DESPITE THE GREAT SNOW, Japan's ski industry is in a nosedive. While the country couldn't open enough resorts during the economic boom of the 1980s, the past 15 years of recession (which has just ended) took a substantial toll. Add in an aging population that is less drawn to adventure sports, and you have a drop in ski visits. "Most resorts in Japan are losing money because of demographics," says Keith Rogers, Yamazaki's roommate. "Lots will tank because they just aren't economical." A Canadian who has lived in Japan for a decade, Rogers now sells real estate in Niseko, though mainly to Australians and expats living in Asia. It's the arrival of foreigners like Rogers, MacKenzie, and their clients that has saved Niseko from being mothballed.
Australians and New Zealanders make up the bulk of gaijin skiers and snowboarders in Niseko, so much so that English is widely spoken, but there are plenty of tour companies promoting the resort worldwide. A cheap yen and the unique cultural experience help to sell this place, but it's the powder that draws people in the end. Two years ago, an Australian friend sent me a photo of herself skiing in chest-deep snow amid Niseko's trees. I was hooked, and I started planning my visit. Every person who travels here returns with tales of the fluffiest, lightest, most abundant snow they've ever skied. It's a powder hound's frosted dream.
By our third day, the sun has emerged and the temperature is up. Mount Yotei's snow-dipped cone is visible from every turn on the hill. Snowy mushrooms high in trees grow heavy, cracking limbs under their weight and crashing to the ground in noisy explosions. On one run, I hear a crack, turn my head, and get blasted by a wave of snow from one of these tree bombs. The next day grows cold, and everything ices over, making for some rough riding. Lunch drags on, and skiing doesn't seem so appealing. Leading, as always, Yamazaki turns to the group and says, "Okay. Onsen time." Heads nod more than willingly at the Green Lantern's decisive call.
Japanese après ski is all about the onsen, natural volcanic hot springs where one soaks one's weary bones. The onsen routine is straightforward: Purchase a towel, ticket, and Asahi beer from the vending machine. Separate the sexes. Strip off all clothing and jewelry, sit on stool, and wash the body thoroughly with soap, shampoo, and hot water. Place the tiny modesty towel over, um, one's modest bits, and enter a steaming outdoor pool. Sit on a rock, crack open the beer, and allow muscles to relax in the crisp mountain air. When satisfied, get dressed, find the nearest bed, and nap like a dog.
Serious hunger tends to follow a day filled with skiing and soaking, so Niseko serves up its fair share of Japanese delicacies. Small restaurants, ranging from expensive sushi places to smoky barbecue dives and lively izakaya (casual bars), sooth growling bellies. Whether savoring a crisp dish of prawn tempura, glistening raw tuna belly, or grilled chunks of Australian lamb, you'll find that everything is fresh - and reasonably priced for a ski town.
For the truly budget-conscious, a few hundred yen (less than $10) can get you a fully prepared meal of fish, rice, tuna triangles, and a drink at the Seiko Mart, Hokkaido's answer to 7-Eleven. By far the most happening place in the village, Seiko's aisles are usually packed with riders defrosting after a few hours of night skiing. In fact, so much of Niseko Hirafu's terrain is lit up like Yankee Stadium after sunset that you could be slicing fresh turns under a full moon until nine p.m.
By the fifth night, we are growing restless. The skiing has been great, but the deep, epic turns we came for have yet to arrive. Someone suggests we drink until it snows. Nodding to the United Nations of ski bums spread around his chalet, Yamazaki raises a hearty mug of sake above his head and declares, "Yuki!" Passing the mug, each skier raises it to the air, takes a slug, and repeats, "Yuki." Magically, fat flakes begin descending within the hour, and excited legs hurry off to beds.
Standing atop a pitch in the Miharashi forest the next morning, my skis point toward a freshly made bed of white snowy linen. According to the resort, just over a foot has fallen, but here in the trees, there is always more - more than two feet in spots where the wind generously deposited the flakes. Yamazaki pushes off first, his compact frame in the bright green jacket disappearing quickly in a trail of swirling flakes floating in his wake. We all quickly dash off after him, muffled whump-whumps of turns the only sound besides yelps of pleasure. The snow's surface caresses my shins, then knees, and finally my waist, as each turn bobs my body in and out of an airy powder bath. Snow sprays over my head, into my mouth, and I laugh out loud. Moving is light and effortless … perfect powder skiing.