Back in the 20th century, very few Europeans skied in Japan. True, there was (and still is) a Club Med in Sahoro, but for most people –even if they knew you could ski in Japan – it was too far, too crowded, too expensive, and too incomprehensible.
Then around a decade ago all that changed, thanks largely to Australians. As Australia’s economy boomed, Japan’s stalled, leading to something of a switcheroo in financial terms. Where once Japanese companies bought ski areas around the world (they once owned Tignes in France, Heavenly in the US, and Whistler Blackcomb in Canada) so the Aussies realised Japanese ski areas (and there are over 600 of them), were crying out for investment and skiers.
In Hokkaido, Japan’s ”wild north” island, the surf-loving Aussies found the world’s best powder in terms of both quality and abundance, and a local population that wasn’t very interested in it, with the added bonus for Australians at least that there was no jet lag – as they don’t have to fly (quite such) vast distances east across the Pacific to North America, or west to the Alps – prices were lower, the snow quality better, and the flight shorter if they just went due north.
So it was that Japanese skiing started to grab the skiing world’s attention far more than the 1972 Sapporo or 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics ever had.
Never slow to spot a ”new” international destination, British tour operators like Crystal began to offer ski holidays to Japan about 10 years ago, taking the worry out of arriving at a destination where you understood nothing, and had limited hope of finding an English speaker or signpost to point you towards the slopes, from their clients.
Hard-core skiers who had travelled much of the western world searching for perfect powder were in raptures about the famed snow and said there was nowhere better.
When I first landed in Tokyo 5 years ago I was the typical 40-something single male that makes up the typical Western-skier-in-Japan demographic (and actually the Japanese skier in Japan). I didn’t actually want to be there, particularly, but had been sent on an assignment (poor me).
I had expected the snow, I had not expected the wow factor of the scenery, the people, the food. I fell in love, and I thought, why is Japan just about the powder when there’s so much more?
- Take The Family
The concept of skiing in Japan with your family is not unheard of in Australia, or of course Japan, and even among a very few Brits. It’s just that all promotion of Japan in ski media tends to be targeted at 30- to 50-something males looking for deep powder skiing.
On the basis of my previous visit, however, I was unexpectedly aware that Japan can, in fact, offer a high-quality and affordable ski holiday, as well as something a little different, even to people who aren’t totally obsessed with powder snow. Or “normal folk” as I like to call them. Families included.
OK, ”affordable” needs some qualification I know. It is clearly quite pricey to fly to Japan, although not much different to any long-haul flight to North America’s West coast, for example, which is a similar distance away from the UK.
Once you get to Japan though, things do get more affordable – accommodation, lift passes, and eating all seem to cost rather less, like-for-like, than in the Alps and North America. This situation has been helped by a significant weakening of the yen against the pound – a delightful state of affairs for travellers to Japan, and a rare one for we Brits in recent years, used to the pound depreciating against most of the other major ski nation’s currencies.
Families will also be pleased to know an ever-growing number of Japanese resorts offer completely free skiing for under-12s.
Service in Japan is something else. It is neither the corporate “have a nice day” of the US, nor the “we’re efficient because that’s who we are” attitude of the Swiss. The Japanese just seem to like to help people, and for their guests to be happy.
Serving up good food rather than junk seems to be regarded as normal too, following the “why wouldn’t you?” approach.
Apartments and hotels are of high quality, and range from minimalist traditional Japanese style, to now luxury chalets of the Courchevel and Verbier variety, only at a fraction of the price (if you are well-heeled you should be able to organise a lux ski holiday in Japan for less than the French or Swiss equivalent, including travel).
And Japan is delightfully different from Europe and North America. There’s the volcanic landscape, the sushi, the onsen hot spring baths, that abundant snow, the fact that almost no one can speak English, and few of the signs are in English either. They even have the decency to drive on the left.
In short, it’s not difficult to take the family on a ski trip to Japan, there are daycare and ski schools with English-speaking staff if you need them in resorts like Niseko, and English-language menus with kids meals are often offered.
It feels nice skiing in Japan, it feels different, and you should feel lucky to be there.
