Next year in Japanuary
With the annual pilgrimage for powder put on pause, here’s how to plan the ultimate Niseko ski trip for 2022
For the Aspen Times Weekly
I’m a Jewish ski bum. At the end of our highest holidays, the phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem” is said as a wish for all Jews to be able to return to the homeland. I’m quasi-observant, but had the most religious experience of my life last January when I visited the love of my life’s homeland of Japan.
As I write this today, it’s exactly one year ago from the departure for our maiden ski trip to Niseko — one we decided would be an annual trip during a pre-takeoff toast aboard the Denver to Tokyo direct flight on United Airlines’ Dreamliner. During the two-week whirlwind, the earliest COVID-19 news was breaking around the world with the first case in the U.S. confirmed on the day we returned to Aspen on Jan. 20, 2020.
We could have never fathomed what lie ahead or that our intended tradition wouldn’t happen in 2021.
Situated on Hokkaido, northernmost of the four main islands of Japan, Niseko has gained notoriety for its near-constant snowfall thanks to whipping Siberian winds that bring moisture with them across the Sea of Japan and dump an average of 16.3 meters (53.4 feet) of fresh powder on its mountains every winter — among the highest of any resort in the world. The heaviest storm cycle hits in January, hence the “Japanuary” moniker. And similar to Aspen Snowmass, Niseko United prides itself on “the power of four” with the interconnected ski areas of Niseko Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu and Hanazono.
‘The Aspen Of Japan’
Over the last decade, Niseko has seen a spike in international ski tourism, drawing a boom in development — so much so the New York Times coined it “The Aspen of Japan” in a 2019 report. The lure of perfect snow — plus the increasing property values of vacation homes — are drawing a surge in investors from Japan, China, Singapore and Australia, who are collectively building Niseko into the next major global winter resort.
“Many Aspenites, like me, are connoisseurs of powder. And there is really no better place in the world to go for powder skiing in January and February than Hokkaido,” shared longtime local and professional big-mountain skier Chris Davenport. “Plus it’s culturally awesome and the food is local and amazing. But really, once you have experienced the Hokkaido snow machine, you will always want to return.”
As chance would have it, we actually bumped into Davenport. He was fresh from a mission on Mount Yotei (an active stratovolcano and the area’s most stunning peak). We were on day two at Odin Place — a modern, mall-like home to retailers including Burton and Zaka (which stocks Moncler, Bogner and Aspen’s own Aztech Mountain) with a bustling brewpub, bakery and sushi bar. Opened in 2016 by parent private capital firm Odin, the development signaled a shift from laid-back mountain life to offerings more in the lap of luxury. Its residential project, Odin Hills, also has a showroom inside beckoning visitors to explore ownership of its exclusive, eco-friendly residential community near Hanazono.
“Niseko isn’t really a town, but a resort village with no central planning, so it’s kinda random. Lots of nice homes and a few nice hotels, with more and more going up every year,” added Davenport, who first visited Niseko in 1997 and has skied and guided tours for clients every season since 2014. “The place is booming, but sadly there doesn’t seem to be a lot of planning of infrastructure.”
That’s slated to change though, with the recent mega-resort openings of both a Park Hyatt at the base of Hanazono and Japan’s first Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Niseko Village. According to a marketing representative for Hanazono, the 2021-22 season will debut a new gondola and a new six-pack, high-speed lift with an enhanced beginner area.
Last season, Niseko United accounted for 800 Ikon Pass-holders coming from Colorado (the second largest skier base after San Francisco at over 1,000) and overall, more than 10,000 visitors from the United States — almost equivalent to the number of visitors from Australia, which brings the most tourists to the area outside of Japan.
Hanazono marketing also recommends first-timers book accommodations as early as possible for next season through Vacation Niseko, which boasts hands-on assistance and flexible cancellation policies.
In all of the corners of the world I’ve explored, never has a place felt so foreign, yet so familiar. Our random Aspen run-ins (we also high-fived a father-and-son sporting AVSC jackets in passing on the street) and local cultures unified by a passion for adventure aside, experiencing the country where my partner lived for nearly two decades (he grew up on a military base in Northern Japan) and one long at the top of my bucket list was incredibly spiritual. He’s still fluent in Japanese, and the minute we landed, it blew my mind when I witnessed him in action; it also blew the minds of everyone we met when an obviously American man busted out perfect pronunciation as we navigated each day.
Although Niseko is largely run by Australians (seasonal workers descend on Niseko in the winter and summer), making communication easier than in other parts of the country (even Tokyo), there are still authentic cultural and unique mountain experiences to be had. The daily routine revolves around the mantra of ski, soak, eat and sleep with endless culinary gems, naturally fed hot springs (known as onsens), lively bars and accommodations to fit any budget.
A few of our favorites included fueling up at SEED Bagel & Coffee Company’s mobile cart (conveniently stationed steps away from our hotel), whiskey-tasting at Bar Gyu (we might have left behind Gonzo and Aspen Brewing Company stickers on the famed refrigerator front-door), sipping ramen mid-mountain at Bo-yo-so (get there early to skip a long line of hungry skiers), snagging bar seats at Bang Bang (the best Yakitori in town), taking a long stroll to Soba Kaiseki Ichimura (the coziest noodle house) and splurging on a special anniversary dinner at Kamimura (a Michelin-starred, French-inspired restaurant).
“Every year when I return to Aspen after my Japan trip, I am high on ski life. I’m always talking about it and love to share stories and photos,” said Kim Reichhelm, an Aspen-based former professional ski racer, two-time World Extreme Skiing Champion and guide. “It’s new and fun and unique — like Alaska was in the ‘90s. If you are a ski enthusiast then you must ski Japan!”
