Tuesday 22 February 2011

Northward Bound; Niseko and Sapporo, Hokkaido

Travelling to the snow festival can be an expensive activity; packages deals have a premium, many schools want to join in on the powdery fun. It doesn't have to be expensive, if you have the time and resources.

If you say, happen to be not busy at 9:30am JST (Japan Standard Time) 2 months before you want to fly, you may be one of the lucky few to get a super discounted ticket via SKYMARK (That is also if you have a decent internet connection, servers seem to be quite congested at this stage). Although I was not super lucky, I did manage to get a more than reasonable price of tickets, under 20,000 yen return! http://www.skymark.co.jp/en/

This trip also gave me an opportunity to visit my good Japanese friend Sacchan (Sasaki Yuko) from Youjyou Seminar (The floating university) way back in 2006, who is now working in Sapporo.

After an 'alarm malfunction' I woke up at 6:45 before my 08:00am flight. Thanks to my friends work alarm, and a kindly Japanese lady on the train, I was able to make it with 15 minutes to spare, and still check in my baggage ( I in no way encourage people to turn up 15 minutes before a domestic flight from Kobe Airport). As you can imagine, the grin of relief on my face was ear to ear. It had never ever crossed my mind that I may miss a flight (through fault of my own) before this trip.

After a smooth flight seated next to a nice Australian family, I headed straight to the 'white liner' desk, where I was put onto the next available service, 10:40 (although I was booked for 11:40).

I found this company while searching online, they have a 20% discount for return bookings made 3 days prior to the departure date, and also allowed me to book a 'return' ticket for New Chitose Airport > Hirafu > Sapporo JR Nikko Tower Hotel. Although the website says that there must be 6 passengers booked for the shuttle to go ahead, there were a total of 4 pax on my bus, and it still went ahead. A whole coach for 4 passengers, travelling in reclined comfort. Bliss!

On my arrival at the Hirafu Welcome Centre, I was given directions to my little hostel, Niseko Yubokumin (Niseko Nomad). It was fairly simple to find, as Niseko is based on a grid system. Just a short walk down the icey road. Snow was piled high everywhere.

The owners of Yubokumin are a lovely Japanese couple, who make every effort to make your trip a success. The rooms are simple, but very comfortable and you are able to order a Japanese style breakfast and dinner, which are eaten in the common room upstairs.

I was offered skiing lessons at 2000 yen per hour, and ski boot, ski and stock rental for 1000yen per day. Although the equipment was a little old, my lack of skill meant this made no difference to me.

I used my afternoon to get my bearings, pick up some groceries and sort out arrangements for the next 2 days skiing. Being a unexperienced skiier, I decided to buy a 2 day Hirafu pass. You can also buy an all mountain pass, which gives you access to the Annupuri and Niseko Village lifts as well.

Trying to clear the roof of snow... 

Night run, Grand Hirafu

Later, I head off to the Irish pub, in search of other people to socialise and ski with. After sitting down for a while with my Irish coffee, a bunch of people from the Frunkfurt Ski Club, joined me and we had many drinks that lasted well into the night. Tamashii Bar was on the list of pubs visited, but Wednesday dart night made it virtually impossible to get a drink, so next we frequented Barunba and then (my favourite of the night) The 'fridge' bar. The door was literally a fridge door, but inside was a spacious bar with a great atmosphere. The night ended at a reasonable hour and I walked through fresh crunchy snow to Yubokumin.

As I set of skiing (starting from the family lift) It was good to see that I wasn't completely useless. After a few practice runs, I set off to conquer the green runs of Grand Hirafu. I stopped for lunch on the middle of the hill before finally getting in touch with my new friends. They were at the other side of Hirafu, Hanazono 308 restaurant. For most people it would have taken 30 mins tops to make it... for me after much sweat and almost tears, I arrived an hour later to see the boys finish their 'beer tower'

For some reason, I always seem to loose my skiing confidence after lunch, so the run I completed in the afternoon, coupled with the complete white out, was lets say, less than impressive.

The second evening, I met up once again with the Frankfurt Ski club and we headed out for a nice dinner. The Vale, Bar and Grill is located at the base of the Ace Family Lift. The food was reasonably priced, and had good servings. I had the Salmon and Nori Roulades, and the mushroom risotto for main, and was completely stuff! Yum!

The next day on the slopes I started with a few more bunny runs, before heading to the top and working my way down the green runs. After lunch I met up with some friends from Osaka, who tricked me into a red run. It was a little scary, but they talked me through it, and I did it! After that I branched off again on my own to explore more runs, that I had not yet covered, but once again, the wind picked up, and things started to get a little icy, so I said goodbye to my skis and settled in to enjoy more niseko nightlife.

Woody and Tomo, in the snow banks of 'the red run'

Mt Youtei

I headed to Niseko Pizza for dinner with a few of the fellas also staying at Yubokumin, after I was satisfyingly greased up, we headed to Niseko Alpen Hotel to make use of the karaoke facilities. We had a huge room for 3000 yen per hr for our group of 3.

