The powder and the glory

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The day begins with an explosion. Several, in fact, rumbling like thunder through the early morning snow.

“Do you know what that is?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say avalanche control.”

“Very good guess. Well done.”

Seasoned skiers must be used to the sound, but a seasoned skier I am not. I’ve travelled to Niseko, Japan on a gamble. It’s about time I addressed my fear of the cold, my town-mouse apprehension of the wilderness.

Our room at the Green Leaf Hotel in Niseko Village is comfortable and functional, with a warm bed and views of the valley beyond. The snow is astonishing: beautiful, powdery and bright. Thanks to the hotel’s ski-in, ski- out facilities, we’re outdoors in no time, wrapped up in layers of fleece and down. The weather feels revitalising rather than unpleasantly chilly. The winter sun shines over Mount Niseko An’nupuri, and the clean air is a miracle after Hong Kong’s smog.

A breakfast of cereal with the fresh milk for which Hokkaido is famous, followed by bacon and egg toasties from the buffet at Goshiki, the Green Leaf’s all-day restaurant, has set us up for a morning of snowploughing on the bunny slopes. He, an expert skier, no doubt itching to check out the black runs, stays and teaches me with patience and good humour.
“You’re clearing out the cobwebs!” he shouts, as I slide uncertainly downhill, my skis forming a wide triangle. The last time I did this I was seven years old, in the considerably flatter terrain of Australia’s Blue Mountains.

By lunchtime, the cobwebs are cleared and I’ve graduated to green runs – or so we think. The gondola ride is serene, though the weather changes as we gain altitude. Clouds roll in, snow begins to fall. We’re heading up for a meal of tonkatsu curry and Sapporo beer at the rustic Lookout Café, managed by the Hilton Niseko Village, near the top of the mountain.

“Zip up, it’ll be colder out here,” he says.

Colder, higher, steeper, scarier. After lunch, I lose my nerve, and it takes me two hours to descend the mountain. At one point, a medic, in a maroon ski suit, stops to ask if I’m alright. (Apparently, if your skis are off, it’s a sign that you’re in trouble.) Only my pride is hurt, but it’s everything I can do not to say no and beg for a snowmobile ride to the bottom.

Niseko has long been regarded as Japan’s, if not Asia’s, premier ski resort – thanks to storms from Siberia that bring in blankets of light powder snow, and a lengthy ski season that lasts from late November until early May. As more and more holidaymakers catch on, this small Hokkaido region, two-and-a-half hours’ drive from the city of Sapporo, has become one of the most sought-after winter destinations in the world. The nearby town of Kutchan, 30 minutes by shuttle from the Green Leaf, is the sister city of Saint Moritz in Switzerland.

Of the four main ski areas that make up Niseko (Annupuri, Niseko Village, Hirafu, and Hanazono), Hirafu is the most vibrant for après-ski. Izakayas, pizzerias, hotpot restaurants and burrito trucks line the streets of this Kutchan district. The clientele is diverse: local and visiting Japanese, well-heeled Thais, expats from Hong Kong and Singapore, and a remarkable number of seasonal travellers from Australia – so much so that Hirafu has a dedicated Australia House.

At Bang2, a popular Japanese izakaya with a grand piano squeezed into the corner, we share a meal of sashimi, yakitori and grilled onigiri, washed down with warm sake, with friends from Singapore whom we’ve run into by chance. Dessert is a wafer cone of rich vanilla ice cream, for which the restaurant is obviously well known: people have been lining up for it since we sat down for dinner, even though it’s minus-two degrees outside.

These are not temperatures into which I’d normally venture nude, either. But the following evening, after a second day of skiing, I find myself soaking in the Green Leaf’s outdoor onsen – a natural hot spring and rock pool, separated from the indoor spa by two thick glass doors and a winding, stone-paved path.

The hotel provides two onsens, one for women and another for men. Guests are expected to observe traditional etiquette and cleanse thoroughly before entering the hot water, and swimsuits are not allowed. The women’s onsen is peaceful, nobody speaks: There is something sisterly and ritualistic about this experience of bathing silently, in a rock pool in the snow.

A moment of reflection and relaxation, in such unique surroundings, seems a fitting denouement to our long weekend away. The morning will bring a coach ride to Sapporo, past majestic Lake Shikotsu, and the usual discomforts of travelling home. First, though, a nightcap at Tomioka White – the Green Leaf’s genial bar and lounge, with chesterfield sofas, a sleek modern fireplace, and lights in the shape of deer antlers. We toast with mugs of mulled wine, to next year.

by Samantha Kuok Leese

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Glass Magazine travel and arts writer

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