Niseko Ski Playground, Japan

What was once a remote, quiet and sleepy town in the north of Japan is now booming with Australians, Europeans and locals. Niseko is known for its abundance of dry, fluffy snow that pours over the region from December to March each year. Many Europeans are coming to Japan now as their ski seasons haven’t been great with hardy any snow falling.

The Après–ski atmosphere that Europeans are accustomed hasn’t quite reached Niesko but the largest town, Grand Hirafu has plenty of bars and restaurants to enjoy, although out of your ski gear. Fridge Bar has great cocktails and great views of the snow and forrest that makes you appreciate the fresh alpine air even more. Wild Bills is great for a big night and has plenty of lively atmosphere to go around.

The main road has heated foot paths and roads but the side streets can be very slippery, so bring your mates to roam the streets arm in arm or wear the appropriate shoes. There are also free shuttles that pick you up at various bus stops every 20 minutes if you are set on waiting. It’s a huge God send when you are carrying your skis, poles and can’t really walk in your boots up to the gondola in the morning.

The fresh seafood for your sashimi or crab legs, ramen noodles, teppanyaki meats, Japanese gyoza dumplings and miso soup make Niseko a food paradise. The style of restaurants are still very traditional with wooden interiors and stoneware plates and the flavours true to the farmlands that were once here. Also the magnums of sake are impressive and far too easy to drink in tiny cups. The plum wine is also unique to the area and served over ice is very refreshing.

There is a huge variety of choice of skiing in Niseko and four main areas, Grand Hirafu, Hanazono, Annapuri and Niskeo Village. There is a really reliable shuttle to Hanazono where the rest are a little testing to visit unless you can handle the black run from the top.

Annapuri has some gentle runs and great restaurant (for the ski slopes!) and food trucks. Still having the original gondola from the 70s it is a great spot also to go off piste.

Many spend a few days outside of Niseko in Sapporo or Mount Moiwa also offers some unique resorts, although best to hire a guide and get your fix of fresh powder.

After a day on slopes the mineral rich onsen offer the perfect way to unwind are recharge your battered legs or use the snow to ice your sprains. The Hilton as a great onsen that is open to guest not staying there and there is a shuttle from the main street (outside Rhythm sports) that goes almost every hour. In Japan you shower first before slipping into the natural hot water and that is completely au natural. You can’t wear any clothes besides a towel on your head. It is split between men and women just to keep things black and white.

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Mt. Yotei from the beginner slopes

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Snow falling on piste

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Nature on the mountain

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Covered Ski lift

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Night skiing

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Coffee fix

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Fridge Bar

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Fuku Fukutetei restaurant near the welcome centre

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Outdoor fire pitt off main street

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Shop on the main street

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Handful of snow

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Niseko Chalet

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Chateau Billopp view

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Chateau Billopp room

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Natural Fridge

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Top of Mt. Niseko-Annupuri

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Mt. Yotei

GETTING THERE

Best is to fly into Tokyo and get a connecting flight to Sapporo. There are two domestic airports in Haneda, Tokyo but there is a free shuttle bus outside that is easy to find. It can be tricky to find your airline as they are spilt across the two airports. You only need two hours for the connection to be safe and make sure you have something to eat before going though to customs as there isn’t much choice there. There are plenty of phone charging stations but the wifi was not easy to connect to. Excess baggage on Skymark airlines was only $10 for anther 4kg and checking in your skis was very easy.

Once you are in Sapporo then you need to book a coach transfer that takes a max of 3 hours with a 10 minute bathroom stop. The goodsports whiteliner is the cheapest and really good. Only an hour is needed to pick up your bags go to the counter on the right hand side of the terminal to mark your name off, pick up a few snacks for the trip at Lawson and then go to the cream waiting seats at the opposite side so you can get on the coach 15 minutes before it leaves. There are staff to help you get your bags on the coach but can be a bit tricky before that if you need to pick up a few things.

The coach stops at the welcome centre in Grand Hirafu and then your accomodation will be able to send someone to pick you up and take you to where you will be staying.

Also if you do any shopping in Japan and are needing a tax refund this needs to be done on the day and in the store rather than at the airport.

STAY

Best is to stay in Grand Hirafu as you are close to the main gondola to get up the mountain and all the night life. Accomodation does book up fast and you need to get this locked away before November.

Samurai Snow offers a range of choices

EAT

Best is to book your restaurants in advance as they book up and it is very difficult to get tables.

