It was just before midnight when we arrived at the remote mountain enclave of Niseko in northern Japan, and after 20 hours of travel time, the warm and dimly lighted lobby of the Hilton Niseko Village was a sight for sore eyes.
Located on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, Niseko comprises four interconnected villages — Annupuri, Niseko Village, Hirafu and Hanazona — offering more than 2,100 acres of skiable terrain, an international ski school and an average of 30 to 50 feet of snowfall each year.
The first stop on our weeklong sojourn was to the Hilton at the base of Mount Niseko-Annupuri. A looming, 506-room property overlooking Mount Yotei and featuring ski-in, ski-out access to one of the best mountains in the area, my first order of business was a trip to the on-site onsen. Open 24/7, this beautiful indoor/outdoor bathing facility is every bit as tranquil as it is relaxing — even if you are naked, as is customary in Japan. (Don't worry, though; facilities are not coed.)
The next morning it was time to get down to the real business at hand. After a filling breakfast, it was off to the in-house chalet to get fitted for boots and bindings before being assigned to my trusty instructor, Zach, for the day. And away we went, snowboarding in knee-deep powder along the pistes of Annupuri mountain.
While skiing is invariably the main event in Niseko, the apres-ski scene is second to none, and my first stop after peeling myself out of my snow gear was to the hotel's resto-pub Ezo, followed by a traditional Japanese dinner of chirashi rice bowls, Kobe beef and tempura at Sisam.
A guestroom at the 506-room Hilton Niseko Village, which overlooks Mount Yotei.
I spent the next few days exploring Niseko and its surrounding areas. Nationally, Niseko has long appealed to the vacation and honeymoon set looking to enjoy the laid-back mountain vibe, the indelible bounty of fresh seafood and soba noodles (a specialty here) and of course indulge in the healing powers of onsen life.
But internationally, the world is just starting to take notice. Of late, it's been attracting a new subset of travelers. Foodies, particularly soba enthusiasts, have been flocking to Sobadokoro Rakuichi, where soba master Tatsuri Rai has been hand-making some of the world's best buckwheat noodles in his diminutive, 12-seat locale for years.
About an hour's drive away, the port city of Otaru is well known for its seafood and sushi restaurants, glassworks and antiques shops as well as sake distilleries, the most famous of which is Nikka's Yoichi Distillery. Nikka, which produces malt whisky using the traditional Scottish method of direct heating distillation (where the pot stills are heated with finely powdered natural coal to produce a very distinct and rich malt), is a great way to spend an afternoon.
My last two nights were spent at the Green Leaf Niseko Village, a rustic locale with 200 rooms in total and nestled directly on Annupuri mountain. My room, located on the third floor of the hotel, was the perfect place to sit back, enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and watch the thick sheets of snow accumulate to the delight of skiers and snowmobilers alike.
Rates at the Hilton Niseko Village begin at about $200 in summer, about $720 during winter. Rates at the Green Leaf begin at about $120 in summer, about $560 in winter.