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The fishy aftertaste of miso soup for breakfastmingles with the salty smell wafting off the Sea of Japan.It’s April, and the late-morning overcast is breaking into afternoonsun. January and February dumped over a foot of powder,providing a late-season bounty at Japan’s Niseko UnitedSki Resort, and conditions are prime for spring skiing.
Located on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido, about 70miles from Sapporo, Niseko United consists of three interconnectedski areas—Annupuri, Higashiyama and Grand-Hirafu, which together offer62 trails, 25 lifts and three gondolas spanning 1,236 skiable acres with a 3,084-foot verticaldrop. Its first lifts were erected in 1961, and though a few of those remain, the rest havebeen replaced by the high-speed variety, which make quick work of getting people up themountain. From December to May the resort is jammed with skiers dressed in still-stylish—in Japan, at least—fluorescent ski suits, and on weekends picnic tables are packed with Sapporolocals drinking their city’s namesake nectar and grilling yakitori on hibachis broughtfrom home. The mountain is groomed to perfection—Japan’s Deer Valley—but those seekingpowder need only veer off-piste to find gladed birch groves and hike-to terrain withcoastal views. Also prominent in your viewfinder is 6,211-foot Yotei-Zan, a volcanoknown as the Mt. Fuji of Hokkaido. It creeps into every vista—and into the minds of adventurousskiers. (Guided descents, along with a 5,000-vertical-foot climb, can be arranged.)
Niseko isn’t the easiest place to get to, but its remoteness affords a bucolic appeal. Atthe base you’ll find ski-in/ski-out hotels like the Niseko Alpen, with its stone-bed saunaand heated indoor pool. At ski day’s end,everyone files into the onsen—traditionalhot springs—which are as Japanese asWal-Marts are American. Most, like theMakkari Onsen overlooking Yotei-Zan,are inexpensive, relaxing and far moreatmospheric than your average ski-townhot tub. In the village, Bang Bang isknown for its king crab, as well as aproprietor who repeatedly asks, “Do youdrink like fish? while pouring round afterround of sake. But consider yourselfwarned: Too much of this potent ricewine and you just might find yourselfpartaking of another uniquely Japanesetradition—the karaoke bar.