The Harmonious Heights of Japan
Discover Niseko Village in Japan, which offers elusive powder and terrific skiing, as well as a luxurious sanctuary deeply connected to the mountain landscape and cultural roots
Nestled in Hokkaido, Japan, Niseko Village is a legendary winter destination. Known for its champagne-powder snow – of which it boasts 49 to 62ft annually over 2,191 acres of mountain land – it’s a haven for skiers and snowboarders alike. Enthusiasts chase this elusive ‘Japow’ (a term used to describe the region’s exceptional snow) with the same eagerness that locals show for a bowl of the region’s famous Sapporo ramen. The area has long captivated winter sports aficionados – and I was on a quest to find out why.
I was guided to two of Niseko Village’s crown jewels: The Green Leaf and Higashiyama, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, which is the first of its kind in Japan. These aren’t just hotels; they’re integral to the Niseko experience, harmonising luxury with a genuine respect for the natural environment. As I drove deeper into this snow-clad Eden, it became clear: Niseko Village is more than a winter playground; it’s a place where the land, culture, and luxury accommodations conspire to offer a profoundly enriching, exhilarating experience rarely found elsewhere in Japan.
A NEW LEAF
The moment I walked into The Green Leaf Niseko Village, I could sense the seamless blend of traditional Japanese culture and modern sophistication. Created by the New York-based Champalimaud Design, The Green Leaf made an immediate impression. But this wasn’t just about aesthetics; it was a prelude to an extraordinary stay that promised both relaxation and real adventure. Welcomed by the citrussy scent of yuzu wafting through the air and a steaming cup of green tea from the courteous hospitality team, my eyes wandered over the woodwork, furnishings, and an array of stunning artwork by local artist Emi Shiratori. It felt like the entire environment was crafted to slow down time, inviting guests to drink in the details.
After a long journey, we were in need of refreshments, so we ventured to Yang Shu Ten, a short stroll from the hotel. This culinary gem is renowned for its multi-course meals featuring Hokkaido’s finest produce and seafood, including Wagyu shabu shabu and sashimi. Paired with the exquisite Kamotsuru Gold sake, our evening became an atmospheric prelude to the rest of the trip.
The next day, morning light revealed a winter wonderland that beckoned us outdoors and, after a quick fill up on plenty of carbs at the Goshiki dining room, we were ready to hit the slopes. The snow here is akin to skiing on clouds. Imagine Siberian winds playing matchmaker with moisture from the Sea of Japan and voilà: you get this unreal, fluffy champagne powder – some of the lightest and driest in the world. Gliding through Niseko’s custom trails and naturally formed halfpipes, or weaving through its powder-filled glades, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was tapping into some of the skiing world’s best-kept secrets.
Our guide, Samuel Watson, was more than just someone to help us shake off the cobwebs; he was a great teacher and local connoisseur. Beyond skiing, he led us to plenty of hidden gems — including Milk Kobo, a dairy farm renowned for its scrumptious milk buns. It’s these small, local experiences that transform a trip from a standard itinerary into something truly special.
The day was so jam-packed with action, it felt like it flew by in the blink of an eye. Reluctantly, we stowed away our gear, already missing the slopes. But every cloud has a silver lining — in this case, a traditional Shiatsu massage at the incredible Juhyo Spa and then a trip to our hotel’s onsen — a natural hot spring considered one of the best in the area. Trust me, if you’ve been on the slopes, this is a non-negotiable experience.
Our dinner at Sisam in the Hilton Hotel just moments away, personally overseen by hotel manager Anthony Marrinan, encapsulated the trip. The Wagyu beef stole the show. It was in that moment, savouring the last sips of sake, that it clicked: The Green Leaf had delivered on its unspoken promise. It wasn’t just about luxury; it was a well-rounded, memorable journey, rich in culture and packed with adventure.
