Beautiful Powder Snow at Niseko, Hokkaido
"Part I - Hokkaido"
Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido, boasts some of the finest skiing and snow-boarding conditions in the world. Clear skies, uncrowded slopes and, most important of all, fresh powder falls everyday. This is a ski and snow-board dream destination and the Niseko resort is one of the best. Rival to any European resort, Niseko provides a great village atmosphere -- five resorts (Hanazono, Kogen, Alpen, Higashiyama & Niseko Annupuri) are situated close together and share Mt Annupuri, with their lifts all join up just below the peak. Be it for the novice, intermediate or expert, Niseko offers spectacular runs and absolutely breathtaking views on a clear day. Beside being the perfect base for a winter adventure, a bonus await for everyone after a hard day on the slopes -- relaxing in one of the open-air onsen and gazing up at the moon and stars!
After the week-long ski holiday in Nagano last year, the next best destination had to be Hokkaido -- guaranteed powder snow. Thanks to CY( a friend who is currently residing in Tokyo), we signed up for a JAL SKI package which includes domestic flight via JAL from Haneda to New Chitose airport, 4-night accomodation, 4 breakfast & transfer from New Chitose airport to Niseko. The moment we touched down at New Chitose airport, we were greeted by the beautiful sight of snow -- heaps of them! The hotel that we were staying, Hotel Nikko Annupuri, is one of the great ski-in ski-out accommodation in the village -- each room had a locker for the ski (snowboard) equipment and after putting on the skis, we could ski right down to the chair and gondola lifts a few hundred meters away! The hotel was well facilitated with 3 restuarants, a bar, hot bath(onsen was 2 mins drive or 5 min walk away) and the room & toilet were spacious (shower foam and shampoo provided). Oh, one thing to note -- all the toilets were equipped with heated seats and even automatic "buttock washer" (pls check out the picture -- can control temperature of water and speed of oscillation!) :P A shuttle bus operated between the 3 main resorts (Annupuri, Higashi-yama & Hirafu). Most nights, we head down to Hirafu for dinner -- the happening place with lots of eating & drinking place, souvenir shops, convenient stores etc. Fear not for those who cun read Japanese, there were English menu -- many Caucasians around. Thank goodness I could still remember my basic Japanese which make our venture into the restuarants resulted in "oiishi" food! Be cautious not to miss the last shuttle bus that leave Hirafu punctually at 9pm -- half an hour drive to Annupuri.
"Part II - Niseko"
Niseko slope rating are green for beginner, red for intermediate & black for advance (wonder what happen to blue?) -- the comprehensive ski map will indicate the distance, color and min & max elevation of the slope. Annupuri ski area is a good base for beginners - lots of green slopes and the path is long and wide. Higashi-yama is more for intermediate to advance. Hirafu caters to all levels (beware that the green slope is more of blue). Due to the cold weather, the triple/quad chair lift has a cover hood so that passengers dun have to shiver in the cold! There are rest stops cum restuarant at the 3/4 point and top of the mountain -- a hot bowl of ramen is my favorite lunch! Crossing over between resorts can be done at the 3/4 point and top of the mountain -- even have T-bar to pull you up the gentle slope! This year, I had a good start -- everything was in perfect conidition! My ski and boot fit well on first try and after a couple of runs down the slopes, I was back in shape and ready to take on more challenge. The addictive speed sensation and perfect snow condition juz made each run more exciting! It snowed practically everyday while we were there! Though great to have soft powder snow, visibility could become real low -- there was one day when weather changed while we took the gondola up from the base to 3/4 pt. Wind was howling, snow pinching the face and cun see beyond a couple of metres in the thick mist, I followed the only visible guy in front and realised later he was taking a steep red slope! Another time, took a wrong turn and nearly ended up in black slop with morguls! Managed to stop in time, took of my skis and trek back up the slope :) Had only a couple of bad falls this year (countless at Nagano last year!) -- did a flip in the air, landed face down, one ski & ear muff flew off; was cruising down a steep slope, tried to avoid someone who fell infront of me, cun stopped in time, ski off the path and sank into unpacked soft snow. Felt no pain though as cushioned by the thick snow and nice & ever-halpful skiers behind me helped to pick up my skis, ear muff etc. After 4 full days of skiing, I had to say that Niseko was my best ski experience with the promised powder snow and no-queue chair lifts. Will definitely go back for more!
"Part III - Otaru, Sappro & Tokyo"
Being my first visit to Hokkaido, did a couple of side trip -- Otaru & Sapporo. Otaru is a romantic town by the coast -- famous for the canal, fresh seafood, glassware & music box. With the help of frontdesk staff at the Annupuri hotel, we found a nice traditional Japanese ryokan, famed for good food at yen 8000 inclusive of dinner and breakfast. We took a 2-hr bus from the ski resort to Otaru JR train station. Arrived around dinner time, the owner, an old lady who speak a little English , showed us to our room to put our bags and then to the dining hall. Home-cooked food and the spread was yummy -- my first try at scallop(huge) sashimi and it was very sweet! After a good breakfast, we spent the rest of the day exploring the town - walked along the canal, visited the music box museum, had a fresh seafood lunch and lots of shopping. Then we took the JR train from Otaru to Sapporo. Check into Guesthouse Nonaka -- budget lodging with clean facilities at yen 3000 per night (without meals). Head straight for the Sapporo Beer Garden and tried the Ghengis Khan buffet with Sapporo beer for dinner :) The last day at Hokkaido was spent at the Ishiya Chocolate Factory (famous for white chocolate cookies - shiroi koibito), lunch at Ramen Alley (fresh scallop & crab meat as topping!) and more shopping. Took the night flight back to Tokyo -- completely overload with my shopping and happy with the good trip!
Had a 2-day buffer before and after Hokkaido. Met up with my ex-colleagues and had a good time catching up over dinner at izakaya (good food and drinks -- my special request for teba gyoza ); did ski-wear shopping at Jimbocho -- many huge stores selling ski/snowboard stuff; had yakitori dinner with CY & family + Noriyoshi who specially came down from Nagoya to Tokyo; joined a group of hikers(Friends of Earth) for a hike in outskirt of Tokyo -- highlight of the day was a beautiful frozen waterfall and we all went to an outdoor onsen at the end of the hike. It was a great ski holiday -- the nice & friendly people that crossed path with & the ever-yummy food. With the holiday over, I looked forward to start my new job -- good start to more good things to come for the new year!
Please check out my online album hokkaido_jan04 @ http://photos.yahoo.com/yeodoreen2