The white stuff at Niseko Village

With prodigious amounts of snow, affordable lift tickets and only a two-hour time difference, it’s no wonder Niseko’s Hirafu has become the darling of the Australian ski set. Every year this Japanese resort receives a deluge of Aussie skiers that’s only surpassed by the region’s legendary annual snowfall – up to 18 metres – earning it the rather unflattering nickname of “Perisher with chopsticks”.

Yet, here I am in the delightful Sisam Japanese Restaurant, feasting on grilled scallops with truffle sauce, surrounded almost entirely by well-heeled Japanese.

Tuna and shrimp sashimi in Sisam | Rob McFarland

The reason? For a start, I’m not in Hirafu. I’m in Niseko Village, a more exclusive resort on the same mountain – Mount Annupuri – with just three properties and a handful of high-end restaurants and bars. It attracts an altogether more discerning clientele who come here for fine dining and ski-in/ski-out convenience, not fast food and sake shots. The other factor is I’m here in March. Most Australians visit in January when, according to my guide, “four out of five days are powder days”. March is more of a gamble as far as snowfall, but the payoffs are fewer tourists, shorter lines and a much more authentically Japanese experience.

Niseko Village offers three accommodation options: the imposing 506-room Hilton, the more discreet 200-room Green Leaf and Kasara’s range of swish three-bedroom townhouses. From the outside the Hilton looks like the love child of a grain silo and a missile launcher, but inside it’s a welcoming haven of Japanese courtesy with a foyer featuring a suspended fireplace. It has seven restaurants, ranging from casual buffets to fine-dining options such as Sisam, which specialises in omakase tasting menus, and Rera, a sushi counter where chefs prepare delicate seafood morsels to order.

Hilton Niseko Village

The Green Leaf is lower-key, with just one restaurant and an intimate lounge bar where you can sip cocktails on a burnished chesterfield in front of a flickering fire. Both have the sort of big-property facilities you’d expect such as spas and gyms, but it’s the outdoor onsens that are the crowd-pleasers. If anyone’s found a better way of relaxing after a day on the slopes than watching the sunset from a steaming 40C geothermal-fed pool, let me know.

Kasara is the new kid on the block. Ideal for larger groups, each of its eight two-storey townhouses has three luxuriously appointed bedrooms with designer bathrooms plus a fully-equipped kitchen and a spacious lounge and dining area.

However, let’s face it, you don’t go skiing just to hang out in your hotel room all day. Aficionados rate Japan’s snow as among the best in the world, but does it really live up to the hype? While I could wax lyrical about the grin-inducing high of skiing knee-deep through champagne powder, all I’ll say is it feels so good, it should be illegal.

Top of the chairlift at Niseko | Rob McFarland

Niseko’s four resorts are all connected, so irrespective where you stay you’ve got access to some 70 runs spread across 887 hectares. Beginner and intermediate runs make up roughly 70 per cent of the terrain, but an innovative program means advanced skiers can tackle more extreme slopes once they’ve taken an avalanche safety course. There’s a good variety of runs, from wide, sweeping groomers to narrow, snaking, tree-lined chutes. Boarders are well looked after with several terrain parks and there are two areas specifically for kids.

As far as the weather goes, don’t come expecting brochure-blue skies. The rule in Niseko is if it’s not already snowing, it will be soon. The good news is the weather fronts come in from Siberia so the snow is so light and dry it blows off your hand. When the skies do occasionally clear you’ll be greeted by the mesmerising sight of Mount Yotei, a 1,900 metre-high, snow-capped, dormant volcano, which has Mount Fuji-like symmetry.

While there are enough dining options in Niseko Village to satisfy most palates, it’s worth venturing into the nearby resort of Hirafu at least once during your visit. It’s an easy 15-minute trip by free shuttle bus, and you’ll find the usual ski town mismatch of fast food joints and dive bars.

However, more sophisticated options do exist, one of them being Barn, a sexy, upscale Manhattan-style restaurant and cocktail bar with an impressive two-storey glass frontage. For more traditional fare, try Michelin-starred Kamimura, which specialises in a fusion of French and Japanese.

For a nightcap with a difference, make sure you check out Bar Gyu. Enter through an old-fashioned fridge door, order a dangerously more-ish Bailey’s Irish Cream-infused hot chocolate and soak up the ambience of this quirky drinking den. Now, you couldn’t do that in Perisher.

Fridge door entrance at Bar Gyu | Rob McFarland

Share this article