The first time I visited Japan's premier ski resort on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, I overheard a conversation on the lifts. Just as my siblings and I were praising the incredible powder, which easily outshone Europe's slopes, a group of Australians loudly bemoaned how 2019 was the worst season they'd ever had in Niseko. The moral of this tale we decided, as we scattered off the lift up top, attached neon skis and reaffixed goggles, was that even Japan's worst could beat Europe's best.
Four years later, I found myself at another of Mount Niseko-Annupuri's four resorts, Niseko Village. I have a distinct memory of this place: awaiting the free shuttle outside The Green Leaf hotel, looking in at the warm, designer lobby with chilled envy as we schlepped back to our no food, no frills chalet. This time, Green Leaf's plush modernity, decorated with touches from local graphic artist Emi Shiratori, is all mine.
The closest hotel to the piste, Green Leaf has ski-in/ski-out access and a rental shop-come-boot room that's run with extraordinary efficiency. Days here are fuelled by Japanese classics at the bright Goshiki restaurant, as skiers whip past the broad windows to their own lunch, while the evening is met with the meltingly good hands of the in-house sports physio. After steaming yourself soporific in the natural onsen, falling into the big white beds is akin to sinking into a flour-soft snow drift.
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Swooshing down the slopes
Kitted out courtesy of the hotel, we head out into the chill, the looming cone of Mount Yotei breaking the bluebird sky. The Niseko United ski area covers four resorts over a mammoth 2,191 acres of skiable slopes and backcountry terrain. For those with a week there's plenty to explore, but if you only have a weekend spare from a longer Japan itinerary, you can choose a single resort.
This trip I stick to Niseko Village and not once do I feel robbed of the rest. My prior visit to the village's pistes was a tip-of-the-iceberg experience: a cursory swoosh down its main slopes before excitedly heading on to the next side of the mountain. Now, I dig in under the care of my instructor Sam – one of those people seemingly born with skis attached to their feet – who takes me through everything it has to offer. From the pretty forest-lined trails of Cruiser, to the red peak of Wonderland where sunlight is blocked from the sky with passing blizzards, through the harsh black Misoshiro mogul fields that feel like a personal attack.
Gaining ski legs (and boot bruises) back, the second day sees us sink further into village fun. Our slick skis jounce through dense trees, slalom off-piste half pipes and rocket down steep, smooth-as-butter reds, all while Sam corrects bad habits decades in the making.
Cruising into the final stretch of Ageimo's green run delivers us to Higashiyama Niseko Village: my second hotel of the trip. Higashiyama is the first Ritz-Carlton Reserve hotel in Japan: one of only five worldwide. It's Niseko's ultra-luxury ski-in/ski-out sanctuary of warm furs and fragrant cedarwood, where cosy libraries and cool bars rub elegant, dim-lit shoulders. At the end of two days hard skiing, Higashiyama's personal hosts, bespoke spas, window-side bathtubs, and the biggest suites I've ever seen feel like reaching nirvana.
The apres-ski experience – notably quieter in Japan – gets upgraded at Ume Lounge, the central bar stocking an astonishing range of Japanese alcohol: not just whisky, but gin, vodka and wines, too. Higashiyama's crowning glory, the prospect that keeps me going through a demanding white-out day on the pistes, is its exquisite Sushi Nagi counter restaurant. Here, the itamae head chef curates a seasonal omakase menu of succulent Hokkaido sushi and more.
Between the pistes and the opulence, Niseko is also awash with brilliant food. Hilton Niseko Village is home to both a convivial ski pub serving hearty grub and a seasonal, local fine-dining restaurant. When you've eaten your way round the village's best, shuttle off to Hirafu, Niseko's main resort town where restaurants, bars and fellow skiers come together to celebrate another day of plunging into the world's best powder.
Jo Davey was a guest of YTL Hotels. Rates at Higashiyama Niseko Village, A Ritz Carlton Reserve start from JPY96,000 (approximately £514/$644, dependent on exchange rate at time of booking) per night during the winter season, on a room-only basis; ritzcarlton.com. Rates at The Green Leaf start from JPY42,753 (approximately £229/$287 dependent on exchange rate at time of booking) per night; thegreenleafhotel.com
Ski Safari offers seven nights in The Green Leaf, with a deluxe room on a b&b basis, from £2,365 ($2,963) per person. Price includes return transfers and return flights with Japan Airlines. Rate is based on departures from the UK between 7 January to 2 February; skisafari.com
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