I might pen a column in this same publication every week about cannabis, but I was equally and naturally high on ski life during our time there without it. I strongly discourage attempting to travel to Japan with cannabis products of any kind, as possession can lead to up to five years in jail and a hefty fine up to $18,000.
Our first day on the mountain was spent with Hanazono Powder Guides — a private tour with one of its most experienced staffers. We met Shige at Hanazono 308 (one of Niseko’s four official resort bases) before dawn to get suited up with the provided backcountry packs and avalanche safety gear, then we headed up the hooded quad for first tracks. On the ride up, Shige apologized to us for the winter tracking to “the worst in 60 years” but it had snowed the night before and we hit almost waist-deep powder in his secret stashes across the resort. It only snowed once more that week, but it was hard to care when all of the terrain was still open and Snowmass is where we call home.
The best and deepest snow is usually found out-of-bounds, and Niseko is known for its accessibility to backcountry terrain with the help of the resort’s lift system and marked gates — the safest entry points to its powder playground. Reichhelm emphasizes the importance of hiring a guide, whether it’s through her own guiding company Ski with Kim (which also works locally with Hokkaido Collective), a fellow frequent visitor like Davenport or directly through the resort.
“It’s not super steep in Niseko. This makes guiding easier since the snow pack is stable — there is a lot of moisture in the snow, so the layers bond well,” explained Reichhelm, who like Davenport, started an annual Niseko sojourn in 2014. “In general, Niseko does not produce a lot of avalanches. It’s nice to get out (of bounds) there and have fun, be able to relax a little and not always be worried about unstable snowpack. And hire a guide who skis if you are a skier and snowboards if you are a snowboarder — this is the most important tip I can contribute.”
Planning Pro Tips
International travel restrictions previously instituted by the government of Japan largely remain in place and U.S. citizens are still not permitted to travel for tourism. While it’s hard to imagine when traveling internationally will fully reopen, we’re hopeful that a 2022 return will be a reality, which provides for the perfect timeline to start planning a trip of your own now.
After spending a few nights in Tokyo (we preferred to adjust to jet lag first to make the most of our time on-mountain) we flew to Sapporo — worth an early flight to take the Sapporo Beer Museum tour (buy tickets and book a restaurant reservation there in-advance) or make it an overnight pit stop pre-Niseko (check into one of two Pendleton-partner rooms at the Unwind Hotel & Bar). Niseko is about a two hour drive from Sapporo depending on weather. If you’re using your Ikon Pass or Mountain Collective Pass to solely ski Niseko United, hire a private transfer or take the airport shuttle; if you want to ski other independent areas across the island, rent a car. Japan’s iconic “bullet train” system expanded from Tokyo to Hokkaido in 2016, but direct service to Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital and Japan’s fifth largest city, won’t be completed until 2030, so flying via ANA out of Haneda is way easier.
With bulky snow gear and ski bags in tow, you can skip the hassle of lugging it along with you to Tokyo and on additional flights (or trains) with Yamato Transport’s “Kuroneko” — Japan’s efficient luggage and parcel delivery service. Upon landing at Narita International Airport look for the “Black Cat” booth after grabbing your bags and they’ll send it straight to your hotel in Hokkaido (or anywhere else in the country) and back to the airport for your departure.
Typically seeking out boutique, design-minded hotels when traveling, we opted for the Kimamaya (Japanese for “be yourself”) — also an Odin-owned property. With only nine-rooms, book as far out as you can to secure a coveted spot in this informal, but luxurious lodge, where you can connect with other guests (most of them repeat visitors) in the fireplace-equipped, shared living room and restore your sore ski legs in two on-site onsens. A hearty, daily breakfast is included with your stay in The Barn, its adjacent restaurant, which transforms into one of Niseko’s best restaurants at night.
The Kimamaya was the last hotel we visited (doubles from $225) and the first place we’re planning to return to … next year in Japanuary.
Katie Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @bykatieshapiro
SKI WITH KIM
“I always like to stay at one of the Nisade hotels. The Vale Niseko is my favorite, especially the penthouse. It’s ski-in, ski-out and provides superior service. There are many beautiful, new, private homes for rent and some great chefs to hire too.”
“It’s so hard to be missing Japan this year. It’s become a big part of my winter guiding. I’ve got the place dialed from guides, restaurants and chefs to onsens, transportation and après-ski. Outside of Niseko, both Rusutsu and Kiroro are fun day trips (about an hour away). Cat skiing at Iwanai is also a blast. They will pick you up in Niseko and bring you back at the end of the day. Iwanai Resort is right on the Sea of Japan, a very authentic Japanese village and breathtakingly beautiful. I love sharing Hokkaido with guests and already have clients booked for 2022.”
SKI WITH CHRIS
“My favorite ski bum-style hotel would for sure be the Moiwa Lodge. This is a smaller ski area located on Mt. Annupuri near the bigger resorts, but with a super laid-back and affordable ski bum vibe. And the backcountry access from Moiwa is epic.”
“My favorite restaurants include Kumo Restaurant at the Skye Niseko hotel, which has the most insane ramen bowl I’ve ever tasted, and makes for a perfect lunch or dinner stop. I also love Ebisutei for Izakaya, in lower Hirafu Village and Rin Japanese Restaurant for solid classics.”
“I’m booking groups for 2022 now. My trips are all about chasing the deepest powder, and we ski the Niseko resorts, as well as Rusutsu, Kiroro, Sapporo Kokusai and some cat skiing operations. I also love to host ski touring groups because the access to deep powder with skins is amazing. I rent an incredible chalet with a chef and bring groups for a week of powder skiing. I’ll miss it so much, but at the same time, I’m happy to take a year off and just ski here in Aspen.”
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The new Bud Light Music on the Mountains series is hosting DJs and bands for mid-day pop-up concerts for skiers and snowboarders.