What do I love about snowboarding? You see, snowboarding requires soft, fluffy powder, and that means it can only be done in winter, and that means its going to be cold. And this means lots of layers of clothing. Given that the weather is cold, and usually wet since snow will melt when in contact with body heat, the sport doesn’t exactly sound great, does it? But the feeling of cruising down that soft powder on a great day with amazing views is something that not many sports provides. And to top the day off, ski resorts are really warm with all sorts of apres-ski activities including feasting on good food! Maybe that is why I like snowboarding, since its a comfort sport that one can do alone or in a group of close friends and family. Before I go on writing about Niseko, let me clarify I have indeed been spoilt living close to Whistler, and have taken time off my studies earlier in 2012 to appreciate the goodness that Whistler has to offer. So after experiencing one of the world’s best ski resorts, what is the big deal about Niseko?
To introduce Niseko, this ski resort is located in the north of Japan, about 2 hours drive from Sapporo, the largest city in the island of Hokkaido. The resort itself is comprised of 3 separate areas – Annupuri, Hirafu and Hanazono, which are actually areas around the face of one mountain. Compared to Whistler Blackcomb which is composed of 2 mountains, it was mediocre at best… This would mark the first time ever I stay in a ski resort for a week, and thus I was hesitant to buy a ski pass for the whole week. I chose instead to buy a 3 day pass first. Hirafu actually sells ski passes under several models, such as by a point system (using lifts requires 2 points, and gondolas needs 3 points), or by an 8-hour basis, on a per day basis and only day passes or more qualifies for access to all 3 ski areas in Niseko. There was only little savings to be had for multi-day passes, but since I am here from a long way out, I figured I might as well maximize my time here! In retrospect, the 8-hour passes (continuous) were perhaps the best passes for beginners since even the most advanced skiers rarely skis more than 8 hours a day. This method of selling passes means that I need a card holder since passes needs to be scanned as one crosses the gantry into the lifts and gondolas.
With all that I have said, I was blessed with good weather on the first day I snowboarded down Niseko. As some of my friends are beginners, I chose to start on unfamiliar terrain on the green runs. I thought they would be crowded like Whistler, and narrow, and filled with hard pack snow. The opposite turns out to be true, the reason why beginners should all go to Niseko is because the runs are great to familiarize yourself with the sport, and the snow is of such good quality that it is an ease to just let yourself fall into the snow! And there was nearly no wait for the ski lifts when you compare it to Whistler!
I did enjoy my first few runs on Annupuri but the best part was when we took a break for lunch as I had the best lunch in a ski resort ever! The pork katsu curry was delicious and really value for money compared to the expensive stuff you pay for in Whistler. However, the best part of my week-long stay in Niseko in the coming days. That was because the clouds cleared up for sunny blue skies on the second and third day of my snowboarding adventures in Niseko. And when this happens, it is time to soak in the views of the valley and the views of Mount Yotei, long considered as the Fuji of the North are fantastic from the top!
Furthermore, the meals I had on the next few days are unforgettable because they are actually meals I would crave for. One of my favourite was the crab ramen in Hanazono 308, located at the base of the Hanazono ski area. The crab ramen costs 1,500 Yen (probably equivalent to around C$17) and it came with a generous portion of sweet crabs! For dinner, it might be wise to head down to the small town of Kutchan which one can get to by taking a bus (last bus from Kutchan leaves around 11pm from Kutchan Town Centre), and I had one of the best meals in Japan there in an izakaya. Aside from the exotic whale sashimi I had, the chicken tsukune was so good we had seconds and maybe thirds. Food should always be part of the equation in any ski resort experience, just as Beavertails and Steaks at Araxi are a part of the Whistler Experience, Crab ramen and Izakayas are a part of the Niseko experience. This is because one does get really hungry at the end of a powder-ful day, and what better way to celebrate such a day through feasting?
Speaking of powder, there are lots of that in Niseko, and once it snows, the white stuff seems to be dumped out of nowhere the next morning. It is so thick that one can really get that ‘sinking in the snow’ in the mid-mountains, not something one can say in Whistler. Some of my favourite runs are from the top of Hanazono to the base and the intermediate runs in the top of Annupuri. And if one does not get enough of the snow in the day, the runs in Hirafu at night makes up for any lost time in the day!
At the end of a tiring day, I always feel refreshed the next day after a soak in the warm baths or in one of the onsens scattered around Niseko. This is probably why I actually managed to snowboard for all 6 days I was there. For someone like me who enjoys good food, great views and wonderful runs from the top to the base of a mountain, Niseko marks all the list of an excellent ski resort, and is definitely one I would return to!