Thursday, August 13, 2020

Chills and thrills in niseko

Mar 31. 2015
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By JONATHAN WONG
THE STRAIT TIME

Japan's premier ski resort is increasingly drawing tourists from the US and Europe
There is something inexplicably calming about watching falling snow. The way it drifts gently in the breeze before – as if having made up its mind – settling onto a pile of fresh white powder.
My thoughts are abruptly interrupted as the chairlift ride ends and I soon find myself zig-zagging down and trying my best to stay upright on the aptly named “Don’t Blink” slope.
It is advice worth heeding as the scenery around me in this faraway Japanese town of Niseko on the northern island of Hokkaido, where winters are a fairy-tale white, is stunning.
Besides the breathtaking vista of Mount Niseko Annupuri, whose south-eastern face serves as the platform for four ski resorts, there is also Mount Yotei – nicknamed the Mount Fuji of Hokkaido – which rises majestically on the horizon across the Shiribetsu River.
Racing down the tree-lined slopes is intimidating and meditative as I marvel at the beauty of Mother Nature.
Alicia, my garrulous instructor from Canada, keeps an attentive eye on me as I miraculously manoeuvre my way around herded packs of Japanese schoolchildren and safely back to the start of the chairlift.
“One more time?” she chuckles.
It is an invitation too tempting to decline, not just for me, but also for the thousands of ski enthusiasts who descend in droves on Niseko United, Japan’s answer to Vail and Whistler in North America and Europe’s Courchevel and Zermatt, during the winter season which stretches from December to May.
Siberian winds interacting with moisture from the sea produce a massive 18 metre of snowfall on average during those six months and the snow here is regarded as some of the softest and lightest in the world.
With its second straight Japan’s Best Ski Resort title collected last November at the World Ski Awards in Kitzbuhel, Austria, Niseko United has earned itself a firm following.
It ranges from wanderlust Scandinavians and thrill-seeking Australians interested in off-piste skiing to Asian travellers – those from China and Hong Kong form the biggest group, followed by Singaporeans – who arrive with children in tow for a relaxing family holiday.
Niseko United comprises the major ski areas of Hanazono, Grand Hirafu, Annupuri and Niseko Village.
While skiing here can be an excellent form of exercise, it is certainly not a cheap activity.
Group lessons start from 7,000 yen (Bt1,900) for two hours, while renting a full set of equipment, including skis, poles, boots plus jacket, pants and helmet will set you back almost 10,000 yen. And that is excluding the full-day lift pass (5,000 yen) needed to get you up on one of the 24 available runs at Niseko Village.
After a day skiing, a dip in the outdoor onsen at the Hilton Niseko Village is like stepping into a warm fountain of rejuvenation, particularly when enjoyed with a hot Royce chocolate drink with marshmallows and whipped cream from the nearby Village Patisserie.
For those weary of the slopes, there are other activities to sample, among them a snowmobile tour around a figure-of-eight track and a gentle walk around the surrounding area.
A short 15-minute walk brings me to a gallery of sorts at the Green Leaf, a boutique hotel where original artwork from Japanese abstract painter Soichiro Tomioka and graphic designer Emi Shiratori are displayed.
I am told another work of art is nearby. Milk produced in Hokkaido is famed for its creaminess and, at the Takahashi Dairy Farm, owner of the cafe Milk Kobo, one cannot leave without sampling its yoghurt drink and cream puff, whose explosion of vanilla custard is worth the trek.
If you are staying at the newly launched and swank Kasara Townhouses, the personal concierge will help deliver these delicious treats to your doorstep.
After a satisfying dinner of scallops, oysters and sweet Hokkaido snow crabs at Crab Shack, I walk to the hotel. It’s snowing again and the moonlight is bouncing off the fluttering flakes.
Almost as if I was gazing at falling stars.
 
IF YOU GO
 

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