Abacha 1 & 2

Bang Bang 1 & 2

The Barn 

Fuku Fukutetei 

PINK OBSESSION IN TOKYO

Once a year when Winter falls away to Spring, something remarkable happens in Tokyo.  Delicate pink cherry blossoms fill the city in every corner and for locals this is a symbol for how short life really is.

Celebrating cherry blossoms became started during the 1180’s when emperors and members of the Imperial Palace began hosting feasts under the blooming branches. This then became popular with samurai and all members of Japanese society. The tree remain a sacred important cultural symbol in the country, where friends and family gather and have picnics or Hanami during these two weeks of a year.

Hopping on a bike to cycle along the waterways where the sakura or cherry blossom trees are in full bloom is a nice way to spend an afternoon and take it all in. It is quite a spectacular event where not one tree but an entire city is covered in pink cherry trees. Sadly there are no actual cherries after they bloom but the effect is non the less enjoyable.

 

At night you can stroll thought the parks and the trees are lit up with lanterns or pink lights so you can see the blooms. Visiting this paradise is a once in a lifetime trip and it can be very unpredictable when they will bloom. Sometimes  this will be in early March or April depending on how quickly the cool winter temperatures can subside. Seeing them make it all the more special in full bloom as when the buds are just starting to appear you can’t really experience the wonder in full.

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BEST SPOTS TO VIEW


Ueno Park & Shinjuku Gyoen Park, Tokyo where over 1,000 cherry trees all lit up at night also

Senkoji Park, Hiroshima

Japan Mint, Osaka a whole 560m avenue of cherry trees

Arashiyama, Tenryu-Ji Temple, Kyoto climb up the Arashiyama mountains to see native Japanese macaques running free at the Iwatayama monkey park.

Visit for more

WHERE TO STAY IN TOKYO

TOKYO UNWRAPPED

It’s a different universe when your feet touch the ground in Tokyo, Japan. The land of the rising sun has a lot more blooming like futuristic skyscrapers, robots, vending machines, high tech toilets, bullet trains and thousands of little wonders waiting to be unwrapped. Sushi, sashimi, yakitori, mochi rice desserts, matcha ice-cream, sweet potato cake even Baumkuchen are perfectly assembled, decorated, wrapped and decorated again. There is such beauty in small little details when you stop and really take notice.

To acclimatise, the first thing to do is go to the New York Bar in The Grand Hyatt near Shinjuku and where Lost In Translation was partially filmed. Have a cocktail, listen to the jazz music and take in the spectacular night sky before you get pulled into the currents that have you going from shop to restaurant and back again well into the early hours of the morning.

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New York Bar in The Grand Park Hyatt

 

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View of Tokyo
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The Gate Hotel  Asakusa

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Heated seats and toilets that clean you all too well.
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Arrived in Tokyo

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Breakfast buffet look onto the skytree
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Coffee with cream
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Skytree
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Train station

The trains in Tokyo are all numbered for their stops but if you think that makes it easy to work out where to get off then that would be all to easy. The city is enormous and sometimes you feel like you are in a blade runner film with all the secret squirrel holes there are to get around. It is one of the safest places on the planet and the Japanese are extremely hospitable and welcoming to visitors. If you do get lost you can always ask for some friendly help and gestures and hand signals work wonders if you can’t speak Japanese. Not being able to understand the language is a nice reprieve from information overload and instead focusing on your other senses like smell and sight add to the experience. The Japanese are not the best communicators and spend a lot of time thinking and appreciating beautiful things around them. That is also what makes their country so unique.

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Shinjuku’s famous intersection

 

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Shinjuku’s crazy wonders

There is a definite divide of the old and new in Tokyo. There is a rich cultural history that you can see in the old town in Asakusa and new in Shinjuku, which is by far the most crowded and chaotic. In-between there are so many gorgeous quiet streets filled with designer stores, especially in Ometesando. To get the best cup of coffee wind your way towards Ometesando Coffee (4-15-3 JingumaeShibuya) and within an old farm like building is a real treasure. The barista is dressed in a lab coat heating milk and working the espresso machine to produce full bodied coffee. There are also little sweet treats you can get to enjoy with your coffee that are delicious. The presentation is luxurious with miniature bonsai trees and straw mats.

