The restaurant was no more than a shack in the woods. We arrived at 11.45am — a bit early for lunch but already too late to get a table. A minibus full of savvy Koreans had snaffled the only one, a long bench that seated 12. We took off our down jackets and boots, chose a pair of homely carpet slippers from the rack by the door and settled down to wait.
In the tiny kitchen, Rai-san, “The Master”, did what he’s done for the past 40 years and more: made noodles. He came — by bicycle — from Tokyo to set up his kitchen here on Japan’s far northern island, Hokkaido. Now people from all over Asia make their own pilgrimage to his restaurant, Rakuichi Soba: for Rai-san’s noodles are, they say, the best in Japan.
As we waited, people stomped in from the thickening snow in groups of four, six, eight, from Seoul and Singapore, Hong Kong and Taipei. They looked like young professionals in a hurry. But there was no hurrying Rai-san. They waited.
Urban Asians are famously willing to fly huge distances for a single dish. Even so, the fact that they had trekked out here in search of this most authentic taste of Japan is interesting. Millions have come to the ski fields of Niseko since the area took off in the 1980s and, a decade later, the Australian tour operators moved in en masse. But they came for its world-class powder, not its regional authenticity.
Then, the “Japaneseness” was seen as a barrier to tourism. Eating strange food on the floor in a dressing gown, sharing a hot bath with naked strangers and sleeping on a mat is all very well — but after a long day on the slopes, didn’t you just want comfort food, a cosy bar, red wine and a soft bed?
So you got the Hilton. The Hilton Niseko is like a huge airport hotel plonked in this open, dreamlike landscape on the foothills of Mount Annupuri. And when I visited its dim, cavernous ground-floor reception area, it had the muffled buzz of a departure lounge, with the peoples of all nations in a ceaseless flux of packing and unpacking, arriving and leaving. It does the job for the skiers. But Niseko has moved on; and it has moved definitively east.
You could describe Ki Niseko as Nippon-lite. A dark-grey, six-storey hotel (you won’t encounter the “rustic alpine charm” its publicity claims; nor did I want it), it opened last December and is ski-in, ski-out. There is a pared-down, Japanese aesthetic about the rooms, though it’s in the restaurant, An Dining, that Ki Niseko has taken its boldest step. Chef Shinichi Maeda spent 11 years in Australia. Now he has returned and has produced a proper kaiseki menu themed around sweet, bitter, salty, spicy and umami flavours. It’s a successful marriage of Japanese precision and New World expressiveness. And as I was to learn, Chef Shinichi’s menu is something of a poster child for the new Niseko.
The 70-odd restaurants around here have their fine-dining joints, their food trucks and burgers. But Greg Hough, managing director of marketing company Explore Niseko, reckons that the pilgrims to Rakuichi Soba and the diners at An Dining are not exceptional. The rule is: more and more international visitors want Japanese food and a Japanese form of hospitality.
Hough drove me over to another new property, Zaborin. We wound past restaurant after restaurant, past the contemporary flat-roofed houses of “Millionaires’ Row” — the millionaires in question almost exclusively from Hong Kong and Singapore. As we drove, Hough made his own bold statement: “We’re really moving to reposition this place. It has been over-westernised. But we’re in Japan. That’s what people want.”
We drove on empty roads over snow-covered fields and golf courses. Outside Zaborin, then still in its final phase of construction, we met Shouya Grigg, a photographer-turned-property developer and designer. He also arrived in Hokkaido from Australia and, before that, England. So enthralled did he become by Japanese culture that he changed his name. (His Yorkshire schoolmates will remember him as Pete Grigg.)
Zaborin is his take on the traditional ryokan. He has carefully placed this low, art-galleryesque structure in the formal setting of waterfall, rock pool and mountain. Each room has its own onsen (hot bath fed by natural springs). But Grigg has allowed space between the rooms and let the light in; you don’t get the claustrophobic cubbyholes of the traditional Japanese country inn. The food and service ethic is purely Japanese. After spending the Noughties in Europe sampling the new generation of boutique hotels, Grigg came to the view that they “just didn’t work”. For something to work for this Japanese convert, the formal principles of “flow” have to be observed and expanded on, not subverted.
Our final new hotel, Moku No Sho at the Oku Niseko Konbu Hot Springs, is the obverse of Ki Niseko. The latter is cautiously making a western hotel more Japanese. Moku No Sho is cautiously making a Japanese ryokan more western.
You take your shoes off for the duration and pad into the library and bar, a spectacular room with high ceilings and jazz playing on an old turntable. You choose between a western-style room and the tatami mats and panels of a traditional Japanese room. Dinner is kaiseki style — and yes, you wear your yukata and wooden sandals.
All three of these hotels work in their different ways. On my first trip to wintry Japan, to Niigata and Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, I encountered a place that was frozen too, in time, with 1970s-luxe ryokans and deserted villages: entrancing, mysterious, very foreign. Niseko, says Hough, became not foreign enough. This is not Whistler or Aspen. It feels good and right to take your shoes off.
Photographs: Shouya P.T. Grigg; Elsie Nielson; Alamy; Yoshinori Saito