Chill out in winter wonderland

GUY WILKINSON
Last updated 05:00 07/12/2013
Melaka Landscape
Aaron Jamieson / Niseko Photography / Courtesy of YTL Hotels

WINTER WONDERLAND: Warming to Niseko: Green Leaf Hotel's hot pool - it's 40 degrees.

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With an average snowfall of 18 metres a year (yes, that's 18 metres), cheap lift passes and an exotic location on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, Niseko has long been an attractive proposition for skiers and snowboarders.

But beyond the ski slopes, the area offers many enjoyable experiences that tend to fly beneath the radar.

Japan's unique culture adds another dimension to a ski holiday, and although foreign influences may have marginalised local traditions to some extent, it's still a place quite unlike any other.

So before hoiking your skis up into the loft for summer, take a moment to consider carrying on skiing in Japan.

HOT STUFF

Truly one of the unmissable, uniquely Japanese cultural experiences, an onsen (hot spring) is a godsend for soothing muscles traumatised by a day of T-barring, parallel turning, carving, and/or falling on your arse.

Natural hot springs are everywhere in Japan and each has its own distinctive blend of sodium-rich minerals. Niseko began life as an onsen town in 1897 - and the legacy remains.

The ritual for bathing is simple; you strip, scrub yourself clean on a rickety wooden stool and then leave your inhibitions at the locker room.

Though being naked in public is definitely an awkward transition initially, any prudish Western sensibilities are quickly discarded upon sinking into the healing waters.

Two of the best onsens are located within Niseko Village's Hilton (niseko.hilton.com) and Green Leaf Hotels (thegreen leafhotel.com),offering vastly contrasting styles.

The Hilton contains a slick, modern indoor facility with panoramic views across Mount Yotei as well as a rotenburo (outdoor bath) built beside a natural lake

. The Green Leaf offers both options, too, but the outdoor rock pool, a more authentic, old-fashioned style, is the obvious standout. Best enjoyed late at night, sipping a smuggled-in beer, though this is pure speculation, of course.

GOODNESS SAKE

Ski-resort bars can be shockingly monotonous affairs; endless snowboarding videos, baggy sweaters and low-pulled beanies, dreadful imported lager and woeful '90s rock anthems. Thankfully, this isn't the case here.

Within Niseko Village, the Ezo pub - located opposite the gondola - is a handy option for a beer straight off the slopes but most of the real action takes place in Hirafu, a 15-minute bus transfer from the Hilton.

Among the best is Bar Gyu (gyubar.com), known for its beaten-up fridge-door entrance. With an extensive whisky and sake selection, shelves stuffed with vinyl, and a laidback air; it has that homey, cozy feel, like an alpine hobbit's den where the booze is free-flowing.

Nearby, The Barn (nisekobarn.com) is a swish, glass-fronted bistro specialising in French cuisine, while Blo Blo (blowhardallyear.com) echoes Shanghai's glamour days complete with antiques and cocktail list to satisfy even the dandiest patrons.

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There are dozens more - bars shaped like igloos, rowdy foot-stomping affairs like Wild Bills, even bars carved out of the snow frequented by silent, shivering customers in oversized parker jackets.

If you're keen to really enhance the nightlife experience, you could even ski virtually straight to the front door of your favourite watering hole. Night skiing is now a major drawcard here - many lifts stay open until 8.30pm, while several runs are floodlit.

SOBA TYPES

Hokkaido is synonymous with great cuisine. As if to illustrate the point, Niseko has recently had two restaurants accredited with a coveted Michelin star.

In Hirafu, Kamimura (kamimura-niseko.com) specialises in a tasteful, East-meets-West fusion of French and Japanese styles while Maccarina (maccarina.co.jp) in the neighbouring town of Makkari is all about locally sourced ingredients with seasonal pork, beef and seafood dishes.

Many other restaurants stick to a single speciality. Between Hirafu and neighbouring town Annupuri, Rakuichi is an inconspicuous soba noodle joint accommodating a maximum of 10 people. There's no choice on the menu, the owners understand precisely how soba should be served and expect you to trust their judgment.

In Niseko Village, The Hilton (niseko.hilton.com) contains seven restaurants ranging from casual Western fare to high-end Japanese. Two of the best are Sisam, a fine-dining Japanese restaurant with a set or a la carte menu, and Rera, a sushi counter where the chefs prepare the food before your eyes. A lunchtime all-you-can-eat menu at 2800 yen ($30) in a one-hour sitting is great value.

If you're looking for a locally favoured apres-ski excursion, seek out one of the many Izakaya restaurants dotted throughout Hirafu; they're easily identified by a glowing paper lantern out front.

Essentially the Japanese equivalent of a late-night tapas bar, the drill is as simple: you pull up a stool, grab a cold beer or hot sake and tuck into a selection of late-night comfort food.

Dishes are cooked in an oden (a slow cooking hot pot) and generally served in a single bowl to be carved up and shared. Typical snacks include anything from boiled egg or daikon radish to sausage, tofu, fish cakes or grilled chicken skewers.

Coupled with an onsen, apres ski doesn't get any more Japanese than this.

PISTE DE RESISTANCE

To stay active without strapping on the skis or a snowboard, there are several options beyond staring vacantly out of a cafe window cradling a hot chocolate.

Snowmobiling adventures (blackdiamondtours.com) have become increasingly popular thanks to the extensive backcountry terrain and a one-hour guided tour is a thrilling way to get a feel for the area.

To continue the adrenalin-coursing theme you can book a variety of adventures including snow-shoeing tours, studded-tyre mountain biking, guided Cat tours and many more at the Niseko Adventure Centre (nac-web.com).

For families with kids, reindeer sledding tours (niseko-village.com) operate periodically throughout the season, while snow rafting (an inflatable raft behind a snow mobile) is another popular alternative.

The writer was a guest of YTL Hotels.

TRIP NOTES

STAYING THERE The Green Leaf Niseko has 200 rooms in ski-in, ski-out accommodation at the base of Niseko Village ski area. Higashiyama Onsen, Niseko-cho, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido, from from ¥28,600 ($308) based on double occupancy. See thegreenleafhotel.com.

The Hilton Niseko Village has 500 rooms located at the foot of the Niseko Annupuri Mountain, Niseko, Abuta District, Hokkaido Prefecture, from ¥34,650, see niseko.hilton.com.

GETTING THERE Korean Air offers direct flights from Sydney to Seoul with ongoing connections to Sapporo from $1340 return. Niseko Village is a three-hour transfer from Sapporo. Phone (02) 9262-6000, see koreanair.com.

MORE INFORMATION niseko.ne.jp.

- FFX Aus

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