Ernie goes to Niseko (Feb 2015)

The undisputed mecca of winter sports in Asia is Niseko, located on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Any devoted skier or snowboarder in the region has to make at least one pilgrimage to the collection of ski resorts at the foot of Mt. Yotei in their lifetime, and many find themselves going back year after year. In early 2014, Derek (Nepal, Shanghai, Taipei, among other trips) began organizing a group trip to Niseko for February, 2015, as a sort of farewell to his nearly seven years of working and living in Asia. Fortunately for us, Derek took care of all the logistics, booking a house (Wajima Niseko in Hirafu Village), making reservations for dinner each night, sending us links to book equipment and transportation, and keeping us posted on the latest flight information. All we really needed to do was show up. This would also be my first time traveling to Japan, and, even if everything else fell short, I knew that the food would be worth the trip.

There were 13 of us confirmed for the trip, though our arrival and departure times were staggered and spread out over a few days. By the time Ashley and I walked in the front door, a couple of our friends had already come and gone. Those who remained were Derek, Will (Ho Chi Minh, Kuching, Kenting), Ricky (Ho Chi Minh, Kenting), Yale (Kenting), Cecilia (Malaysia, Shanghai), and Alex (Switzerland, Austria, Kenting), as well as Janice, Rylie, and Lolly, who we knew from our bike trips in Taiwan. We met up with the group at Saika on our first night, a yakitori restaurant in the lower village with a warm vibe and cozy atmosphere. The food was incredible, all sorts of chicken parts cooked and prepared to perfection over an open grill, and it served as a delicious harbinger of what was to come over the next few days.

We rented our equipment online through Good Sports and had it delivered to our house the next morning. The Wajima houses are located only a few minutes walk from the slopes at the Grand Hirafu Resort, and after a quick breakfast, we strapped on our equipment and hit the powdered hills all morning and afternoon. The quality of the snow was unbelievable, and I’d never snowboarded in powder like this before. After years of carving the harsh ice and snow of southern Ontario, and the similarly icy conditions in Austria the year before, snowboarding in Niseko felt like falling in love again.

I found myself having to unlearn some bad habits after snowboarding on ice my entire life, and I was taking chances I normally wouldn’t. Trusting the terrain and the board became natural again, and even if things went awry, most mistakes were joyfully muffled in the thick layers of Siberian powder. There were moments when I felt like I was actually improving for the first time in forever, and I realized that there was a significant difference between a black diamond run on ice, and a black diamond run on cotton candy.

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The only bit of trouble I ran into was when we went up to the highest black diamond run one afternoon, the Ace Pair Lift #4, in the middle of a blizzard. I was effectively blinded as frost and snow crusted over my goggles and glasses, and the lack of shadows made it exceedingly difficult read the contours of the snow. The board and I ended up in a deep ditch, and when I took off my board to dig myself out, I could only watch with a dull dread as it zipped down the wrong side of the hills, lost in the wilderness. Paying the cost of the lost equipment was a painful lesson in stupidity, but, otherwise, the snowboarding was the best I’d ever experienced, and the powder was a revelation.

After a full day of snowboarding in Niseko’s lovely powder, we would soak our tired and sore bodies in one of many outdoor onsens in the area. The scene was like something out of a movie – snowflakes fell gently onto our heads as we quietly submerged ourselves into the steamy, rock-lined, hot springs, surrounded by giant drifts of snow piled up around the water. The atmosphere was perfectly peaceful and utterly relaxing, the snow and the steam muffling and swallowing all sound and disturbance.

Even if you’ve had a terrible day on the hills, or if onsens are just not your thing, Niseko’s food should be enough to make any trip to the mountains of Hokkaido a memorable one. The popularity of the restaurants in the village are such that reservations are a must, even weeks and months in advance. Among these restaurants, there are a number that together make up a circuit of must-eats in town, and we were lucky enough to eat at a few of them.  Saika, the yakitori restaurant on our first night, was one of them, and on our second night, we ate at another one. Abucha-2 is an izakaya joint near the top of the must-eat list in Niseko, and it certainly delivers on its considerable promise. We kept ourselves warm with a couple bubbling pots of nabe, and then ordered endless dishes of pork, chicken, dumplings, and seafood.

On another night, we ate at Ezo Seafoods, perhaps the most famous restaurant in Niseko. It specializes in the freshest of seafood, prepared and served simply so that the flavour of the food can speak for itself. They have a freezer bar by the main entrance where you can select your own meal, and we feasted on a number of fresh fishes, crab legs, sashimi, and a couple rounds of oysters.

During the day, we usually grabbed lunch at one of the cafeterias on the hills, where the food, while not spectacular, was still of decent quality. On our last day, however, we went to Niseko Ramen Kazahana to try their special ramen served in a creamy, potato-based, broth. It looks like it should be heavy, but the broth is actually quite light and foamy, and it was unlike any ramen I’ve had, before or since. We ate very well in Niseko, and, though I wiped out and fell numerous times on the ridges and valleys of Grand Hirafu, it was the food that brought me to my knees. Together with the thick Siberian powder and the unique onsen atmosphere they form the three wintertime pillars of Niseko, and its a combination found perhaps nowhere else in the world.

After an incredible few days of snowboarding, it was time to go home, except it wasn’t. There was a huge snowstorm when we got back to Sapporo, and the afternoon was spent updating each other on our different flight statuses. One by one, our other friends managed to take off in the blizzard, but Ashley and I ended up stuck in Sapporo for another night.  Our consolation prize was some truly amazing sushi at New Chitose Airport before heading off to the hotel that our airline had arranged for us. In the morning, we were told that the flight was delayed again, but, fortunately for us, we had a friend working with the airline and, with the information she provided, we were able to catch the next flight out. We had a few trips planned for the rest of the year already, but we had such a good time in Japan this time around that we ended up making two more trips to different parts of the country that year. Before any further travels in the Land of the Rising Sun could happen though, we had a family destination wedding to plan for, and a journey into the tea country of what was formerly known as Ceylon.

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