I am wobbling violently on my skis, peering over a lace-thin sliver of white marshmallow fluff valiantly defending me from the chilling Japanese mountain steep below. It is at this exact moment that my stomach alerts me to an extremely important realization: I think I’m deathly afraid of heights.
One might think a novice skier would have considered this before traveling halfway across the globe to Niseko, Japan, a trek that requires a 12-hour flight to Tokyo then a 1.5-hour flight to the northern island of Hokkaido followed by a two-hour drive in order to ski the legendary runs radiating like veins near one of the country’s largest volcanoes. But my fiancé, Ryan, exited the womb an expert in both the art of persuasion and fearless skiing. So when he pitched the idea of a trip to the “mythical powder paradise” of Niseko (Outside Online), I was intrigued by the destination’s reputation as “the Aspen or St. Moritz of Japan” (Business Insider).
Considered a playground for billionaires of the East, this once-pastoral farm town is now studded with world-class resorts and restaurants, but without feeling overly polished or inauthentic. The town’s tiny streets and vintage wooden whisky bars help keep its Old World charm intact.
Of course, on some level I knew I would need to ski during this trip, but that reality felt much less pressing considering Niseko’s onsens (geothermal hot springs), renowned seafood and magnificent craft whisky. After all, I’d perfected the art of après-ski long ago on our family outings to Minnesota’s Hyland Hills, where I’d teeter down a run or two before Irish exiting to the chalet for hot chocolate and a good book.
As it turns out, though, ski trips do involve an awful lot of skiing. We rented gear at the newly remodeled Rhythm Japan, where rugged blond Australians fitted our boots and gave us insider tips on which runs to try first. (Fun fact: Niseko is a hotbed for fun-loving Aussies seeking powder closer than America.) As we ungracefully made our way to the car under the weight of a thousand pounds of skis, boots, helmets and goggles, Niseko’s fabled storybook snowflakes nuzzled into my hair. This skier’s utopia averages twice as much snow as most North American resorts, enjoying nearly 580 annual inches of ocean-effect snow from Siberia. The abundant light dry snow creates a Champagne powder effect, which skiers can take full advantage of thanks to plentiful groomed runs and backcountry terrain.
It was ankle-deep in this very Champagne powder that I stood as I prepared to tackle our first real run of the day. “The only way is down!” I heard Ryan’s voice echo up to me. I made a mental note that this sentiment, obviously intended to be comforting to newbies, is actually only comforting when one knows how to go down. I slowly started sliding in pizza formation down the slope then stubbornly sidestepped the rest of the way, creating tiny shelves of snow for nearly 40 feet. A little girl wearing a hot pink puffball snowsuit looked at me with pity as she bombed down the hill at the speed of a rocket ship about to break the sound barrier.
When it was finally time for après-ski, I thanked God — here’s where my talents could really shine. We were warmed by an evening of mouthwatering miso ramen, rich smoky whisky at Toshiro’s Bar, and hot buttered rum at the world’s most charming mountain pub, Bar Gyu. We had made the extremely wise decision to stay at the new Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono, a ski-in/ski-out heaven on earth. The property’s oversize suites with in-room onsens and views of Mount Yōtei as well as its ideal location overlooking the Annupuri range were the stuff of dreams, and we both agreed that the mountain hotel ranked among our favorite places we’d ever laid our heads.
The next day, I felt steeled and ready to tackle another slope. We drove 40 minutes to a nearby resort called Rusutsu, a wintry anomaly smack-dab in the middle of vast farmland. Frequented mainly by locals, the powder mecca is known for wide, not-too-steep runs and easy accessibility from the lifts, thereby reducing the time spent clumsily traversing to the top of the hills. When we reached this hidden gem, it felt like we were standing in a real-life snow globe: massive, intricate snowflakes swirled around us and sparkling trees dotted the landscape. The runs were empty, and we didn’t spend a single second waiting in a lift line. “Nobody told me Lindsey Vonn was coming to Rusutsu!” Ryan yelled as I confidently carved massive swooping S’s down the freshly groomed hill.
By the end of the trip, I still considered steep heights a mortal enemy, remained unclear on what a “piste” was (it must be a dirty word?), and became an expert only in heading in for steaming ramen and a crisp Sapporo at lunchtime. But I had learned to love the satisfying click of snapping into my skis each morning and the joyful camaraderie of Japanese and Australian skiers on the gondola. On our final morning, I stood at the top of the run, taking a mental picture of the breathtaking scenery and a smiling Ryan, waiting so patiently at the bottom of the hill as he’d done for the past four days. “Well, Maggie,” I thought to myself, pushing off into the powder. “The only way is down.”