Friday, January 18, 2013

Niseko ~ A Winter Wonderland!

We ventured to our favorite winter wonderland, Niseko, in western Hokkaido, for our annual Christmas & New Year's holiday. I had ordered a new digital camera because both of ours broke in the last few months, but it didn't arrive on time so all of these photos were taken from my mediocre camera phone. Many of the photos below are mis-matched and don't follow in chronological order but the memories and experiences were awesome as usual. This year, we gathered in Niseko with our many friends from Saipan, Guam and Australia.

Niseko is now the "Vail" of Asia with newly built luxury high rise condos for sale.  The old, quaint village has transformed quickly into an active site with more restaurants, bars, and foreigners. In fact, there are more foreigners (Aussies, Kiwis, Chinese, Korean, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Russians, Europeans and Americans) than Japanese. Most places have English signage and many announcements are made in several languages.  Niseko is no longer the "hidden gem". It's been discovered and perhaps over-developed yet the constant powder snow showers, delicious cuisine, therapeutic onsens and polite Japanese hospitality make Niseko a "must-visit" destination for ski/snowboard advocates.

We were graced with 4 days of gorgeous blue skies, which is somewhat unusual so these photos were quite picturesque. The red house is called the 1000 meter hut and serves coffee and snacks. To the right, is the breathtaking view of Mt. Yotei, known as the Mt. Fuji of the North.
On Christmas morning, we met at the A-Frame or "Boyoso" restaurant, our favorite lunch time place. Here, I order kani-don or crab on rice. The meal includes a generous portion of crab flakes and legs (no shelling required) with miso soup and hot tea.Some of us wore our silly Christmas gifts on the slopes that day.
The night before, we held the traditional "White Elephant Gift Exchange" and the biggest surprise was when Peter discovered that we exchanged his favorite 15 year old ski jacket. He had been wearing that for years and Kathryn was happy to get rid of it. His expression shows his true feeling of shock!

On another night, we took the Night-Go bus to Kutchan to eat at Yotei-Maru sushi, the rotary sushi place, which serves great fresh sushi!

This year, we stayed at the Pension Kanon, a 9 room bed & breakfast with the Sinclair's and Goodwin's. At 7:30am, Peter would knock on our door as our wake up alarm. At 7:50am, the owner would announce that breakfast would be served at 8am shortly on the intercom. The breakfast buffet was surprisingly good!
One of the great things about visiting Japan is that we can see many old friends from PIC. One day, I walked to a nearby cafe to meet up with Yooja san and Tetsuo & Mieko Wakabayashi (former PIC guests).  Yooja is currently working at the Freedom Inn this winter while the Wakabayashi's were vacationing there.

A great part of this year's trip was that Russ and I both felt healthier. His hip was working nicely and my knee/shoulder allowed me to ski for a few hours daily.  I took it easy but I was surprised that I could ski much faster than before. Russ was also happy to have a new Burton "Fish" snowboard that allowed him to carve through the powder more quickly and gracefully.

Niseko is also fabulous because they have lots of crab "kani", which is my favorite food! I enjoyed two types of crab ramen, one at Hanazono 308 and the other at the Niseko Village Lookout Cafe.
One night at our Pension, we had their special Crab Dining which included crab appetizers, boiled hairy crab, crab hotpot and dessert. It was very tasty!

Aside from food, we played games, ranging from card games, dice games, dominoes and board games. Thanks to the Stewart's for allowing us to spend several of our days and evenings hanging out at their comfortable home. On other nights, we gathered into Mitch's room or the kids' room to eat dessert and play games.

We were fortunate to have Jojo & Sammy Cramer join us along with Mike,Jojo's beau. Jojo worked with us at PIC Saipan and she's now in Houston so the three of them made a long journey to join us for the holidays.
The sights of the flocked Christmas trees are impressive, especially during blue sky days. I took this photo from inside a restaurant at the Hilton Niseko Village.
A new bar that opened the day we arrived is called the Snow Egg, a dome shaped transportable bar, which we visited one evening for a night cap. It wasn't too busy but their laser light show was impressive. We thought that the snow egg replaced the traditional the ice bar.
Russ' new goggles and helmet were fashionable on the slopes, along with his new jacket and "denim" pants.
One of the most entertaining moments was the New Year's Eve Adventure Race where we split the kids into three teams and they had to tackle 11 challenges, ranging from taking photos of them doing a 360 or having all of them in the gondola, etc. It happened to be one of the coldest days ever so the adults sat warmly in the Ace Hill restaurant while the kids went out into the blizzard. There were cash prizes so all the kids were happy.
Kathryn and Julia were my main skiing partners. Together, we skied all over the mountain. By the second week, Julia had surpassed us in ability. She was skiing faster and with ease through the sharper slopes and tree runs.
On many days, we would step inside on of the restaurants for a hot cocoa or coffee break. The temperatures were colder than previous years with the top of Ace Hill ranging from -12c ~ -18c. brrrrrrrr.....
The Wakabayashi family have been PIC repeater guests for two decades. They joined us for some fun in the snow! Yooja was the major connector as she keeps in constant contact with them.