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Old city in Asakusa

 

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Visiting the tusukiji fish market is one of those experiences leaves you changed. Getting up at 3am to be one of the 120 visitors allowed to see the tuna auction is a nice behind the scenes look at how the food lands on your plate. There are people everywhere and forklift trucks dashing around at high speed. Have a wonder through the stores and pick one a few lanes to the right when you are walking out of the auction and join a line of either Daiwa or Sushi Dai. You will be waiting over an hour for a converted spot in a sushi and sashimi restaurant but you will have a better quality fish and variety to make up for the time. The locals are friendly and while conversation breaks down quickly without common words its fun to get amongst the action.

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Tsukiji fish market sushi
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Sushi and sashimi

The old town is very different from the modern city and there are temples and shrines dotting most corners along with great shopping for chopsticks, rice bowls, fans, ornaments and other things unique to Japan. Having everything perfectly clean is actually high on the priority list and having brushes of all textures and sizes is easy to find. Its almost inspiring to be that clean in the first place.

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Old city

 

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Traditional fans

 

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Chop sticks

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Brushes to keep everything perfectly clean

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The oldest buddhist temple Sensō-ji (Kannon) Temple is in Asakusa in the far north of Tokyo and over half an hour from the glorious shopping in Shinjuku’s malls in the train station. Both parts of the city are a huge contrast and equally entertaining. Like most cultural activities in Japan visiting temples and shrines is quite fun. There are girls dressed up in their kimonos and pots with incense burning along with fountains. The smoke from the burners is believed to have healing properties and before joining inside the temple to get your fortune or throw coins to make a wish you need to purify your hands by pouring water over them with a ladle. Don’t drink the water unless you really know what you are doing.

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The food is the most remarkable part of visiting Tokyo and a reason to keep coming back each year. Partly because it is healthy, delicious, unique and presented so beautifully in several little pots and plates. Its so enjoyable trying new dishes and finding things that you might not otherwise try and like. Even so the portions are plentiful and small so if you don’t like it then there will be something else you will.

Everything is so perfect in Japan, even the seemingly dull streets are decorated in colourful flowers or lanterns at night.

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If you are short on time then don’t discount the local supermarket. The convenience foods are very cheap, fresh and delicious. In keeping with tradition everything is perfectly presented and of a much higher quality than what most average supermarkets will have on their shelves. There are also lots of unusual vegetables, nuts, herbs and flowers to give you even more to try. The Japanese also typically have fermented greens with their means and that has some health benefits like a glowing immune system, which could aways come in handy. Have a look around and try a few more things, its half the fun in visiting Tokyo.

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Mellons at a local supermarket also great as gifts

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STAY


Aman for supreme luxury in the centre of the action ($1200 pn)

Andaz for exquisite views and beautifully appointed rooms ($700 pn)

The Capital Hotel was a favourite of the Beetles and doses’t disappoint ($900 pn)

Claska is a little out of the beaten track but has many homeware stores and casual dining on its doorstep. There is a rooftop that has a view of the city and is styled well even though it is in an old building ($300 pn)

The Gate Hotel is in the old part of Toko but has views of the skytree and is close to the train station. The rooms are small but finished well and you have everything you need ($250 pn)

If in doubt pick a hotel near Shinjuku as it is a central location close to great shopping, restaurants and the translation to get around easily.

DO


The Imperial Palace 

The shopping in Japan is out of this world and visit Ginza, Shinjuku and Ometesando as your first stops

Tokyo National Museum for beautiful kimonos, samurai swords, jewels and palaces

Tsukiji Fish Markets for unforgettable sashimi and sushi

Sensō-ji 金龍山浅草 in Asakusa for Tokyo’s largest ancient Buddhist temple

Meiji Shrine 明治神宮, is set in a forrest with a huge intricately decorated shrine and is also near Harajuku where you could possibly see the girls who dress bizarrely as their favourite comic

Shibuya for the busiest part of Tokyo to catch some of the chaos in full force

EAT


Esquisse for fine dining with a slightly earthy feel

Sushi Sora has a view that will have you begging for more

Kanda has the freshest sushi, mountain vegetables and no menu but with only seven seats and three Michelin stars you will be in for a treat

Kojyu has sashimi being assembled in front that is presented exquisitely

Have a break from sushi at Cicada with mediterranean dishes in your new favourite part of Tokyo

Tea House has wall to wall blooms and tea as expansive as the wine, ladies in Tokyo know how to lunch

Tokyo has over 200 Michelin starred restaurants and its no surprise that the food and dining experiences are out of this world. You can’t really go wrong with where you eat and even the most unexpected places have great food like the train stations. The convenience foods are fresh and healthy so if you are too busy dashing around you will never be at a loss for something worth trying.

