yotei. Today the sun is shinning with blue sky and Mt Yotei is practically illuminating in its full glory. Standing at 1898m high, it is quite a diva of a mountain and is known locally as Ezo Fuji, a smaller version of Mt. Fuji. The scenery around this dazzling vista is breathtakingly stunning and now and again we would stop and savour the sheer beauty of the snowfield against this moody mountain, which is a slumbering volcano, after having erupted three times in the past.
From Scotland With Love
Niseko Village is more than just a ski resort. There are small towns and villages to be explored nearby. In the “spirit” of exploring further afield from Niseko Village, a visit to Nikka Whisky Distillery beckons. Whisky is one of Japan’s favourite tipples and this top brand is produced in Yochi Town, about an hour’s drive from my base. The museum and showroom showcase its fascinating history and range of product. It was founded by Masataka Taketsuru, the first Japanese to study the techniques of whisky making in Scotland in 1918, at a time when the method was a closely guarded secret. At first the Scottish were bewildered at the outlandish ambition of this Oriental foreigner to grapple the secret of the brew from them. His passion for whisky and his persistence soon won their respect and they were willing to impart their knowledge to him. While in Scotland he met and fell in love with Rita Cowan, a local Scottish girl. She married him and they returned to Japan to pursue his dream of making authentic whisky. Rita embraced the Japanese way of life faithfully and supported her husband’s dream of starting a distillery. Theirs was a romantic and touching story of two people from different world and culture fighting against prejudice from both sides. Masataka went on to become a very successful whisky distiller in Japan and today Nikka Whisky is still thriving using the same technique that the founder had introduced in 1934. A feature film is reputedly in production in Japan presently to tell this amazing love story and the history of whisky distillery in Japan.
Skinny Dive In Onsen
Surrounded by volcanic mountains, Niseko Village is famous for its onsen, a natural volcanic hot spring. Its heat and minerals are purportedly great for health and relaxation of mind, body and spirit. After a vigorous day of winter sports, what better way to relax than to immerse in the open-air onsen. But be warned -it is a traditional etiquette to bathe in an onsen in your birthday suit so if you are of a shy disposition, it may be a bit bashful at first. There are separate onsens for male and female and Green Leaf Niseko Village has excellent onsens both indoor and outdoor.
There is nothing more snug and exhilarating than to soak neck deep in comfortably hot water while snowflakes float gently down on your hair and tickle your face….and soothe away the pain of aching muscles.
This travel article has described our experiences of Niseko Village in Winter which is covered in snow.
The Green Leaf Niseko Village (www.thegreenleafhotel.com) and Hilton Niseko Village (www.niseko.hilton.com ) are part of YTL Hotels in Malaysia. Green Leaf Niseko is open only in the white season from 1 December till 31 March yearly. Hilton Niseko is open all year round.
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