Niseko is, as Whistler is to Canada, or Chamonix to France, THE Japanese ski resort most people have heard of. It is second in the world for average annual snowfall volume headed by Mt Baker, across the Pacific in Washington State, USA, but here it is far fluffier, lighter snow. This is due to the fact that the air bringing it over thousands of miles of mainland Asia before dumping on Niseko is toaster dry, as opposed to having crossed thousands of miles of wet ocean before being dumped on Mt Baker.
It’s also regarded as ”Japan-lite” by purists as it’s now full of Western-run hotels, chalets, and restaurants. English is widely spoken, and a lot of the signage is bilingual. There’s even an Irish pub.
It’s also in a stunning location, with the views from the slopes dominated by Mount Yōtei, reputed to be a 50% scale replica of Mount Fuji.
On the slopes there are four main ski areas, with the main sector Grand Hirafu located above the main resort town (actually called Hirafu, but generally what most people call Niseko)
But Niseko is not huge, there’s only about 48km of groomed piste in the whole place – tiny compared with well-known ski areas in the Alps, and it even feels a little small compared with many North American areas too. But for families, it’s the perfect size – plenty of variety to keep you entertained, including an excellent terrain park – but all on a manageable scale.
Off the slopes there’s a vibrant mix of Japanese and international culture, with wide-ranging restaurant and accommodation options, and plenty of great bars too.
One surprise was the wonderful bakeries, which serve up gorgeous homemade breakfasts and lunches in portions far larger, and for far less, than in the Alps. Graubünden was a particular favourite.
- Luxury Living
Accommodation options in Niseko are continuing to expand and improve, so there really is a lot of choice now, with competing providers and accommodation in all categories.
There are slopeside hotels and condos, ranging from utilitarian Japanese to new luxurious designer homes, equipped with private onsen hot springs baths, each with at least a seven-figure price tag for the owners, although often comparatively reasonably priced to rent (especially when compared with top resorts in the Alps).
Niseko Boutiques are one of several expert local agencies that source superb properties for rental, all of high quality, probably its most beautiful being Seshu, a three-storey, five bedroom, six bathroom designer home, full of art work selected by the owners, with facilities including a large hot tub, and a media room. There’s a shuttle service from the accommodation to the slopes, and a daily housekeeping service.
The company has a sister business, Niseko Gourmet, which can deliver food to your accommodation (whether booked through Niseko Boutiques or not), and it also organises fun activities like Japanese cookery lessons.
Putting the two together it has also launched a first for the resort, and something still rare in all of Japan – Niseko Gourmet Chalets – which, just like in the Alps, offer a fully-catered chalet holiday service.
- Tokyo Stopover
Skiing in Japan normally involves changing planes in Tokyo. After the 12-hour flight from London Heathrow there’s a 90-minute hop up to Sapporo. So why not spent a few days there?
Tokyo is a vast metropolis, home to 25m people, and looks like a scene from Bladerunner when viewed from above, stretching into the distance.
At street level, however, it is clean, calm and friendly – as you’ll quickly come to expect in Japan. Traffic flows efficiently because people drive at the best speeds, and let each other into gaps so things keep moving – an alien concept to M25 regulars, but quite a pleasant one.
There’s more green space than you’d expect, great shopping, thousands and thousands of excellent restaurants, open parkland, museums, Royal palaces and Buddhist temples. If you visit at the end of the season in early-April you can time your trip to coincide with the spectacular annual cherry blossom festival.
We stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, a chain that offers exceptional hotels in major cities worldwide, and, unlike some other luxury brands, you really feel you’re getting your money’s worth (rooms are from £270 per night).
Located on the upper floors of a 38-storey block, in the prestigious Nihonbashi city district, it is next door to Tokyo’s version of Harrods and shops like Ibasen, which has been manufacturing fans since 1590. Its rooms and suites (and indeed its spa and public toilets) offer spectacular views out over the city. It’s close to Tokyo Station, and attractions like the Imperial Palace.
Along with the tranquil spa, the hotel has a selection of restaurants, ranging from a remarkable pizza bar where an Italian master of the art creates pizza in front of you, to several Michelin-starred gourmet options, including a 3-week residence by the famous Noma planned for January 2015.