“Don’t forget the pizza!” the instructor reminds us yet again as we push off with our sticks, feet firmly strapped into heavy mid-calf high boots with knees slightly bent, and attempt to glide gracefully down the slope. It’s a crisp minus 8 degrees Celsius afternoon; the winter sun that greeted us in the morning is now tucked behind the clouds and the wind beats incessantly against our goggled faces, but we’re working up a sweat underneath well-padded ski suits.
It takes all our concentration to maintain balance, but that’s the easy part. The real lesson is mastering the stop technique, the aforementioned ‘pizza’ created by bringing the front tip of the skis together to form an inverted ‘V’ and cruise to a smooth finish. In theory, it’s a breeze. In practice, it’s a lot of knee-jerking, with legs wobbling and skis overlapping rather than merely meeting – a recipe for comedic relief from the muscle-gripping sport as we take turns falling flat on our behinds, sliding out of control and crashing to a clumsy end against the safety nets.
It’s not the most graceful way to finish but not a bad experience in itself, as Niseko is the recipient of some of the world’s deepest snowfalls – between 12 and 16 metres annually, ranking it among the world’s snowiest resorts. Falling on the silky snow, which boasts a fine powdery quality, is not unlike flopping down on a giant cushy mattress. It’s tempting to stay down for a winter siesta while children as young as three whizz past nonchalantly and seasoned skiers zig-zag down the hill in no time.
Located approximately 100 kilometres south of Sapporo, the Niseko Annupuri mountain is home to several ski resorts and is ranked among the world’s top 10 ski destinations. An estimated 700,000 visitors come here annually during ski season from December to May, making a beeline for the Niseko Village Snow School. For half a year, the school is a flurry of winter sports activities as skiers, snowboarders and other enthusiasts have a go on the runs, their colourful ensembles speckling the all-white landscape like dots and blobs of moving – sometimes flying – colours.
The action doesn’t stop even after the sun sets, as some runs stay open for night skiing, when the experienced and the skilled can perfect their moves with far fewer crowds. For everyone else, it’s time to retreat to one of five resorts and soak in the outdoor onsen (natural hot springs) or get a rubdown at the spa before tucking into a fantastic meal prepared using the freshest premium seasonal produce that makes Hokkaido a gourmet’s haven.
Seafood and steaks
Boiled, simmered in a hot pot, shredded and served over piping-hot noodles, steamed in silky chawanmushi – there are many ways to enjoy Hokkaido’s famed crabs, particularly the snow crabs in season during winter months. At Niseko, you don’t need to venture far for a taste of the orange-shelled crustaceans as the two resorts closest to the snow school, Hilton Niseko Village and Green Leaf Niseko Village, provide six fine-dining outlets to satiate your cravings for the delicacy as well as other popular Japanese dishes.
At Green Leaf’s Goshiki, a casual all-day diner that recalls a modern yet cosy Swiss alpine cabin, you can tuck into a beautiful spaghetti pepperoncini with snow crab while enjoying spectacular views of the mountain and ski runs. Hilton’s Ezo Pub is popular at lunch, packed with hungry skiers refuelling after hours out in the biting cold by slurping up bowls of hot ramen in miso broth with snow corn and shredded snow crab meat. The ultimate crustacean cheer can be had at the dinner-only Crab Shack next to Green Leaf; here, the King Crab is served grilled and also in kaisen nabe (seafood hot pot) along with boiled hairy crabs and other seafood.
If you prefer your seafood sizzling rather than soupy, reserve a seat at Hilton’s Pirka teppanyaki bar, where seafood and other meat are cooked on hot plates in front of you and seasoned with six flavoured salts. Red-meat lovers will be pleased with the selection of wagyu fillet and sirloin; watch beautifully marbled slabs sizzle into a crisp skin while staying pink in the centre.
More bovine satisfaction can be enjoyed at Sisam, where you can cut into a melt-in-the-mouth grilled wagyu sirloin with vegetables and yama wasabi, a mountain radish with more zing than regular wasabi. The simplicity of the dish allows the meat to be enjoyed unadulterated as it stands very well on its own, being of A4 grade, the second-highest for wagyu. Meanwhile, Melt Bar & Grill serves a wagyu fillet with umami-rich green pepper corn sauce and potato boulangere that’s pure comfort on a plate. Another local specialty not to be missed is Wakimizu tofu. It’s made with water from a natural spring at the foot of Mount Yotei, which can be seen through floor-to-ceiling windows that wrap around the semi-circular restaurant named after it.
Yotei is where Hilton’s guests start their day, piling their plates from buffets of local and Western selections. Even if rice is not your usual choice of breakfast, you’d be tempted here as Hokkaido is, after all, Japan’s rice capital and was the first place in the country to cultivate the staple grain. Locally grown rice has a slightly glutinous texture best paired with wobbly onsen tamago (soft cooked eggs), smoked saury fish and pickled vegetables – a typical Japanese breakfast that’s easy to get hooked on.
On busy days, some 2,000 cream puffs fly off these bakery shelves. Those who arrive late console themselves with an array of other dairy and handmade pastry delights. For 17 years, Milk Kobo has drawn dairy lovers to its red farmhouse-like shop, just five minutes from the Hilton Niseko.
Mamoru Takahashi started this bakery-cafe to make use of leftover produce from his dairy farm, but Milk Kobo became so popular that all of the farm’s fresh milk is now reserved for its use. The milk owes its refined taste to the cows’ diet of grazing on Niseko’s natural pasture and drinking spring water that flows from the mountains. Everything that’s sold here – cheese cakes, éclairs, baumkuchen, fresh yogurt and ice cream are among the bestsellers – is made on-site, combining the prized milk with other premium ingredients to achieve the quality that has earned Milk Kobo its esteemed reputation. Its sought-after cream puffs were the brainchild of Takahashi’s daughter, Yuko Takai, who manages the café. And what a delight they are to sink your teeth into: crusty, chewy choux pastry gives way to a light custard known as shu cream that’s mildly sweet and silky. Their chocolate éclair is another must-try, filled with the same memorable cream made even better by the dark cocoa coating.
While Milk Kobo focuses on fresh milk, another red wooden building within walking distance of Green Leaf takes the fermented form to great culinary heights. At Niseko Fromage, former national snowboarding coach turned master cheese craftsman Noriaki Seki has won praise and awards for his Gouda, Havarti and handmade string cheeses. Between April and November, the fromagerie also churns out milk and Camembert soft ice cream. At other times, foodies can snap up packets of oven-toasted cheese crisps that come in flavours such as seaweed and chilli.
Crunchy and salty, they’re great to munch with a nightcap or après-ski tipple, for which you have great choices. Cosy up in front of a sleek, see-through fireplace at Green Leaf’s Tomioka White, a full-service bar dressed in dark brown fittings punctuated by pony skin print armchairs. In winter, the Ice Bar appears but changes location each year, surprising even repeat visitors. It’s essentially an igloo carved from a mix of snow and ice, furnished with everything made of ice, including the bar counter and drink glasses. Inside the bar, blue and yellow lights glow from behind frozen columns, creating an illusion of warmth amid frosty surroundings. It exudes an aura that sums up Niseko: Snow-clad and chilly, but still a breath-taking winter wonderland that welcomes you for a good time and great meals.