Niseko is where the snow lives.
When we arrived in the middle of the night on Monday, it was snowing hard. The banks along the street outside The Hooting Owl Lodge reached nearly to the power lines. The windows in our room were encased in snow. The next morning, it was still snowing. Several inches had accumulated in our footprints from the night before.
In the morning, Kenji, one of the caretakers at the lodge, asked me how long we were staying.
“We leave Friday,” I said.
He blinked. “Then where do you go?”
“Back to Seattle,” I smiled and craned my neck out the window to watch it snow as I sipped my coffee.
I knew Kenji was struggling. Japanese people are extremely polite (not to mention punctual, honest and in use of the best adjectives–happy! cute! skiing! fun times!). He probably didn’t want to offend me with a declaration of how crazy he thought it was to travel two whole days for two days of skiing.
But it wasn’t crazy; it was awesome.
With wind closing the upper mountain, we explored the “Japanese powder trees” of Grand Hirafu, gliding through the most forgiving tree skiing I’ve ever encountered. Cue the videographer; this skiing was just as good as what you see in the movies. No. It was better.
After a morning of braiding lines through the trees, we found a noodle house and ate the best ramen miso soup I’ve ever eaten. Prior to this trip, ramen was the domain of college students, made from hot water, dehydrated vegetables and foil packets. Not anymore
At the end of the day, I asked Kenji’s wife, Jen, if we should check out one of the local onsens. She just smiled and nodded. A visit to an onsen, a Japanese hot springs, is a must. You can hardly cross the street in Niseko without stumbling across an onsen, the closest of which, the Green Leaf Onsen, just so happened to be the best. Regardless of culture, soaking tired muscles in hot water is a universal need.
That night Jen directed us to a small seafood restaurant that turned out to have “horse” on the menu. No matter. We weren’t there for the meat. Instead, we ate fresh sushi and more noodle soup and smiled and nodded to the waitress. It’s a good thing she understood hand signals and pointing.
We woke to 20cm of snow as light and windless as down. Kenji dropped us off at the Niseko Gondola, and by look of the powder-drenched few who’d gotten the first cabin already returning to the non-existent queue, we knew today would be “the day”.
We arrived at the top of the gondy in time for the single Wonderland Chair. We skied a run from the top of the volcano which I’m pretty sure was called “Snorkel” because you needed one in order to breathe. It was that deep. After lapping a few there, we headed toward Niseko’s Best Powder. In Japan, they aren’t afraid to advertise their best snow. We sessioned the trees to the right of the “Avalanche controlled area” and smiled through the snow in our teeth.
The day after any upper mountain is closed is almost always special, and Day 2 of our trip, the last day of our trip, was no different. In fact, it rated up there in one of the best days of skiing I’ve ever had. The powder was light, the trees were thoughtfully placed and the sun came out just long enough for each run.
It was like a dream.
On the gondola ride, each member of our group was sure they’d found the best snow, comparing and one-upping one another with reports of the consistency of snow, quality of light and depth of the face shots each received. We were all sure we’d found the best snow on the mountain, certain the others had missed out on “the goods”.
The ski day ended at the onsen, where we peeled our ski boots off and soaked our bodies in the outdoor hot springs. That night we ate at Kenji’s favorite sushi restaurant, Hana Yoshi, far off the beaten tourist track.
Once again, the use of hand signals and pointing did wonders for our ordering skills. We watched the sushi chef in awe. He was a true master
We woke at 3am to start our return journey. Glancing at the forecast for Crystal Mountain this morning, I realized we might be bringing some of the snow back with us. If you’ve ever wondered if you should just up and go to Japan–or anywhere else for that matter–to check out the skiing, just do it.
You never know. You might just ski the best run of your life.