Japan: Where the view is stunning and rare

By Hayden Donnell

New Zealand has a rival for the world's most breathtaking landscapes, writes Hayden Donnell.

A freeskier makes the most of the powder on Mt Niseko Annupuri. Photo / Sarah Ivey
A freeskier makes the most of the powder on Mt Niseko Annupuri. Photo / Sarah Ivey

It usually snows all winter in Niseko. Drifts of white pile up on the roads and block the footpaths. Bulldozers work day and night to clear them. The ever-present grey clouds are a blessing. They fill the slopes above the Japanese ski resort town with its famous fresh powder snow.

When I got to Niseko in mid-February, it was -3C and fine. You could see for miles. People were bitterly disappointed. I saw them peering sullenly at the blue sky, hoping the weather would get worse. I'm glad it didn't. Those clouds would have covered up one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen.

I had travelled to the tiny village in the Hokkaido prefecture, about 1000km north of Tokyo, to spend a day skiing. Freezing northeast-to-southwest Siberian winds blow in 15.11m of snowfall a year to the region, coating the slopes of Mt Niseko Annupuri, extending the ski season to seven months and drawing the disposable cash of thousands of Australian tourists.

They were everywhere in Niseko, Australians tumbling out of bars with names like Wild Bill's and The Barn. I saw them chatting on the ski lifts, queuing for noodles and beer at the only supermarket and milling near the "Australian House" on the town's main street.

A man ordering at one of the local restaurants had a revealing twang to his voice. I asked if he was Australian.

"I've been here 20 years," he said.

"I think of myself as Japanese. I don't support Australia at the Olympics any more. I support Japan."

I asked why.

"Australians have got a bad reputation around here."

Our group of New Zealanders was welcomed with open arms, despite arriving jaded after a two-hour bus trip from Sapporo with the remnants of a booze-induced karaoke session echoing in our heads.

People carried our bags. A restaurant owner made a special trip to our table to offer complimentary bottles of the local sake. Hotel staff arranged special transport to suit us. Everyone seemed pleased to hear where we came from. Their smiles betrayed a touch of relief.

All of Japan was about to be immersed in a mania over the Disney film Frozen. Niseko looked like a scene from the movie. Snow covered everything but the sides of the buildings. It fell in flurries after dark.

Just before dawn one morning the temperature dropped to -16C. I lay in bed looking at the weather app on my iPhone, imagining the blistering cold. The ski field loomed above, a one-tone mat of white, so close it was hard to tell where the town ended and the ski courses began.

Photos: Mt Niseko Annupuri

At Ruapehu a day on the snow means getting up bleary-eyed and irritable to face a 6am breakfast of baked beans and a precariously steep drive with chains on your tyres.

In Niseko, skiers and snowboarders finished their runs about 200m from my kitchen window at the Yama Shizen.

On the day I headed up the mountain, I had a slow breakfast of bacon and eggs, got changed into my gear and walked slowly up the road to the gondola. The trip took 10 minutes.

For a while all I saw was the snow in front of me. Five years after my last time on the snow, it took all I had not to fall. I quickly got the hang of things.

Jason, my excellent tour leader from Korean Air, didn't. He fell early and often and may still have been face down in the snow when I decided to ditch him. The sun was shining and I wanted to head to the highest point on the mountain. I said a silent prayer for Jason's health and skied away with the slightest hint of guilt.

There are three major ski fields on Mt Annupuri, each with at least a dozen courses. I wove my way between them, in search of a lift that would take me to the top. By the time I found one, a piercing wind was blowing in my face and freezing my feet. My guilt had disappeared. All I felt was regret at not listening to Mum when she told me which ones were the thermal socks.

The pain vanished when I got off the lift and turned to take in a view so spectacular that I felt like I had been transplanted into a nature documentary.

The ski field dropped away below, giving way to flat snow-covered plains that stretched out as far as I could see. Mt Yotei, sometimes named "Ezo Fuji" for its resemblance to the famous volcano near Tokyo, stood alone on the horizon. Sunlight reflected off its face. There was barely a cloud in the azure blue sky.

I spent the rest of the day alone in awe and wonder, occasionally throwing my ski poles up in exuberance, singing to myself under my breath as the mountain flew by.

In my strange, happy delirium I started doing uncharacteristic things like taking selfies, smiling to myself and speaking to strangers.

One of the first I spoke to was an Australian man I sat next to on a chairlift. He told me he was a little upset at the lack of snow. A more cheerful New Zealander who had come to Niseko for a break from his job as an Emirates pilot felt the same.

I couldn't understand it. There was still more powder than I'd ever seen on Ruapehu and we were skiing between trees in what may have been - in that moment, on that day - the most beautiful place on Earth.

I only left the mountain when my feet were so frozen I couldn't stand up properly. Jason was waiting back at our apartment. He asked how I went. I found it hard to explain the near-spiritual experience I'd had on the mountaintop. Instead I showed him a blood blister on my foot and tried to fool him into thinking it was frostbite.

He looked concerned and asked whether I needed medical treatment. We spent the evening drinking beer, watching an old war movie and talking about North Korea.

Less than 12 hours later, we left Niseko. The town still hadn't had a heavy dumping of snow and wasn't due one for at least a few more days.

I watched Mt Yotei disappearing into the distance as we drove through a mushroom-laden section of countryside and away to New Chitose Airport.

I would love to go back. Maybe next time I'll experience more of that fresh powder snow and see what all the fuss is about. But even if I do get fresh powder, I hope the sky clears at least once or twice during my visit.

We're often told New Zealand is the prettiest place in the world. Not when the sun's out in Niseko.

Top tip

Make sure you explore all the ski runs on offer. There are three interconnected ski fields on Annupuri, so it might mean getting creative.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Fly Korean Air from Auckland to Seoul, then catch a transfer flight from Seoul to Sapporo.

Where to stay: Yama Shizen Niseko.

What to do: In the winter, ski Mt Niseko Annupuri.

Further information: To find great ski packages in Japan see jtboi.co.nz.

The writer travelled courtesy of JTB and Korean Air.

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