GETTING AROUND


Tokyo’s train network is enormous and there are several rail companies so you may need more than one ticket to get where you want to go quickly. Make sure to have some good walking shoes although most of the local ladies do manage in heels.

The train is also an easy and fast way to get into Tokyo from the airpot where taxi’s are expensive.

BEST TIME TO GO


The fall and spring have temperates that are not extreme and the whole city is covered in cherry blossoms come out in March or April depending on the weather. July is also great as Mount Fuji is open for climbing and there are many festivals

Press Reset in Kaga Onsen, Japan

Completely switching off from the world around you is a near impossible task. The answer is a small town set amongst snow capped mountains near Mt Fuji filled with natural hot springs. Kaga Onsen is the one place disconnected enough from the world that you can find real tranquility. The people in Japan have remarkable appreciation for nature and simplicity. The way food is presented, rooms decorated and buildings laid out, show the perfection in each and every detail.

The nature of a hot spring is ‘fuekiryuko’ one of the teachings of Matsuo Basho, which states that the source of immortality and fluidity are the same.

Reportedly the hot springs were discovered by monks 1300 years ago and since have become a favourite activity to locals and visitors alike. You might be rattled to learn that women and men bathe completely nude in public baths; with a lone towel to keep the stream from your eyes. It’s really offensive to wear a swimsuit but comforting to know that its perfectly acceptable to look the way you do, after all its natural. There are often separate times for men and women to take their precious soak but if you are not that culturally brave there are hotels you can stay at that come with your own private onsen.

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Onsen and sake

Beniya Mykau is one of the hotels that includes your own private onsen through the shower in your room. Filled natural mineral water believed to have healing properties in either granite or marble base. To keep the water as pure as possible the Japanese wash on stools with invigorating natural brushes to get any dirt off your body before stepping into the onsen.

It is truly luxurious to sip sake in a floating cypress tree bucket and glance at the trees surrounding you. There would’t be much competition to find a faster way to come away fully recharged that spending a weekend in these remote mountains enjoying onsen, yoga, fine dining and nature walks.

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Wooden geta clogs
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Restaurant at Beniya Maykau
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Sashimi

 

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Snow Crab

 

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Ice cream in a wafer container
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Art in front of restaurant
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Tea ceremony
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Gardens
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Bamboo

 

 

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Futon
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Bar
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Japanese Breakfast

 

The hotels are very good at receiving guest and you are picked up by the hotel shuttle from the train station and greeted with fragrant juices. They will explain how things work like wearing a provided Yukata and Japanese thongs at dinner. You will quickly see there are some definite things you can and cannot do but strangely the limits are quite comforting in a new experience.

Participating in a Japanese tea ceremony is quite special as that is traditionally were all walks of life gather to share something simple. The tea is always a powdery green tea whisked in a bamboo brush and poured with the utmost care. Its interesting to watch the order and how the tea is poured slowly.

Visiting the small towns is really where you can see the rich cultural history and tradition of Japan that would otherwise be crowed out in the larger cities.

The food in Japan is out of this world and being adventurous to try new things will be rewarded by discovering unexpected things that you actually like. Its quite fun to get out of your comfort zone and challenge what you are accustomed to. You will thoroughly enjoy the abundance of fresh seafood and all the little treats wrapped up in special little packages.

Its easy to get to Kaga Onsen by train in Japan where trains are not comparable to other countries. If you have seen the movie Hunger Games, they even have luxury carriages with bars similar to the film. They are also national treasures and used by everyone so you will feel right at home. What’s nice is they offer beer and wine or even bento boxes by staff coming around with their service trolleys. Its easy to pick up something delicious in the convenience store before you board also and the selection is often better. You do have to book your seat and visiting a Japan Rail office will make sure you are set for your journey.

 

STAY


Blissful luxury at Beniya Mykau ($1000 pn)

Most natural hot spring in ultimate luxury at Araya Totan ($1000 pn)

Everything that you need at Hatori ($200 pn)

DO


Onsen

Tea ceremony

Nature walks

Appreciate stillness

Visit Kanazawa Castle

Explore an old town filled with ceramic arts and learn Japanese writing

Eat at your hotel as the rates include breakfast and dinner

GET THERE


Hire a car and drive if you are really brave

Easily get a rail pass and stop by a Japan rail office to book your seat