After singing some awesome tunes, we head out to 'Wild Bills', probably the closest thing Niseko has to a club. However, we were slightly distracted on the way, checking out the amazing 'Ice Bar'. The creator, builder and artist had just created the entrance and exit to the new chamber, yet to be connected to the main room. Photo's just do not do it justice.

Day 4 day was a little slow to start; late night and beverages to blame. Alas, checkout time at Yubokumin is 10am so I had to get on with the day. Kuni didn't seem to be so strict about the 10am, as my door was open and he could see I was gathering my things. After I finished packing, I headed out for a good strong coffee, before grabbing a lovely panini at JAVA cafe, in the lower village. As they weren't very busy, it wasn't a problem for me to order my choice of ingredients; chicken and avacado of course! Then, up the hill once more for a nice bath, and down and up again with my baggage... (not a particularly well thought out move on my part)

There was a little wait before the white liner arrived at the Welcome Centre, and me and about 12 other people once again piled on the huge bus. A prefect chance to catch up on those lost hours of sleep. I sent a message off to my friend Yuko, to let her know I would be arriving at 17:40.

It was at 16:10 that I realised, we had begun the Sapporo hotel drop offs. The bus had had such a good run that we were much earlier than anticipated, so I quickly fired off another message, and reorganized myself for 16:40. This bus had a musty 'I used to be a smoking bus' smell, which after the turns throughout the city left me with a bit of motion sickness. My friend met me at the North Exit of the station and notice I looked rather pale, so we drove back to hers for some refreshments (including Sasayama's finest Blackbean tea, and Blackbean and cream daifuku I had brought as a thank you present).

After freshening up we head into Susukino (Sapporo's 'Entertainment' district) and met with some friends for dinner. We ate at a cute little place that served a wide collection of import beers, before searching for the 'ice bar' that I had heard about in Sapporo. On the way we saw a few of the ice sculptures displayed in the district. It turns out the 'ice bar' was just literally a bar outside the front of a hotel, with no shelter from the icy wind, that would bring buckets of snow the next day. Needless to say we didn't last long, and head to a small bar/cafe for mulled wine and dessert. Still fairly exhausted from everything, we head back to Yuko's for an early night.

After a long awaited sunday sleep-in. Yuko and I had breakfast and got ready to check out the Sapporo Snow Festival at Odori Park. I had seen the Sunday forcast for ridiculous amounts of snow earlier in the week, and dressed accordingly. Stepping out into the cold, it seemed we may had gotten luckly, but upon exiting Odori station, it was clear that we had not.

Snow fell heavily throughout our meanderings, with only a few short breaks in between. Hokkaido's special chou cream was eaten, and yuzu tea made a valiant attempt to keep our insides warm. The work that had gone into some of these snow sculptures was simply amazing, once again, photos just do not do it justice. We also made our own little snowman to add to the festival.

After checking out all of the sculptures we head to a small cafe for a nice afternoon tea, then head to do some window shopping. At 5:30 we met up with 2 of Yuko's friends and head off in a taxi to Sapporo Beer Garden. This is one of the highlights of my trip.... All you can eat LAMB!!! (Those living in Japan know how all too difficult it is to find lamb, anywhere!) We decided we had to also take advantage of the all you can drink and so this amazing 100 minutes of eating and drinking, set us back only 4600yen each (after a few special extra's were added).

Rolling out of the restaurant, I felt that the small cough that had been bothering me all day was only getting worse, so we head back home for an early night. Yuko, having to go to work the next day, told me to 'take it easy' in the morning, and gave me her spare key.

Getting out of bed was tough, though, being my last day I pushed myself to get up an make the most of day. Dizziness slowed down the process a little, but by 1pm I was out of the house, picking up some valentine chocolates, to once again thank Yuko for her hospitality. Dropping the chocolates back at the apartment, I head straight for Sapporo station, where I dropped off my luggage in a locker, and then headed to Susukino to have a look in the daylight, and shop for souvenirs. (The Royce Almond Chocolate Bar is AMAZING!!!)

After having a quick/cheap dinner at Matsuya, I grabbed my baggage and jumped in the train to the airport (with more than an hour to spare...). Thanks Sapporo (despite the cold), I had a fantastic powdery time!!


Onsen's of Hirafu 

Yukobo Onsen is a small onsen in the hirafu, lower village. I have been to some beautiful Onsens in my time... some may call this one 'rustic' but I would just say it was 'uncared for'. Give it a miss unless you're desperate.

Popolo has an amazing view of Mt Yotei from both the inside and outside baths. The building is modern, and had the best price on massage I had seen around the town (although I believe it was a 'clothes on' massage). 'Rinse in' Shampoo and body wash were provided, though the hair dryers were less than impressive. Would recommend this onsen to all! http://www.nisekotourism.com/en/about-niseko/onsen-relax/

Niseko Alpen Hotel out of the three was by far my favourite. Although it does not have the amazing view that Popolo has, it does have a beautiful small wooden outdoor bath that faced away from the wind, overlooking, but obscured from the family run, great shiseido products provided and a real jet bath (fantastic for those poor overworked muscles!). http://www.grand-hirafu.jp/winter/en/hotels/alpen/amusement.html

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