A network of ski areas around the small resort village of Hirafu on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, see almost constant snowfall from December to April.
I am barefoot and naked padding along a stone path in the depths of Japanese winter, surrounded by snow-laden pine trees. I slip into a hot pool fed by natural underground springs. Huge, slow-moving snowflakes gently settle on my hair. In the dusk I can see just a few vague figures across the pond-size area — other women barely visible through the steam.
Earlier that day I had been communing with the snow in a more conventional way, skiing my way through deep blankets of powder on Mount Annupuri in Niseko. The network of ski areas around the small resort village of Hirafu on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, see almost constant snowfall from December to April, a type of “Champagne powder,” as aficionados call it, that is a result of low pressure systems over northeast Hokkaido meeting high pressure systems over northwest Siberia. The winds from Siberia pick up moisture from the Sea of Japan, and the resulting bands of clouds dump huge amounts of snow when they reach the mountains.
The 2010-11 ski season ran 165 days, Nov. 29 to May 12, and many days saw fresh snowfall. The beginning of this season could break the 50-year record, with 16.7 feet in December, the most since 1964.
“Sometimes the snowflakes here are large enough to cast shadows,” said Pam Marks, a transplanted Canadian ski instructor who took me out on the mountain, adding that the skiing and snowboarding on even the regular slopes compare with world-class backcountry experiences she’s had in North America.
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The landscape is breathtaking. While the beauty of the Alps and the Rockies is intense and dramatic, these slopes are subtle and somehow mystical. Even the way the snow falls, constant and gentle, creates a particular kind of quiet; as I made my way down the mountain, I couldn’t even hear the sound of my skis in the powder. Bare birch branches peeked out of the ghostly white mountains. This sparsely suggestive backdrop, and the meditative onsen (natural Japanese hot springs), can turn any skier into a haiku poet.
Niseko was coined the “St. Moritz of the Orient” by insiders in the 1960s, but the area still remained seriously under the radar until the ’90s, when it became the preferred playground for Australian snowboarders tipped off to the powder. Now, despite avid interest from well-heeled Asian skiers who arrive from places like Singapore and Hong Kong at Hokkaido’s new international airport, New Chitose, there are no waits for lifts even during holidays, and the resorts remain authentically Japanese.
I visited in early February of last year, about a month before the huge earthquake hit the eastern coast of the country, setting off a tsunami and the nuclear plant crisis at Fukushima. Thankfully, Niseko remained largely unaffected (the mountain area is more than 500 miles northwest of the site), though local hotel and condo owners in the area did host refugees from areas closer to Fukushima last summer.
Local business owners say that the tourism market here is holding up this season despite travelers’ initial wariness of returning to Japan after Fukushima. C.J. Wysocki, a Hong Kong lawyer who developed a complex of luxury condominiums here, said that holds particularly true for Asian visitors. He has seen a “a huge uptick in the last few weeks after it became clear that the snow was going to be epic this year.” Wysocki discovered the area on a company ski trip and pointed out that it holds a unique appeal for anyone who wants to “go from Hong Kong to skiing in about six hours (end to end) with no jet lag, and even less time from Beijing or Shanghai.”
The two- to five-bedroom units in the complex, which is called Suiboku, are privately owned but can be rented like hotel suites. Custom open kitchens, stunning views of Mount Yotei (the perfectly symmetrical dormant volcano that provides the resort’s backdrop), heated repurposed wood floors, antique Buddhas, and tubs big enough for a whole family that look onto the snowy slopes, make each apartment feel luxurious but not over the top.
There is also a formidable food scene here. The Niseko area benefits from particularly rich and diverse local produce and seafood, not to mention general Japanese precision and quality. Though the area is far to the north of Fukushima, the local chefs are still vigilant about food quality in light of the disaster, relying on both their own testing and continuing inspections by government and private companies.
James Gallagher, the owner of Ezo Seafoods, a tiny restaurant and raw bar on a side street in Hirafu, where I ate briny, buttery oysters and snow crab legs, said that the safety issue is something restaurant owners are aware of, but luckily the damage has been limited, both in terms of actual physical contamination and consumer psychological reactions. “Probably 1 in 10 overseas customers raise the issue,” he said, “but those who have made their way into the doors of a seafood restaurant — many of them regular seasonal customers — have already made up their mind that it is safe to consume.”
Gallagher has been monitoring everything that comes from Japanese waters and hasn’t discovered anything out of the ordinary near Hokkaido, thanks, he believes, to the fact that currents in the region move to the south. To reassure customers he changed the restaurant’s tagline from “Hokkaido Seafood” to “Fine Hokkaido and World Seafood,” incorporating Alaskan king red crab and Thai shrimp and tuna from the South Pacific when necessary; he has also added more vegetarian options.
With restaurants and hotels doing well this year because of ample snowfall, local business owners feel that they have weathered the disaster relatively well. If the growth continues, however, other challenges arise: How will this small area be able to meet the expectations of such a diverse and concentrated group: Australian skiers, Japanese families and the Asian moneyed set who are looking for their equivalent of Aspen and Courchevel with cutting-edge condos and high-end restaurants? The infrastructure of the town is still that of a small village, not of a red-hot winter resort. (The architect Riccardo Tossani has been charged with redesigning Hirafu; heated roads and sidewalks are among the planned features.) But thus far the pristine snow and low-key vibe seem to be keeping each demographic happy.
On my last day in the region the sun had come out, and Mount Yotei provided the perfect backdrop to the snowy slopes. I skied for hours on the week’s accumulated powder, then made my way to Gyu (the Fridge), in Hirafu, a spot one enters by hunching through a vintage refrigerator door. In the wood-paneled, cozy space, cool Tokyo types sat sipping local whiskey (there is a cult of Hokkaido single malts) and listening to tunes from the handpicked jazz records. The scene was so cool, hidden away and pitch perfect that it was hard to believe it even existed. Much like Niseko itself.