Our last big group dinner out was at Umezushi, a place out in Kutchan. We preordered the sushi, shabu shabu and karaage for our group of 26.
One of our regular dinners is Jojo's, a western type restaurant which includes an indoor rock climbing wall.
While we visit during the peak holiday season, the slopes are seldom too crowded.  With the All Mountain Pass, you can ski in Hirafu, Hanazono, Niseko Village and Annupuri!
This is the Hilton Niseko Village where they have a gondola that starts from just outside the hotel.
Night skiing starts at 4pm when the sun goes down and lasts until 8:30pm so there's lot of time to ski!
Here, Yoshie, Jojo and I do our "peace" signs.
Otsukisama was a great restaurant find by me, Yoshie and Kathryn on one afternoon. It's located across the street from Sencho 1 and they have a great menu, and the prices are better. We ate a pasta lunch special which included bread, salad, pasta and a drink for JPY1000! What a bargain! We then decided to book our group for the night of the 28th and they had a more diverse menu including these grilled scallops in butter and soy.

Russ taught Jason (Sinclair's friend from Brisbane) to snowboard. He had never seen snow before and by the second run, he was at the top of the quad. For a beginner, he did amazingly well.
On another clear day, Jason and Kathryn at the top of Hanazono 3 chair lift.
On the last afternoon of our stay, we ate at Abucha 2 and Russ ordered the ikuradon teishoku.  Kathryn and I ordered tofu salads which were OK, but we wanted to save room for the desserts. My strawberry tart was very good! I like their Hokkaido shaped plates, too.
We went to Kutchan on January 1st and had an adult dinner at Shunsai, the place where we ordered a 7 course menu for JPY4000.  One of my favorite courses that night was the smoked salmon.
In contrast, we had Elvis kebabs for our Christmas dinner which we ordered at the stand and took them to the Cramer's at NorthWind. "Elvis" is a guy from Wales who opens his kebab stand each year and we happily purchase them as they're quite good and filling.

At Fujizushi one night, I ordered the "genghis khan teishoku", sizzling lamb on a hotplate with vegetables accompanied by fresh sashimi, rice and miso soup.
On one of my afternoon walks down to the village, I spotted this beautiful wooden home with large windows and great view of Mt. Yotei.  What a dream home for someone! On the same day, I walked past this green A frame house that appeared vacant as snow had covered half the door. I caught the photo with the crow flying away.
This photo of me, Peter, Russ and Tina was taken on New Year's Eve. We had dinner at a soup curry restaurant and then had our SWAT meeting where we gave new members their code names and then the snow ball war began. The kids outnumbered the adults and they clearly won, although the adults deny it every time.

Hitting the slopes is great fun but when it gets too cold out there in -15C weather, we go inside to get warmed up with hot cocoas, hot corn soup or hot lemon, all conveniently available from the vending machines.

Here's Godfather Russ and Misaki, who's now 15! He's also a great snowboarder and all around athlete. We're proud of you!

On two separate mornings, I took this photo from our pension's restaurant. Most of the days looked cloudy and snowy (left) but on 4 days, it was blue skies (right)!

On our final night in Niseko, we went over to the Stewart's for dinner and games.  Yooja happened to be off that evening so she joined us and cooked us a tasty lamb and chicken teppan dinner.
Benji received a toilet paper roll with jokes written on it for Christmas and he shared some with Russ.
Paula sought out a brochure of Izumikyo rentals and was persuading us to choose the house next to theirs next winter. "Terra" is literally next door and she even offered to make us breakfast in the mornings!

Paula also made brownies that day and we added vanilla ice cream and Frangelico (thanks, Charles!) to the concoction. It's definitely a winner!

This is the main bus stop where we caught the buses to Kutchan, Hanazono and Moiwa. It was conveniently located just 2 minutes away from the Pension Kanon.
This year, it snowed a lot! We would see snow reports of 30~50cm falling per night so it gave us lots of fresh powdery, silky snow to ski. The snow bank below is probably 12 feet high!
Did I mention that we had Muku, the pension's 10 yr old golden retriever with us?  He would be in his cage in the genkan (entryway) and greeted guests throughout the day. He was happiest in the mornings and in the evenings around mealtime. I enjoyed his company as I missed Harley & Butty.

On our final morning, Morio san, the kind pension owner, dropped us off at the Welcome Center to catch our bus to Chitose. The Welcome Center is where guests arrive and depart and it's a nostalgic place for us who've been visiting Niseko for 15 years.
At the airport, we went straight to buy our favorite kani-onigiri and then to the Royce' chocolate factory, located on the third floor of the airport. Royce' makes an amazing "nama" or raw chocolate that is the absolute BEST in the world... no kidding! We bought a few boxes as gifts for friends, who always welcome them.

Our Christmas winter trip has ended and we are grateful that we're able to take this trip annually with our friends. It's better than any gift I can get because memorable experiences last a lifetime. Can't wait for next year

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