If you’re a fan of skiing, you will have likely heard of Niseko, a resort on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Since relocating to Asia over five years ago, Niseko has been on travel expert Blanche’s bucket list. A trip to the powdery slopes of Japan’s premier ski destination did not disappoint, delivering not only on world-class skiing but also friendly locals and fantastic food.
Like most people, I went to Niseko for the powder skiing, but as soon as I landed at Sapporo’s airport and looked out the window to see the aircraft ground handling staff bowing respectfully to the plane, I knew there were going to be plenty more reasons to visit Niseko than just the snow.
As I approached the gondola on the morning of day one, dreading the imminent and unavoidable awkwardness of trying to fit my fat skis into the door rack, a gondola staff member swiftly lifted my skis from my hands and ushered me into the bubble while he took on the rack. And as I climbed out of the gondola at the top, a staff member stood there smiling, already holding my skis for me. Who were these kind and helpful gondola heroes?!
While the chairlifts weren’t heated like they are in some resorts, the staff more than made up for whatever was lacking in comfort by brushing off the snow from the seats, and holding back the chair behind you to slowly release it and smooth your transition to a seated position. All with a smile, a bow and an enthusiastic thank you or “arigatou gozaimasu”. This experience could not have been further away from some of the colorful encounters I have witnessed between chair lift operators and skiers in Europe and North America.
Yes, the snow was incredible (I don’t think I stopped grinning for the entirety of my stay), but the best bit about skiing in Japan were most definitely the people and the food. During the day, I loved being able to sneak off the slopes to enjoy an udon soup at the family-run Boyo-so, or munch on a katsu curry within the contemporary design of the Lookout Café. At night the food options were endless – from low key fish feasts at Ezo Seafood, unexpected little izakaya finds and sensational ramen at Asahikawa Ramen Tozanken to swanky Australian establishments like The Barn by Odin and remarkably good pizza at Niseko Pizza.
Walking around Hirafu, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone – locals and tourists alike – seemed to be smiling, and that people were kind and respectful towards one another. And whilst there is no reason why they shouldn’t have been, but yet I had never before experienced such a blanket feeling of contentment around me. It was a special and awakening feeling, and yet another reason why I will most definitely be returning to Niseko.