Happy snow in Hokkaido
Leave behind long summer evenings on a sweltering New Zealand beach for short days and subzero temperatures? You must be nuts. Or the prime minister. Or seriously interested in snow sports.
Northern Hemisphere winters don't come much whiter than in the north of Japan. Europe and North America are still go-to areas for keen skiers and snowboarders, but Japan, and particularly Hokkaido, has crept to the top of New Zealanders' must-ski destinations.
Economy, efficiency, cultural fascination and lack of jet lag are some of the good reasons to go, but there are many. Here are some of the best:
It's about the snow. To visit Niseko in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, during winter, expect to travel over snow, through snow, under snow. Prepare to have featherlight powder up your nose, down your neck and around your waist.
Niseko, thanks to its location, receives regular weather fronts from Siberia that bring a volume of powder - more than 17 metres this winter - that makes it the snowiest ski area in the world - recently edging out Mount Baker, in North America's Pacific North- West, which receives a mere 16m. The resort is internationally renowned for its consistent falls of the lightest powder, and its long ski season which runs from late November until early May.
Worried that it's not steep enough? Don't sweat. You can find terrain as challenging as Ruapehu's Pinnacles or Treble Cone's Gun Barrel. There's also heaps that is as family friendly as Happy Valley. The attractions of Japanese skiing are broader, and more varied. Trees (aspens and fir), pillowy moguls, chutes, ridges, seaside cliff jumps, powder bowls and vast areas of mountainous back-country mean you will find what you want.
Hot spring resorts in the snowy mountains were well-established way before snow sports boomed in the 1970s. A rush of chairlift building and institutional hotels sprang up in Japan's Alps, on the main island of Honshu, and on Hokkaido, where the capital, Sapporo, hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972. Some ski areas are locked in that time zone, but Niseko United - Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village and Annupuri - is developing fast, with beautiful architectural condos and self- catered apartments in the village and fast detachable lifts and gondolas on the hills.
ONSEN AND CULTURE
Is there a more civilised ritual than taking a couple of hours in the evening to soak away the day? The ancient bathing culture is luxurious, practical and meditative in equal measure, and one of the joys of a visit to Japan. There are dozens of hot-spring complexes within easy distance. They are invariably clean and well-priced. If you have time to go deeper and explore the artistic and religious culture, your interest will be applauded and rewarded.
All snowy areas have a ski tow of some sort and most schoolchildren ski a day a week as part of their education. Novel inventions such as ski-equipped wheelchairs for the elderly and community-owned snowploughs make living with perpetual snowfalls easy.
You'll eat less, but much better in Japan. Though Hokkaido is a dairy farming centre during the summer, the cuisine is based on leaf and root vegetables, glorious seafood, tofu and rice. It's lean cuisine that delivers all the energy you need without the artery cloggers. If you need to feed that addiction, there are outstanding venison burgers at J-Sekka and upsizeable-quality beef patties at Ezo Pub. Local whisky (single malts as good as scotch) and craft breweries keep things interesting.
No, really - they're here to ski, and they're OK. I had been warned. But there in J-Sekka, the cute cafe-deli that serves tired apres skiers at all hours, the Aussie twang was unmissable even among the Euro and Asian babble. "Do you want a flattie or a 'presso?"
As soon as you mention you're heading for Niseko, people will tell you about the Australians, who account for around half of the ski area's incoming winter visitors. They inhabit the fabric of the place and warble and josh on the gondola as if they're bagging Kiwis on Bondi Beach. But that keeps that atmosphere light and the beer cold. Just make sure that you beat them up the hill on a powder day (that's most days).
The writer travelled with the assistance of the Japanese Information and Cultural Centre.
The Dominion Post