A unique piste in the East

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iol travel nov 16 Hokkaido

AP (Associated Press)

Mount Yotei towers in volcanic symmetry.

Hokkaido, Japan - Forget the boot heaters and the hand warmers. When you've been wind-slapped by a Siberian air stream, nothing achieves togetherness of body and mind like a heated loo seat. Visiting Japan's northern island of Hokkaido in the winter is like stepping into a painting. Silver birch boughs drape as sculpture. Mount Yotei towers in volcanic symmetry. Bowing gondola workers equipped with nylon brushes politely dust snow from our heads. And with the poetic predictability of a haiku, every toilet I sit on is fitted with nifty spray-soft-bidet and dry-bun-toasting functions.

On the same latitude as the North Korean/ Russian border and a world away from Alpine cheese and chintz, Niseko has a mountain aesthetic all of its own. Skiing in Japan is not just a pretty picture. Use the long flight to Sapporo via Tokyo to meditate on this: cold weather descends from Russia, picks up moisture over the Sea of Japan, and falls as feather-light powder. The statistics speak for themselves: last December, Niseko Village was blanketed with 17cm a day, on average, for a month.

I was staying at the base of this village, 110km west of Sapporo's Chitose Airport, in the recently refurbished Green Leaf Hotel. The hotel's best asset is its ski-from-the-door location, into the 48km of pistes and 30 lifts that connect the areas of Niseko, Grand Hirafu and Annupuri. But for its traditional outdoor baths and minimalist décor, the Green Leaf's low-rise design would be at home in any 1960s North American ski town - a whiff of Asian-style Aspen without a hint of pretension. On the first morning, I slipped into a hotel-supplied cotton kimono and made for breakfast, but was politely asked to change into suitable attire. Once dressed (ski gear is apparently fine) I faced a massive morning buffet that catered for both East and West, from French toast and bacon to raw fish and seaweed - and something gooey that was looking right at me.

For all of us, there was so much to learn. As my friend Rosie and I headed up the mountain, snow piled on our heads as we amused ourselves with chairlift names: Banzai, Swinging Monkey and, most intriguingly, Superstition. We were keen to appease the gods - we'd already left 5am offerings at the Shrine of the Fisherman at the Tokyo Fish Market, a move that appeared to result in the finest Japanese dinner ever at the Park Hyatt, Bill Murray's home-from-home in Lost in Translation, plus several sublime martinis in his favourite high-altitude bar. So we poled towards the Superstition drag lift. The air was bathed in the eerie echo of a woman's voice over the loudspeaker announcing things in Japanese to the beat of a Ministry of Sound club track. Beneath Superstition's many warning signs - “Expert only”, “Approach With Caution” - on pancake flat snow, Rosie tripped on her edge and flopped like a wet squid at its gate. A fitting display of humility and respect if ever I saw one.

The gods took the bait: later that morning, after three days of closure, Niseko's powder-filled resort-in-a-resort opened. It's called Mizuno no Sawa, a controlled off-piste area more than 2km long, filled with deep gullies, rolling glades and the occasional cliff. To get in here, you must pay ¥2,000 (about R200), sit through a 20-minute safety presentation (occasional bits of which are in English) and buddy-up at the gate for every run.

It's been controlled this way since a fatal avalanche a few years ago. A ski patroller explains that most of Niseko's slopes are angled in the 35-45 degree range, which is what everyone wants - but that wind and snowpack make it difficult to predict where avalanches will occur. The zone is taped off and patrolled. That week a crew of pro skiers from Matchstick, renowned ski film makers, had their lift passes taken away for ducking the rope. But now, after days of powder piling up like a giant overflowing rice bowl, it was ready.

After deep-powder days, the highlight of Japanese après ski is lolling in the onsen (traditional outdoor volcanic thermal baths). There are several around Niseko, each said to have its own health-giving properties. The water at the nearby Hilton is meant to promote circulation while the mineral content at the Green Leaf Hotel is beneficial to the skin. Rosie instantly dismissed sore muscle relief in favour of cosmetic enhancement. “Who cares about the texture of your bowels? It's all about looking good.”

With an hour's massage at the spa costing nearly ¥12,600, the onsen is especially enticing as it's free to hotel guests. We entered the women-only half, first squatting on low stools to shower, then slipping naked into the water, as is required. The steam rose and flakes fell from an inky sky; the etiquette of bathing also required silence (though the Australians in our pools had their own views on this; we were soon very clear on how much money their husbands made).

British accents are not uncommon, though Australians comprise the main foreign market. So the typical Osakaya restaurants and small bars in the town of Hirafu, a 20-minute free shuttle away, are lively. On the mountain, Restaurant Ace does good chilli beef and rice, Lookout offers burgers and noodles, and there's good coffee at Hirafu base lodge (brace yourself for the $20 bill you must hand over for three of them).

Keen to try everything, we learned how to make sushi and hired cross-country skis and snowshoes. Rosie also took a yoga class led by an Aussie guru. Most of the week we travelled about within a snow-shaker of flakes, in gales of up to 80km per hour. Trips to the heated loo seats became a welcome event.

If You Go...

Staying there

Park Hyatt Tokyo (00 81 353 22 1234; tokyo.park.hyatt.com) has doubles from ¥70,855.

Green Leaf Niseko Village (00 80 098 99 9999; thegreenleafhotel.com) has doubles from ¥18,000 incl breakfast. Niseko Village lift tickets are ¥3,500 per day and ¥4,500 for an All-Mountain day pass.

More information

seejapan.co.uk - The Independent

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