Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ski, Sauna & Sushi

The first picture that came to my mind when my friend Y. proposed a few weeks ago to do some skiing in Japan was the now defunct indoor ski slopes at Japan SSAWS dome that you can see when you are taking the bus from Narita airport on your way to downtown Tokyo. Not very exciting, yet interesting to try for a day or so; but I was willing to get myself into trouble for the sake of swallowing some snowflakes.

[Niseko Ski Resort]

The problem was that the last time I spent more than two days skiing in a row, George W. Bush Senior was president of the US, and my skis were bigger than me by a large 20cm. I was a bit anxious to find if the latest technical advancement, the ones called the “curved ski” could fit my feet the same way I remember the large and heavy flat pieces of wood did. Nonetheless I was extremely pleased to picture myself falling in the snow powder, and finally put my four months' of new routine daily running to a more useful goal than the one I found so far: impress the two dog walkers I have met so far in the park.

[Bus Ride to Niseko Ski Resort]

My Japanese friend Y. convinced us that the best place to ski in Japan was to go as far away from civilization as possible. Niseko in the northern Hokkaido Island would be the place to spend five consecutive days for the winter ski vacation. A red-eye flight plus a local connection flight and a bus trip later helped all of us reach safely the lost hotel, which was covered by snow, ready to be spoiled by human giant feet named ski.

[Old Hokkaido Government Building
(Akarengo), Sapporo]

Although Singapore is not the reference on the planet to do winter gear shopping, we managed just before the plane take-off to do a weekend shopping for the minimum equipment needed for enduring the cold days of Hokkaido. To my surprise all of our winter equipment was almost adequate for the trip, but was definitely lacking the sex appeal that now winter sport-men and sport-women inflict upon each other. We neither had flashy pants nor flamboyant jackets; just few supposedly water repellent outfits that might protect us from the lubricious snow which always finds its way down to your underwear no matter how many layers you put on.

[Sapporo Beer Museum]

On my first day on the slopes I was shocked by what I saw around me. Looking at the crowd confirmed that I was now part of the second last generation, and the only way to confirm my age would be now to use the carbon dating technique. I was barely the only skier around with this awkward instrument named skis, everyone around me had snowboards. The over supply in skis at the rental place should have alarmed me, but I was blinded by my over-excitement of going down the slopes again. Details exist to be paid attention to and I should have been more careful. But I didn’t care and confronted the entire planet; and like a pine tree in a snow storm I was ready to bend but not give up. Ski was my decision; ski will be my tools of enjoyment.

[Sapporo Beer]

My first runs were a delight in one of the best powder I had ever had the pleasure to scar. Long curves in a light and dry snow powder were my winter happiness under the sun of Hokkaido. It took me a few slopes to adjust myself to the new style and put back in mind the memory muscle I had built over my young age of downhill race competition across the French mountains. Like a Grandpa would say, “the new skis are easier to turn with and less difficult to manage. In my days…” The first three days were a compilation of hot chocolate drinking, slope runs swallowing, picture and video taking under the glorious sun of Niseko in Japan. With a small caveat though, my fellow winter snowboard companions were complaining more often than usual about sore muscles and weak leg ligaments. And the double intake of Onsen (Hot Spring and Sauna) at the hotel was becoming insufficient to heal the daily effort and contusions. My revenge was touting around the forest of pine trees.

[JR Tower West View, Sapporo]

With an angelic smile and honest suggestion, I proposed to my snowboard friends (yes I have snowboarder friends) to teach them a more easy way to endure the runs, but that would require them to sacrifice their cool factor and switch to the ancient practice of skiing. I think that the curiosity of using a depleted technique as well as the extreme state of pain they put themselves into, pushed them to accept my proposition for the last two days of our winter vacation. I have to say that I was quite impressed by the progress they made over such a short period of time, but it took them only few runs to handle the antique practice of ski and enjoy themselves in a far easier way that the one they were doing prior.

[JR Tower South View, Sapporo]

I was not alone anymore. We were now three skiers on the slopes of Niseko. It took me a few days to convince two snowboarders to switch to ski, and now, only few million left to go.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sapporo Addresses

Sapporo is the fifth-largest city in Japan by population and the capital of Hokkaidō Prefecture. Sapporo is best known outside Japan for hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics, the first ever held in Asia, and for the annual Yuki Matsuri in the city, internationally referred to as the Sapporo Snow Festival, which draws more than 2 million tourists from around the world.

English maps are usually accessible at every tourist office and is a must have to wander around this small city of northern Japan.