The next day, we were back on the slopes, eyes set on the highest peak of Mount Annupuri. The view from the top of the 1,308m peak was a jaw-dropper; unforgettable in every way. Skiing back down? Also unforgettable, but mostly because I was gripping my poles for dear life. Advanced skiers should have no trouble finding their next thrill here.
Soon it was time to make our way toward Higashiyama Niseko Village, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve. You could feel the excitement building as the very landscape seemed to prepare us for an experience deeply imbued with the Japanese philosophy used by Higashiyama: kachou fuugetsu. This wasn’t some tagline printed on brochures but an integral part of the stay. It means ‘discovering oneself through the beauty of nature’, and that principle was palpable in the smallest of details.
Upon our arrival, the architecture emerged as a harmonious blend of contemporary design and warm touches, instantly dissipating any remaining tension from our previous exploits. I entered my Yotei Suite and was immediately enveloped by a sense of harmonious luxury. Polished marble, fragrant cedar wood, and flame-brushed granite furnished the room, while the palette spoke softly in hues of beige, browns and subtle greens. The room felt like an extension of the surrounding landscape, especially with the commanding view of Mount Yotei just outside my window. However, before fully soaking in this serene atmosphere, it was time to explore a different part of Hokkaido.
To contrast the serenity of the Ritz-Carlton Reserve, we made a brief foray into the vibrant enclave of Hirafu, specifically the bustling Musu bar and bistro. Though geographically close, Hirafu was an entirely different world — a concoction of lively energy and sophistication. At Musu, the staff guided us through a tapas-style menu that was as cosmopolitan as it was grounded in Hokkaido’s bountiful produce. The dishes not only married international flavours with local freshness but also encapsulated the unique character of Hirafu — a harmonious fusion of local charm and global flair. I recommend the kefta meatballs using locally sourced beef, a real winner.
Back at the hotel, I was happy to get some time alone to truly soak in the suite, and what better way than a nightcap – in my suite’s stunning bathroom. Named among the 20 most beautiful hotel bathrooms in the world by Travel + Leisure, the guest bathrooms are inspired by the local onsen tradition (similar to a natural spa). Paired with the breath-taking mountain views, it turned the simple act of bathing into something transformative.
The next morning began with an extraordinary mountain breakfast at Yukibana – how I wish every day could start, with unbeatable views of Mount Yotei shaping the very atmosphere. Niseko eggs benedict is the star of this in-house restaurant, and was better than any I’d had, thanks to its medley of Hokkaido king crab and onsen egg with a hit of red chilli pepper ito togarashi.
I later got a chance to visit Spa Chasi La Sothys in the hotel: ‘chasi’ meaning sanctuary in Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu language. With treatments such as the Enrich Five and Secret de Sothys Luxury Body Ritual, it felt like each layer of stress was peeling away, grounding me in the present.
Soon, it was time to finish with a bang. Enter Sushi Nagi. Chef Taira Tsuneyoshi, a man of few words, was entirely focused on his craft, letting the flavours do the talking. Each piece of sushi, especially the sea urchin, or uni, felt like a culmination of our time here — a grand experience that captured the essence of Niseko’s unique blend of luxury and nature.
As I sat in the Ume Lounge later, a glass of Nikka Yoichi single malt whisky in hand, I began to reflect. Compared with bustling Tokyo – a place I often think of as synonymous with Japan – Hokkaido, and specifically Niseko Village, offer something distinctly different: a laid-back pace, profound friendliness, and a connection to nature that I hadn’t expected before but deeply appreciated. From the hotels to the cuisine, everything here seemed carefully curated, yet utterly genuine.
Finally, as I sat on the plane home, ready for take-off, I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling of nostalgia. It’s as if Mount Yotei and the beautiful Niseko Village had etched itself onto my very being. The emotional weight wasn’t hyperbole or dramatic flair; it was genuine. I wasn’t just leaving a location; I was parting ways with a series of remarkable experiences that had woven themselves into memories I’ll hold on to for life.