I’ve just returned from two blissful weeks of respite from Hong Kong’s urban chaos spent in Niseko, Japan—which has become a holiday tradition of sorts, insofar as tradition in today’s hyper-paced world constitutes something that happens more than twice.
I love Niseko—and not in the trite way people often “love” the million and one things they casually gush this phrase at. I mean I really love it—in the same way I will always love the visual spectacle of Fall leaves in the Carleton Arboretum in Northfield, Minnesota, and as distinctly as the smell of coal burning furnaces on a crisp day in the high deserts of Paonia, Colorado (a waft of smoke I hold near and dear), and with nearly the depth of emotion stirred while watching Mauna Kea’s colors burn bright and then fade at sunset.
Maybe it’s the sea of deep snow that stretches miles to the coast, tugging on my Nordic heartstrings, or perhaps it’s Hirafu Village’s intensely welcoming vibe—the fragrant kane ramen prepared at Hanazono 308 with ritualistic and rhythmic care by at least 3 pairs of local hands is definitely part of it, as is the virgin powder waiting patiently 20 minutes uphill in Strawberry Fields; and the epic knee-deep runs, weaving in and out of trees, across scenic ridges and down through long white ravines. The day’s end, spent stripping away muscle fatigue in the serene Yukuro outdoor onsen (said to contain the spirits of Mount Yotei and Mount Annupuri), under snowy and steamy skies, and the rare and potent Japanese whisky you sip afterwards in the cozy and hip Bar Gyu—from wide glasses fitted perfectly with house-made spheres of ice—are also critical components of the love affair.
But it’s more than that. It’s the gracious Western window Niseko gives you into Japan—that inspires you to whip out your English to Japanese dictionary and invokes an involuntary bow and wide smile when entering or exiting local establishments. It’s the sleek minimalist architecture, hinting at the culture’s coveted modesty—that has been entirely lost on the Vails and Aspens of the world. Not to mention the phenomenal overflowing of locally sourced fare, cleverly woven into buttery and deliciously dirty curry burgers (Lumberjack’s), Spanish caviar & snow egg tartare of Hokkaido salmon (Kamimura), grilled pork belly skewers (Rin), crispy fried octopus (Senchou) and fresh hotate on the half shell simmering in butter and its own sweet juices over a candle burner (Abucha).
And yet, none of this quite gets at what it really is about Niseko that I love. Perhaps it’s the deep connection between Japan and Hawaii (my real home when I’m not playing expat). Or that it reminds me of one of my other favorite places in the world, Crested Butte, Colorado. Or maybe it’s simply the intangible—a feeling without a name that a certain crossroads of longitude and latitude gives a person, for both explicable yet deeply inexplicable reasons.