Why Japan Is One of the World's Best Ski Destinations
It’s hard to imagine a reason to break out the passport for a ski vacation when domestic destinations like Aspen, Jackson Hole and Park City beckon. Though it’s not necessary to leave the United States just to catch some air, if you’re looking to combine quality time on the slopes with a cultural excursion, Niseko, Japan, is the perfect choice. The mountainous resort town, located on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan, is home to some of the snowiest terrain on the planet. And it’s a two-hour drive from Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, where ANA runs regular 90-minute flights from Tokyo.
No trip to Niseko (and Japan, generally) would be complete without a stay at a hotel built around an onsen, a steaming pool of thermal hot springs. At The Green Leaf Niseko Village, the onsens are surrounded by rocks and snow-dipped trees, offering a fantasy-like setting to rest in after a day on the slopes. The hotel itself is simple and polished, with a lounge-like lobby, a ski-in/ski-out facility with rentals and lockers, and a prime position at the base of Mount Niseko Annupuri, where brand-new lifts connect guests to shops, restaurants and ski runs. Mount Niseko Annupuri is broken up into four resorts, which have separate ski lifts and gondolas. Don’t let this be confusing, because it’s not: The geography is pretty easy to navigate—there are maps everywhere—and all of these resorts can be skied with one ski pass.
It’s hard to have a bad meal in Japan, and Niseko is no exception. Vacationers can indulge a wide range of cuisines and dining experiences, from the rustic Crab Shack to the Michelin-starred Kamimura, renowned for its fine French food, to Kabuki, where you can watch a master teppanyaki chef prepare your meal. If you’ve got tofu and sashimi on your brain and you can’t bear to switch your ski boots for real boots, the casual Two Sticks izakaya offers Japanese pub food, which can all be eaten with (duh) two chopsticks. And if you’re up for adventuring beyond Niseko Village, The Barn by Odin serves up bistro-style cuisine, like chicken pot-au-feu and onion gratin soup, in a super-sleek, glass-walled barn in Hirafu, 20 minutes down the road.
Good food matters, of course, but every seasoned skier or snowboarder knows that what really sets a ski resort apart from the pack is the aprés-ski scene. And Niseko delivers on all fronts. Standouts include Ezo, the pub inside the Hilton at Niseko Village, which has views of the lower slopes and a range of sakes and local draft beers; and The Lookout Café, where you can drink hot umeshu plum wine atop the mountain. Meanwhile, Hirafu, the liveliest of the ski villages, offers a trail of great bars, including the ultra-popular Bar Gyu, known as The Fridge Bar for the tiny, snow-covered refrigerator door that doubles as an entrance.
Niseko gets a ton of snowfall—around 50 feet a year—so it’s likely you’ll experience a whiteout at some point during your stay. That’s OK, though, because even the most die-hard ski enthusiast needs a break. Spend a day "off" exploring the region’s other key industry: whisky. Some of Japan’s finest whiskies are distilled at the Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery, about an hour drive from Niseko. Take a tour of the facility, sample some of its rarest and priciest spirits, and stock up on gifts—and a little something fancy for yourself—at the on-site shop.
Après-ski sake, teppanyaki for dinner, curative onsen waters for achy muscles and fresh snow every day: all perks that make skiing in Japan a truly distinctive and culturally rewarding experience. And if it sounds like your idea of vacation paradise, it’s time to excavate your packable down puffer coat and dust off that passport.
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