Japan Ski, Gaining Momentum
Japan is a country with extensive mountain ranges, literally hundreds of ski resorts and plentiful snow, yet a language barrier and the country's distance from Western markets have long prevented it from becoming a major international ski destination.
That's starting to change, especially at a resort called Niseko. Situated on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's main islands, Niseko has become wildly popular among Australians, who are attracted by the chance to ski world- class snow without suffering the jet lag they associate with North American and European resorts.
Especially from mid-December through February, the resort gets socked with winter storms that blow off Siberia and bury the mountain in some of the lightest, driest powder on the planet. The town of Kutchan, the seat of local government, records an average of nearly 12.7 meters - about 42 feet - of snow a year. On- mountain averages are harder to come by, but local ski businesses say that Niseko frequently gets more than 15.2 meters a year.
When most people visit Niseko, they come to a conglomeration of three separate ski areas - Grand Hirafu, Higashiyama and Annupuri - which offer a common lift pass and connect near the top of the mountain they share. A few smaller resorts also operate in the Niseko area but do not connect with their bigger neighbors or participate in their shared lift ticket.
Most of Japan's biggest and best-known resorts sit on Hokkaido, the north island, or on the northern half of Honshu, Japan's main island. Hokkaido currently has most of the buzz, but the 1998 Winter Olympics took place at several well- regarded resorts in Nagano Prefecture, on Honshu. Some of the Honshu areas, like the mammoth, multi-resort Hakuba area, are also starting to attract international attention. The sheer numbers of Australians in Niseko's streets, bars and restaurants surprised even visitors from Down Under.
Niseko can still be charming - a small, once-sleepy resort not quite accustomed to the spotlight. In addition to its slopeside hotels, Hirafu village has two main streets, a few lodges and some bed- and-breakfast-style pensions. The restaurants tend to be intimate, and the best book up days in advance during the high season. There's sushi, naturally, but also izakayas (a sort of Japanese tapas bar), bakeries, pizzerias and even a restaurant housed in a Mongolian-style tent.
And Niseko has plenty to do off the slopes. Hot springs, or onsen, are among the best things about many Japanese resorts, and each has its own personality. At the rustic Yukoro onsen, for example, Japanese and Australian visitors sipped beers while leaning against pleasantly rough rocks near a snowbank. For those who can pull themselves out of the water, large swaths of the slopes are also lighted until 9 p.m.
Discover more about winter in Japan here.
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