I could hear voices – some Japanese, a bit of Russian and laughter from a group of Aussies – but the air was so thick with steam I couldn’t figure out how many others had joined me in the open-air hot volcanic pool.
My husband and I had to come to check out Yukichichibu, a Japanese onsen, because the healing minerals of the sulfur-laced water were supposed to be regenerative. And we were in desperate need of some rejuvenation after our first day of skiing in Niseko.
Given the relative proximity of first-class ski resorts such as Whistler or Tremblant, why fly all the way to Japan to shush down a slope? The answer is simple: The combination of abundant snow, plus the quiet charm and hospitality of the locals, makes for an experience like nothing at home. For years, Niseko was barely a blip on most skiers’ radars, but word of seemingly endless dumps of snow each night spread. Now it’s a go-to ski destination for an international clientele who come for groomed runs and accessible backcountry or a moonlight ski around the perimeter of Mount Yotei’s crater. And, of course, there’s the payoff. A soak in one of countless onsen, natural hot springs whose waters work wonders for tired muscles and aching joints.
So last Christmas my family flew to Tokyo (where we spent three days) before flying to Sapporo, the capital city of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island.
The drive from Sapporo to Niseko reminded me of trips my parents, brothers and I used to make in the 1970s to visit our grandparents in Southwestern Ontario’s Bruce County. The roads would be treacherous and snowbanks so high it felt like my dad was aiming his old green Chevy through a white tunnel.
Here, it also felt like we were wrapped in snow, with metre-thick drifts and buildings that resembled huge white hats. The difference was that, in this tech-savvy country, many stretches of the roads were heated.
To get a sense of the snowfall, Niseko receives an average of 15 metres of snow per season, with the bulk of it coming down from late December through February (by comparison, Whistler gets about 11 metres per season). We arrived at the island’s largest and most famous ski resort during peak snowfall season. Each night it snowed and in the morning, the powder was so deep and fluffy you felt like you could float through it.
Niseko is divided into four resort towns, Annupuri, Hanazono, Niseko Village and Hirafu (where we stayed at Alpen Ridge in a two-bedroom unit, with kitchen, that was ski-in, ski-out).
In the centre of it all sits Mt. Yotei, a volcano often referred to as Ezo (Hokkaido’s name before it was changed in 1869) Fuji because it resembles Japan’s highest mountain. On our first day, its snowy peak was silhouetted by a brilliant blue sky – a rarity it turned out over our week, and I’d wished I snapped a picture.
My husband and I are intermediate skiers so we stuck to Niseko’s 47 kilometres of groomed slopes, which were busy but not crazy. We never had more than a 10-minute wait at any of the lifts, and the hills are groomed to perfection. It was also rare to hit a patch of ice, at least until late afternoon, when all the gorgeous fluffy stuff had been plowed through. Our sons are much better so they quickly ditched us, heading to one of nine gates to the backcountry where, they reported back, you’re virtually guaranteed to find a blank canvas of deep, dry snow.
Niseko is quickly becoming more developed, a blessing (more amenities) and a curse, since the influx of new hotels is steadily encroaching on mom-and-pop businesses that offer travelers windows into the not-so-distant past. Still it doesn’t take much to wrap yourself in the rich Japanese culture by seeking out restaurants that celebrate the region’s sleepy village roots.
For midday meals we avoided the big hotels or resort-owned hillside huts and restaurants, which are pricey and full of Western fare (burgers, fries, pizza). Instead we asked around for the spots where the locals eat, ending up (several times for lunch because the food’s so good) at Bo-yo-so, a cafeteria-style restaurant on the hill that offers traditional dishes such as Butadon (grilled pork on rice with miso soup), tempura, ramen, soba and udon noodles.
Another highlight was Niseko Loft Club, an indoor barbecue restaurant about 20 minutes from our resort, which came highly recommended by a chap named Alister from Ski Japan. On the outside, it’s a wood beam structure that sits on the side of a country road. Inside, it’s toasty warm due largely to small cooking fires, which burn in the centre of each table (black smoke stacks cart away the fumes). The house specialty is jingisukan – also referred to as Ghengis Khan – a Hokkaido dish with lamb or venison. Each party gets a large plate of meat – arranged in the pattern of a beautiful pinwheel, with locally grown vegetables on the side – to cook as desired. It’s enough food to satisfy meat cravings for a year.
At Usagiya, a tiny restaurant in the nearby town of Kutchan, we were treated to classic Japanese hospitality by a couple who have worked magic in the kitchen for years. The menu was in Japanese, so we ended up with a mountain of food including dumplings, salad, sushi, black udon noodles, and a hot pot (called Nabe) full of finely chopped vegetables and chicken that simmered away in the middle of the table. At the end of the meal, which we gleaned was full of dishes special to New Year’s, the wife served us black sesame ice cream, their house specialty and a perfect way to cleanse the palette. As we walked out she bowed and gifted each of us with a tiny clay chopstick plate she had made herself.
It was such hospitality that led us to the Yukichichibu onsen, a local favourite because of its natural setting. The big draw for me was that it boasted a women’s-only onsen with mud that was supposed to make my skin glow.
But once there, I couldn’t find the mud.
I padded gingerly among the various outdoor pools but couldn’t spot a single soul simmering in the miracle goop. Finally, giving up, I sunk chin-deep into the steaming natural springs to meditate (i.e. sulk).
And then I found it. Directly below.
At this traditional onsen (in contrast to glossier versions at the hotels) you’re expected to get your hands dirty. So I dug in and scooped up mounds of the gritty elixir and spread it all over. Then I sat back and relaxed, content to watch the big fat flakes come steadily down.