There’s nothing in the world that brings out your inner child like dry, powdery, perfect snow, floating down to create literal mountains of endless fun. Speak to anyone in the snow-sports scene and they will tell you the best snow in the world can be found in Hokkaido, Japan.
I’ve always wanted to learn how to snowboard, and I did give it a red-hot crack once for a single winter day a few years ago. I enjoyed it, but it was difficult. The snow in Australia was more like ice and I fell A LOT. After that I subconsciously gave up the idea, but maintained an optimistic front and kept it on the bucket list.
Fast forward to three years later and I’m planning my endless travels, including a three-week leg in Japan in March. Trawling through the bucket list (which is how I plan most of my travels), ‘learn to snowboard’ catches my eye once more, so I booked a part of my trip as a snow holiday in Hokkaido, where I was lucky enough to stumble upon a deal that took me to a small village named Hirafu, located in the Niseko area.
I found myself in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Hirafu Village sits at the base of Mt Niseko-Annapuri, and is the central spot for snow activities all over the mountain and at its base. The main road points directly up the mountain, creating one of the most spectacular winter views I have ever seen, especially at night when lights are projected against the towering slopes and the roads are dotted with gold.
Pictures don’t do it justice. It was truly enchanting. A walk or a bus ride around the local area revealed other incredible sights, but the night view of the village was the one that took my breath away.
My attention was quickly stolen by the number of snow activities packed into this small area. There’s snowboarding, skiing, tobogganing, sledding, tubing, trekking, snow rafting and many more outdoor goings-on; none of which will break the bank! One of the other marvelous things about this part of the world is that compared to places like Verbier, Switzerland or Perisher, Australia, Japan gives much more value for money. As I had set out to learn to snowboard I had booked five days of lessons with Niseko Base Snowsports, who gave me a great package deal. The first few days were shaky but I went from spending 90% of the time on my behind, to about 30% by the end of the five days. I would call that a success!
At the end of each day, when I was all worn out from the excitement of the snow, Hirafu Village’s offering of restaurants and bars were a welcome reprieve. My favourite places to eat were Tozanken Ramen, Niseko Pizza and Izakaya Restaurant. For drinks after dinner I would head to Bar Gyu (aka The Fridge Door Bar), or for something a little lower down the price scale there was always Tamashii or Monty’s. I was also recommended a place called Amaru however didn’t get time to go.
It is difficult for me to select a favourite thing about this holiday, but if I had to, it would be learning of the existence of Onsens. An Onsen is a Japanese hot spring with very specific rules and traditions. The main one is that you can’t wear anything…at all. You’re completely nude as per the regulations.
The wonderful thing about it though, is that no one cares! The baths are separated into male and female, and being nude around other women doesn’t carry the same stigma as in western culture. There’s no one judging you or comparing – everyone is just there to relax.
And you will relax. The baths vary in temperature but generally sit between 38-42 degrees Celsius. Many have both indoor and outdoor pools, and let me tell you, an outdoor 40 degree hot spring in the middle of winter is an experience in itself. Obviously I have no pictures that I took myself, but here is a stock picture of one of the Onsens I got to visit.
In my eyes no trip to Japan is complete without having a ‘zenned’ out experience in an Onsen. I had about ten! The best ones were Hilton Niseko Onsen and Hakone Yuryo Onsen (near Tokyo). Regardless of whether this is your “thing” or not, if you’re thinking about making a winter trip to Japan, Niseko is a must-see/must-do. There’s something there for everyone.
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