The mountain of fire and ice

Japan has many good ski resorts, but one of its lesser lights may be the best of the lot. Tam Leach reports from Niseko, the peak where the snow hardly ever stops falling

Within hours of hitting town, we realised that the Australians had beaten us to it. Operating from practically the same time zone, they had the home (ish) advantage. Over the past few years, skiers from Sydney and boarders from Brisbane have discovered one of the best ski resorts on the planet: Niseko, Japan.

Within hours of hitting town, we realised that the Australians had beaten us to it. Operating from practically the same time zone, they had the home (ish) advantage. Over the past few years, skiers from Sydney and boarders from Brisbane have discovered one of the best ski resorts on the planet: Niseko, Japan.

Niseko is tucked up in Hokkaido, the snow-drenched northern island of the Japanese chain - a place where the white stuff seldom stops falling and teepees are built around smaller trees and shrubs to protect them from the sheer weight of snow. The powder is simply there for the taking, right off the lift - pillow after pillow of the most forgiving, bottomless, feather-light flakes. The slopes are graced with views of Mount Yokei volcano, the locals are unswervingly polite, the bars and restaurants glow with mellow style - and the prices are surprisingly affordable.

Naturally, the Japanese were here first, and still comprise nine out of 10 of the visitors to this Shangri-La. Yet even in Japan it's a rank outsider. Of the 400-plus ski resorts in the country - many born in the Eighties financial boom when skiing was high fashion - those of Nagano prefecture, in the Japanese Alps, are far more popular.

Revealed to the world during the 1994 Winter Olympics, these bustling slopes serve the urban centres of south-central Japan. Just a couple of hours from Tokyo by shinkansen (bullet train), it's in Nagano that you'll find some of the wackier aspects of skiing in Japan: a McDonald's perched halfway up the slopes, music piped out across the pistes, hordes of Japanese decked out in the latest snowboard gear, politely lining up to throw themselves off jumps. But though cute in their own way, and with respectable snow at times, Nagano resorts are not a patch on Niseko. In Nagano, off-piste is strictly off-limits - and it's off-piste that has pushed Niseko into the limelight. That, and the almost constant supply of fresh powder. Comprised of British pros and other snow addicts, our group found the volcanic pistes a little too tame for their tastes. Mellow and rarely icy, Niseko's groomed slopes are perfect for intermediates who like to cruise, but don't come close to the sheer faces of the Alps. However, once we'd scooted just off the marked runs and ducked into the silvery, spectral trees, we found ourselves in a glade-skiing wonderland, taking endless runs of untracked, bottomless fluff. With years of hiking and heli-skiing experience amongst us, this was effortless, abundant off-piste on a whole new level.

And aside from a handful of Aussies, we had the trees to ourselves. Japanese skiers keep resolutely to the pistes. Popular lore has it that this is so as not to disturb spirits who live in the woods, though in truth, most Japanese youths don't keep abreast of the spirit world. Expats who run guide services in the area claim inexperience among ski patrols is a prime factor. Regardless, it means that the powder remains untouched.

For now, at least. As more shots of Hokkaido's powder make it into the ski and boarding magazines, Niseko's reputation is rapidly growing. And it's not just expert skiers hungry for off-piste who are making the trip these days. For Australasians, Niseko is closer than the Alps or the Rockies, has more consistent snow, and the time difference is minimal. And so long as precipitous black slopes are not your deal, it's a resort for all abilities. With 38 lifts and five linked ski areas, there's plenty to keep beginners and intermediates busy. Most of the mountain is lit at night, and lifts are open from 8.30am-9pm. Lessons with native English speakers are available from locally based Australian tour operators and guide services; they also run day trips to less-developed ski resorts in the region. Back-country expeditions are another option, with guided cat-skiing offered at the stupendously low price of £15 a session.

A resort doesn't make superlative status just on its skiing. We came to Niseko for the snow, but were bowled over by the après-ski. No dancing on tables in ski boots or Europop here; at the base of the mountain, the cosy village of Niseko Hirafu is dotted with funky little places to eat and drink, all discreetly tucked down quiet, pretty lanes.

