Japan’s Hokkaido island is a wonderland for skiers, spa-lovers and foodies

With snowfall accumulations of up to 45 feet each winter, the northern Japanese island prefecture of Hokkaido has garnered the attention of wide-eyed powder hounds from around the world. There are several formidable ski resorts to choose from, including Furano and Rusutsu, but foreign ski and snowboard enthusiasts seek out Niseko in particular. It comprises four resorts across Mount Niseko-Annupuri — Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu and Hanazono —which share one all-encompassing “Niseko United” pass and are linked by trails and ski lifts. The four-in-one ticket is part of international multiresort passes from Ikon and Mountain Collective. But you don’t need to be a skilled skier or boarder to enjoy Hokkaido’s snowy haven. Read on for more ways to soak, nibble and explore all sides of the isle.

Playing it up

A male skier is jumping in the air onto a slope with deep powder snow in the ski resort Niseko United on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
Ski resort Niseko United on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.Alamy

Many travelers to Hokkaido hail from warmer climes, and some may even be experiencing snow for the first time. So if you’re new to winter activities, you won’t be alone. The easiest way to enjoy Hokkaido’s winter weather is, literally, a walk in the park. Snowshoe your way to the base of Mount Yotei — and slide down a snow chute to frozen Half Moon Lake in Hangetsu-ko Shizen Park — on a guided tour with the Niseko Adventure Centre in Hirafu. If going on your own two feet feels laborious, fulfill your North Pole fantasies on a reindeer-pulled sled tour at Niseko Village. Looking for more horsepower? Snowmobiling tours through the foothills of Mt. Yotei allow you to dash through the snow at speeds upwards of 30 mph.

Of course, if you want to learn how to ski, baby steps — and bunny slopes — first. Each of the ski resorts in Niseko offers ski and snowboarding lessons, so that you will be ready to hit the bigger slopes on your next winter trip to Hokkaido.

Soaking it up

A hot-spring thermal bath in Hokkaido.
A hot-spring thermal bath in Hokkaido.Shouya Grigg

The Japanese tradition of bathing at an onsen (a hot-spring thermal bath) is a year-round pursuit throughout the country, but it’s especially therapeutic during a cold Hokkaido winter. Of the several onsen across Niseko, one in particular offers relaxation with a view: The rotenburo (outdoor pool) at the Hilton Niseko Village is the ideal vantage point from which to admire Mount Yotei, “the Mount Fuji of Hokkaido.” If you’re not hitting the slopes, go earlier in the day to get the view without the après-ski crowds.

As an alternative, there’s Goshiki Onsen in the middle of the tranquil, forested backcountry of the Annupuri resort. For a more upscale, secluded onsen experience, stay at Zaborin, the luxury ryokan (traditional inn) in the backwoods of the Hanazono resort.

No matter where you decide to soak, the basic etiquette is the same. Onsens are fully nude facilities separated by gender. The first step is to disrobe and put on a yukata, your cover-up when you’re not bathing. It’s customary to wash before and after you soak at the bathing stations — individual stalls, each with a stool, a handheld shower, a bucket and soap, shampoo and conditioner. Once clean, submerge in the geothermally heated, mineral-rich waters and relax. Note that tattoos are still considered taboo in Japanese culture, so if you’re sporting ink, you might want to check on policies with specific onsen through a concierge or local tourism center.

Eating it up

Tsubara Tsubara soup.
Tsubara Tsubara soup.Erik Trinidad

Japanese cuisine is more than sashimi and ramen. Each region has its specialties, and Hokkaido is known for its dairy, vegetables, lamb and seafood. The prefecture produces half of the country’s milk, 90 percent of its cheese and some delicious desserts. Milk Kobo, the dessert and pastry shop of Takahashi Dairy Farm in Niseko Village, dishes out yogurt, soft-serve vanilla ice cream, cream puffs and the famous Hokkaido cheese tart, which rides the line between sweet and savory.

The flavors and textures of grilled meats, Japanese eggplant and root vegetables come together in a bowl of hearty Hokkaido soup curry, a popular dish that originated in Sapporo, the island’s largest city. It’s the specialty of Tsubara Tsubara, a casual eatery in lower Hirafu, the town that’s home to the four mountain resorts. Puku Puku Tei, in upper Hirafu, serves another warming regional dish: jingisukan, or “Genghis Khan,” a sizzling platter of vegetables and lamb.

Hokkaido is largely responsible for Japan’s reputation as a source for delicious, fresh seafood. Savor Hokkaido oysters on the half-shell or share some shabu shabu at Niseko Village’s marketplace-style eatery, the Crab Shack, where snow-crab legs cook in tableside pots of broth.

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