Among the central hotels under 5,000 yen a night, some reference-able ones are:
  • Hotel Gracery Sapporo
    [Rakuten] [TripAdvisor]
    Centrally located in front of the JR Train Station, the hotel is known locally by the elderly taxi drivers as the Sapporo Washington Hotel (its previous name). Rooms are small yet modern and clean. Nothing can beat the location and the hotel will give you everything you need for a short stay. The electronic check-out kiosk is a must try if you never did it before.

  • Aspen Sapporo Hotel
    [Rakuten] [TripAdvisor]
    Another under the 5,000 yen a night per person hotel, centrally located but less modern than the Gracery. In case the previous hotel is full.

  • Richmond Sapporo Ekimae
    [Rakuten] [TripAdvisor]
    Back-up plan if you cannot find a rooms in previous spots.

Sapporo is well known in Japan for its fresh Seafood (Hairy Crab, White Crab, Sushi, etc...), locally produced Beer and Ramen culinary expertise.

  • Ebikanigassen (Ph: 011-210-0411)
    F45 Bldg.12F,S4,W5,Chuo-ku,Sapporo

    In this well established place which does more than 70 types of prawn and crab dishes, the view is nice overlooking the Susukino. “All-you-can-eat plan,” which is offered at reasonable prices is very popular among locals and tourists. “Ebikanigassen party course,” which is also substantial and reasonably priced is winning great popularity, even among local people.

  • Kikuzushi (Ph: 011 511 9357)
    Minami 5 Nishi 3, Grand Taiyo Building, Sapporo, 064-0804 [TripAdvisor]

    This sushi restaurant has been in continuous operation since the Taisho period (1912-26), and it is considered to serve the some of freshest fish and seafood in the whole of Japan. The extremely reasonable priced Omakase (which will let the chef choose your meal) includes both miso soup and as much green tea as you can drink. Also renowned for its huge selection of Japanese sake, the restaurant always delivers on what is consider the best place to eat sushi in Japan.

  • Sapporo Noodle Zero (Ph: 011-219-5200)
    Chuo-ku Minami 2, Nishi 1-chome, Sapporo (Tanuki Koji, 1-chome)
    5-min walking distance from South Station subway line 5

    Sapporo Noodle Zero Ramen Restaurant

    Sapporo has two main Ramen streets, the Ramen Alley and the New Ramen Alley to choose from. But a nice Ramen place called Noodle Zero lived up to its local recommendation. Before you sit, pay at the machine by push-button selecting the item you want, give the ticket to the waitress and wait a few minutes to have the bowl of hot noodle in front of you.

Usually located around the Susukino district (Sapporo's version of Tokyo Ginza), bars are everywhere if you look for them. Sunday sees bars closing at midnight and only few places offer some late drinks.
  • eight Ricefield cafe (Ph 011-531-4681)
    The place was one of the few that was open late at night serving food and drinks. An interesting concept at the time was the all-you-can-eat or all-you-can-drink for a limited amount of time (90 minutes usually). A great idea to load up on carbs or alcohol before going to the next step.

[[To Do]]
Sapporo is a walking city. Make sure you are located next to the train station for your shopping experience or at Susukino for your night life experience. If you are in one of these two spots the cab transfer between places will never go over 1,000 yen.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Niseko Addresses

Niseko is the one of the most popular winter resorts in the Hokkaido island in Japan. The area is known for some of the lightest and driest off-piste powder snow in the world. Among the over 500 ski resorts in Japan, Niseko is a unique place that will make every skier or snowboarder happy no matter what the weather or snow conditions.

Although it is divided up into four linked areas, Annupuri, Higashiyama (also known as Niseko Village but not the main base area), Hanazono and Grand Hirafu, making it the biggest ski resort in Hokkaido, Niseko is essentially one large mountain. The all-mountain-pass provides access to all the areas with the exception of Moiwa, a smaller resort on the western side of Annupuri. A free shuttle bus service for all-mountain-pass holders runs every 30 minutes linking all the main resorts.

Skiers are able to use the 38 lifts and gondolas, over 47km of slopes, several terrain parks and many half-pipes. Hirafu's night skiing is accessible with the all-day passes at no additional cost, and is considered to be one of the best and largest night skiing in the world.

The bottom lift starts at 280 meters and the top lift goes to 1200 meters. The summit at 1308 meters is accessible after a 15-minutes hike from the top lift, and offer an amazing panoramic view of the Japan Sea and the Niseko area, including the ever-present volcanic cone of Mt. Yotei considered as Hokkaido’s Mt. Fuji.

The best option is to get your hands on the Niseko Area Guide from the Niseko Promotion Board. The guide will give you all the latest options for food, bar, shopping, hot springs, and activities.