With the ocean close by (the resort sits practically at sea level, rising in elevation over 1,000ft), fresh seafood and sushi make a pleasant change from the European diet of fondue and ham. We dined on Asian-fusion dishes in the Mongolian tent of the Genten Café, and sat cross-legged on tatami mats in our own private dining room at Maru.

Lunch was a huge bowl of ramen or soba noodles from one of the on-mountain cafés, costing less than a fiver; splashing out meant spending more than £10. The preconception that Japan is unaffordable is long out of date: once in the resort, we lived like kings on a budget that might have stretched to a self-catering holiday in France.

Exhausted from days on the mountain, we'd occasionally drag ourselves on to expat-heavy Happy's, where beer is served up in a converted truck. Hot buttered rum and puds are on the menu at Gyu, a bar with hay-stuffed walls and a old fridge door serving as the entrance; under Yummy's pretty pizza parlour is a white-washed cavern-like DJ bar that would look quite at home in New York.

Should visitors tire of the village, the karaoke bars, pachinko halls (full of deafening Japanese-style fruit machines), and giant supermarkets of the curious railroad town of Kutchan are a 20-minute free bus ride away. Most nights, however, making it to one of Niseko's peaceful onsen (hot springs) was all the entertainment we could handle. Onsen are gender-segregated and beautifully appointed, sheltered from prying eyes by tall fences. Lying under the stars, steam floating off the silvery pool, feeling like a heffalump among the naked water nymphs - this was activity enough.

Besides, our beds were calling. A handful of large luxury hotels crowd the base of the slopes, but the heart of Niseko lies in the many inexpensive minshukus (family-run guest-houses). Some are stylish, like low-key boutique hotels. Increasingly, new luxury chalets are available to rent; it seems crazy, though, to pass up the opportunity to stay with Japanese hosts. All those we met seemed to dedicate their existence to improving the lot of their guests, emissaries of Japanese culture with beaming smiles and impressive culinary skills.

Niseko is changing as expatriates establish bars and restaurants, and apartments spring up. Right now, the development is in keeping with the atmosphere here; a fusion of stylish, elegant Japan and sunny, easy-going Australasia makes the place special. But as the package tourists descend, Niseko will lose some of its charm. And as for that powder - it won't stay untracked forever.

GETTING THERE

Four airlines fly non-stop from London Heathrow to Tokyo: ANA (0870 837 8866; www.anaskyweb.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Japan Airlines (08457 747700; www.jal.com) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com). With Japan Airlines, the short hop from Tokyo to Sapporo is included in the standard UK-Japan fare.

An alternative way to reach Japan on the cheap is to buy a flights on Japan Airlines or All Nippon Airways (ANA) to Sydney, Brisbane or Cairns with a stopover in Tokyo.

The three-hour bus transfers from Sapporo to Niseko cost Y3,850 (£19) return.

STAYING THERE

Tam Leach stayed at the Shizenkan Lodge and Backpacker (00 81 136 234351; www.niseko-backpacker.com), which has rooms from Y2,300 yen (£11.50) per night. The Woody Note (00 81 136 23 0177; www.woodynote.com), charges Y7,500 (£38) per person half-board.

Recommended luxury chalets include those owned by First Tracks ( www.hokkaidotracks.com), which cost from £110-£230 per night for four to eight-bed apartments. You can book accommodation online through local tour operators such as Niseko Powder Connection ( www.niseko-hirafu.com).

Go to the website www.snowjapan.com for English-language information on Japanese resorts and places to stay.

Take plenty of cash - it's hard to find cash machines that accept foreign cards. There are none in Niseko, and the one in nearby Kutchan is unreliable.

SKIING THERE

Lift tickets at Niseko (00 81 136 22 0109; www.grand-hirafu.jp) cost Y3,500 (£17.50) per day, or Y13,300 (£66) for a week. Larger sizes in boots, skis and boards can be hard to find, so book in advance or bring your own.

MORE INFORMATION

The "Tourist's Language Handbook" and other information is available for free from the Japan National Tourist Organisation (020-7734 9638; www.seejapan.co.uk).

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