THERE ARE BASICALLY two types of women in a changing room: the ones who amble about confidently in the nude, as though they were in the privacy of their own home; and the ones who, like me, are wrapped in a towel except when it would interfere with getting dressed. And so it was that I made my first entry into an onsen, sheepishly wrapped, and looked with envy at a row of women bathing unselfconsciously.
Feeding myself positive messages, I ditched the towel and joined them. It was then that I noticed a glass door to the outside, fogged up so that I couldn’t see what was beyond it. I was about to leave, my curiosity unsatisfied, when a woman not wearing anything came through it. “Do you know what’s out there?” I asked a Eurasian girl, hoping she was an English speaker (she was). “The onsen is out there,” she replied. I’d been about to conclude my first-ever “onsen visit” without visiting the onsen itself.
Outside, I found a rock pool in the snow, steam rising from its waters. Standing with the water at hip level, I enjoyed the enchanting feeling of being unclothed yet comfortable in the freezing air. The sensation brought to mind the Russian banya experience: you get into a very hot, very steamy bathhouse; your companions beat you with birch twigs; and you go outside and lie skin to snow, feeling amazing.
Blissfully alone, I waded through the water, sensing the hush of the trees, the weight of their snow-covered branches; feeling the forest’s embrace. On one side, the mountain: steam against frost, and one determined little drip stream where the snow was melting into the pool. On the other side, a fence over the water – and close by, the low hum of men’s voices.
Three ladies of late middle age arrived, nattering – I know these ladies. In Russia, swimming in a heated outdoor pool in winter, they were the ones who never put their head underwater, icicles finally forming on their swim caps. The three departed, their garrulousness replaced by the silence of a young woman with her baby and child. Coming through the steam – the mother holding the child’s hand, her baby on her back – the three formed a tableau vaguely reminiscent of some primeval time, when the world was nothing but nature and nudity.
These are the moments we remember: when time seems to stop, a memory flashbulb goes off. People have all sorts of motives for travelling; among them, having new experiences scores high. This partly accounts for the popularity of snow-sport holidays – try a new piste today; venture out in an offpiste zone tomorrow. There’s the joy of learning: a once-consciously controlled descent becomes smooth, fluid, automatic. The muscle memory of past ski trips returns, the body reconnecting with its owner’s intentions. It’s easy to see how we become addicted.
For many years a domestic tourism destination, Niseko was “discovered” by the outside world in the noughties, and is today East Asia’s preeminent ski resort. Much praise centres around the consistent snow quality, Hokkaido being right in the path of the October-April north-westerly monsoon. Originating in Siberia, the extremely cold, dry winds pick up moisture as they cross the relatively warm Sea of Japan; add to this the lift created by the mountains, and you have the perfect conditions for snow over a long season.
Besides being ideal for skiing and snowboarding, Niseko can also work its magic on the psyche. Sitting on a chair lift in the near-silence – with nothing to do but gaze at the volcanic cone of Mount Yōtei, looking for all the world like the Mount Fuji of Meijiera prints – is an irresistible meditation. Next comes the delicious absorption of descending the mountain; the realisation that you’ve been skiing five or six hours and haven’t noticed the time. And when the sun goes down, the honest tiredness, the satisfaction. Enjoy those sausages and glühweins: you won’t be gaining weight on this vacation.
You can happily fill five whole days this way. And perhaps, like me, you go on a trip like this not wanting to commit to anything other than skiing or snowboarding. You may even be a fan of night riding – in which case, you’ll be happy to learn that Mount Annupuri (the peak with all the ski lifts and facilities) is well illuminated after dark, with lifts open until 9pm. But it’s worth noting that most accidents happen at twilight, the changing light making it harder to judge distances and catch sight of obstacles. So if you do plan to night ski or board, it may be worth taking a break as the light begins to fade.
Extracurricular activities will also make your trip that bit more memorable, as opposed to several days of skiing or boarding blurring into one. A visit to the onsen should be top of the list – if for no other reason than as a prophylactic against muscle soreness. For fans of go-karting, snowmobiling ticks the same boxes, with the addition of a stunning setting: the pristine emptiness of the snowfields.
If there’s one activity even more peaceful, it’s snowshoeing in the forest – an especially ethereal experience at dusk. By far the best pictures of my trip were taken here, and not surprisingly: while skiing, I was lucky to manage anything that wasn’t either a mediocre selfie, or a gondola-based photo from too far away with a pylon or electricity cables spoiling the shot. While snowshoeing softly across deep powder, I snapped some pictures of the beautiful bend of the curving road framed by trees against the setting sun.
We simply crunched our way around the ridge, enjoying the forest stillness and spotting fox tracks; on a longer expedition, snowshoers can slide down a slope to drink tea (provided by your guide) at a frozen crater lake.
Happily, it’s a breeze to arrange these excursions once you arrive. From Niseko Base Snowsports (NBS) – the place to hire gear in Hirafu – the office of tour operator SkiJapan is a short walk around the corner; close enough to leave your ski boots on. SkiJapan organised all three activities for me, and confronted with an onsen receptionist who didn’t speak English and snowmobile operators who knew only a few phrases, I was grateful for my guides’ company. At NBS, the young, predominately Australian staff greet you like one of their mates every time you trudge through the automatic doors. I must confess to letting the guys put on, take off and adjust my boots more often than not – and what a service for tired muscles it was. I’ve skied at half a dozen other resorts, but have never been that well looked after anywhere else.
NBS is also the place to book lessons, which as a long-time novice skier, I can recommend. If you’ve ever been the person embarrassingly – and let’s face it, dangerously – out of control on a black, or even red run, it may be time to enlist some technical support. If you’d told me before my trip that I would opt to spend my last hours of piste time in a class, I wouldn’t have believed you. But then a hat-trick of eureka moments will turn anyone into a teacher’s pet.