Kanronomori Hotel

  • Hotel Kanronomori is a boutique Ryokan style hotel located 10 minutes away by bus from the bottom of the Annupuri ski slopes. The hotel provides free bus transportation from and to Annupuri (every hour) and to and from Grand Hirafu (twice a day) for ski activities. The hotel also provides ski/board rental at a moderate price.

    The best part about the hotel is neither the modest yet convenient and quiet rooms, nor the giant Western and Japanese breakfast buffets, but the natural Onsen (hot spring public baths) that will help you to manage the very long days on the slopes. I cannot imagine what would have been my trip without my morning AND evening hot spring bath to wake or relax my muscles. A must-do if you want to enjoy a long stay in Niseko. [TripAdvisor]

  • Higashiyama (also known as Niseko Village) is hosting the famous Hilton Hotel, and is certainly a very convenient but slightly remote place to stay. If you want to sleep in style and have your ski lifts literally at the bottom of your hotel stairs, Hilton will be the place to go. Please notice that commuting time (20 minutes - 3,000 yen by taxi) to Grand Hirafu could be a problem if you wish to enjoy night life.
  • For more action-based and less commuting time (30 minutes - 4,000 yen by taxi), a a better bet would be the Grand Hirafu ski resort area. You will find many restaurants, bars and many more accommodations to make your stay more enjoyable. An interesting combination would be a place with an Onsen at Grand Hirafu.


The food in Niseko is usually fresh and amazing. It's quite difficult to find a bad place to eat but you can always try. Some of the places I tried during my stay in the area:
  • Steak Rosso Rosso (Ph: 0136 21 7100)
    Hidden in a side road of the lower Grand Hirafu village, this classy steak restaurant offers a great option for a carnivore on the roll. Salads are huge and make a great side dish for your choice cut of meat. Plates come with a round heated stone disk for you to adjust your meat's level of 'done' taste in case of need.

  • Sekka Dining Bar (Ph: 0136-21-5022; Email: reservations@j-sekka.com )
    Sekka is a restaurant within J-Sekka. Located in one of the four corners of the main crossroads of the Grand Hirafu village, J-Sekka is a concept building where you can find a bar as well as a bakery on the first floor, large luxurious apartments and two restaurants in the basement. Mixing Hokkaido products with Western presentation, world-class chef deliver one of the most high service restaurant option in the region. For those who wants to splurge themselves with a credit card around their neck.

  • Senchou 2 (Ph: 0136 22 5454)
    Situated in the upper part of the Grand Hirafu village, the sister restaurant of Senchou 1 is one of best and freshest seafood restaurant in the area. For those who wants to eat sushi and sashimi, shellfish, fish, crabs, anything from the sea without bargaining on the quality. Fairly cheap, great and well-located, what else can you ask for?

Niseko is not the most alive place in Japan when it comes to night life, but after a full day (and sometime evening) of ski, one might just want to sleep to recoup for the next day. If you feel that you wish to swallow a couple of drinks to help you fall in the arms of Morpheus, here are some places you should check out.
  • Paddy McGintys' Irish Pub (Ph: 0136 55 8020)
    Located on the main road of the Upper Part of the Grand Hirafu village, the pub has some Guinness over the counter and some extreme ski movies projected on the wall to help you eat the crackers served at your table. Only if you need an Irish drink.

  • Mina Mina (Ph: 0136 23 4771)
    In a back alley close to the center of the Upper Part of the Grand Hirafu, the 5-table restaurant turns at night into a convivial bar where locals and foreigners mix for few shots. A great place to hang out before going to the next place.

[[To Go]]

  • The best way to go to Niseko is to land in Sapporo's New Chitose Airport, and from there take a bus or a local train to Niseko. Most of the hotels, pensions or accommodations will organize a transfer from Chitose, or if not, will point you to the best way to knock on their door.

  • Skybus for a private transportation (Ph: 011 788 4994) or privates buses (Chuo and Donan lines, see option 2, or this map, and some more explanation here) are common use to go back and forth between Chitose and Niseko. You can buy the bus ticket at the airport counters on the last minute.

  • Train Hypermedia website (www.hyperdia.com) gives a full explanation for every train trip in Japan. Don't forget to look at the JR Train Pass if you wish to go further away in Japan by train in the peninsula.

  • Niseko itself is quite spread away between the villages in terms of distance and if you do not rent a car, the best way to move around would be by taxi. Most of them hang around at Seico Mart the main and only supermarket of the Grand Hirafu village.

  • The most convenient Tour Operators to book for Japan are your local JTB (Japan Tourism Board) [Singapore] or local JNTO [Singapore]. They usually offer great promotions and will help you book and translate for you at the next destination you plan to visit.

  • New Chitose Airport is a great last (or even first) minute shopping. Everything you need to by is at a finger tip for your friends to enjoy.