miguel smithNorth Asia correspondent
There are few more pleasant surprises in travel than when the marketing hype turns out to be real.
In early April, I visited Club Med Kiroro Peak, the French chain of luxury resorts' third and newest property in Hokkaido.
As I make my way to the restaurant on my first morning, huge clumps of snowflakes fall outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. Less than 24 hours earlier, I was in a T-shirt looking at the cherry blossoms in Tokyo before taking the 90-minute flight to Hokkaido.
Guests are ditching the breakfast buffet to run outside, where an army of cheery Club Med ski instructors from various countries are waiting to take them up the mountain.
"Come on everyone. Get out of bed. It's snowing," Merlin Chelliah, the resort's energetic general manager, says over the hotel's loudspeaker.
I'm quickly learning that stamina is useless in the Club Med universe: the charismatic staff are trained to keep you on your feet skiing, snow hiking, singing and dancing, day and night.
Let me say it up front, I'm not normally a Club Med type of person. But I do love to ski. And for the past 18 months, I've lived in Tokyo, putting world-class resorts on my doorstep.
I moved to Japan to becomeThe Australian Financial ReviewNorth Asia correspondent during the pandemic. One plus side was having the place to yourself. And as soon as I was able to take my first week of annual vacation, I headed straight for Niseko, the ski mecca that has drawn scores of Australians for decades.
In January of last year, Niseko felt surreal. He was knee-deep in the airy powder snow, having the time of my life, and there was not another soul on the mountain.
Those days are long gone. Japan's borders reopened at the end of 2022 and the masses are back. Resorts reported a bumper season that winter and are bracing for even larger numbers in late 2023, particularly as Chinese tourists begin to travel again.
Returning crowds aside, the good news is that there has never been a better time to ski and snowboard in Japan.
A surge of tourist dollars into the country in the years before the pandemic caused big resorts to pump capital into new facilities, and COVID-19 provided the perfect opportunity to continue investing in infrastructure upgrades, so there are now dozens of of upgraded resorts to choose from. of.
A nine-hour flight (and only an hour from Sydney), Japan has some of the best skiing in the world. What it lacks in Europe's après-ski party scene, it makes up for in deep powder, friendly people, amazing onsens, and steaming bowls of ramen.
Most of Japan's ski resorts are spread across the northern island of Hokkaido and the main island of Honshu. Australians tend to flock to the Hokkaido town of Niseko, famous for its huge powder snow dumps and lively bars. These days, however, the four mountain resorts in the area tend to draw a more luxurious crowd.
Part of the reason is financiers, including Australian businessman Colin Hackworth, who has been overseeing a $500 million ($747 million) play by Hong Kong's Nihon Harmony Resorts in Niseko, which includes new ski lifts with heated seats and a Newly built Park Hyatt hotel. , which opened in early 2020. Its room rates are around $1200 per night. Such investment symbolizes the end of an era in which outdated infrastructure was neglected after the bursting of Japan's bubble economy in the 1990s.
“This year saw the rise of the Americans in Niseko,” says Hackworth. “Just as waves of Australians came in years ago, now it's the Americans. Not as many Australians as usual, probably because the border opened too late and people had already made plans to go elsewhere.
"The Aussies will be back in numbers next season for sure."
Japan's second most popular ski destination is Hakuba, a lively town four hours by train from Tokyo.
Hakuba is my favorite, mainly because it's easy to get to, and I have friends who live on the Hakuba Happo-One Resort base. I reserve my Rhythm Hakuba gear online so it's ready when I arrive on Friday night.
With stunning alpine scenery, excellent cross-country skiing, and a wide variety of slopes (if you're willing to take buses every day to try different resorts), the main town of Hakuba also has many hotels, chalets, and restaurants. But the place gets packed during the high season and you need to book in advance.
There are dozens of other well-developed spots on the main island of Japan, including the charming town of Nozawa Onsen, which has a European vibe and cafes serving flat whites for Australian visitors.
Another option is Myoko Kogen, three to four hours from Tokyo by train or bus, where Australian cousins Joseph Pagliaro and Liam Mugavin have opened a distinctive guesthouse called AIR Myoko (AIR stands for Artist-in-Residence). Here, celebrity chef Luke Burgess serves a tasting dinner menu paired with Japanese wines during the winter. Myoko Kogen has arguably retained its Japanese feel more than many of the resorts
Meanwhile, those vacationing in Tokyo who want a quick taste of a day of skiing in Japan can hop on the Shinkansen (train line) and head to Gala Yuzawa, a journey of just 90 minutes.
Japan has never been more popular with foreigners, but the industry actually peaked in the 1990s when the country's booming economy meant there were more than 18 million skiers and almost 800 resorts, compared to little less than 500 now.
Today, the Japanese are skiing less. On the other hand, record numbers of winter sports fans are visiting from other locations. According to government data, more than 2.2 million foreigners visited Niseko and 1.5 million went to Hakuba in the 2019-2020 ski season, before the pandemic closed borders. Figures for the 2022-23 season are not yet available, but they are likely to exceed pre-pandemic figures.
Along with Vail Resorts, Club Med is one of the big new investors in Hokkaido, where it has two other resorts: Sahoro and Tomamu, and a third on the tropical Japanese island of Ishigaki, called Kabira. With their family-oriented all-inclusive packages, it was never on my radar until I was invited on a "spring ski" stay to check out their new resort at Kiroro Peak. The first phase of the hotel opened in December 2022 with the launch of a second phase in December of this year.
Located on the outer limits of Niseko on the western side of the island, the area claims the heaviest snowfall in Japan: 21 meters a year thanks to Siberian winds that push snow clouds up the region's mountains.
It is also the longest ski season in Japan, from late November to early May.
Staying at Club Med Kiroro Peak
Arriving at the new hotel, I quickly figured out that convenience is the best thing about skiing at an all-inclusive resort like this rather than one of the crowded ski towns.
After consuming my east-west breakfast combo of eggs, bacon, noodles, and miso soup chosen from the extensive buffet at one of the resort's two main restaurants, it takes less than five minutes to get from the restaurant to my ski locker on the ground floor. low. and out into the snow.
I'm still digesting my omelette when Dejan, a Serbian ex-cop turned nomadic ski instructor, meets me outside and takes me on the chairlift to the top of the mountain, where a class is being held.
There's just a slight sprinkling of the famous dust you'd expect here in January or February, but conditions are still great. Crowds are thin and there's plenty of room for our middle group of skiers (mainly from Hong Kong and Taiwan) to hone their skills on some of the mountain's 23 red, green and black runs.
Group lessons at Club Med, which like almost everything at the resort are included in the package, last two hours in the morning and another two hours after lunch if you have the energy (nothing is mandatory). The sun is out in the afternoon and it's warm enough to remove our jackets as we round off the day with an Aperol Spritz served from a temporary outdoor bar.
I'm pleasantly surprised by the resort, which, at 126 rooms, is more intimate than Club Med's standard offerings of 400-plus rooms. Children under 12 are not allowed, ensuring a more adult and clubby atmosphere. Just like my day on the slopes, it's all about comfort.
The key (literally) to it all is the Club Med digital wristband, which straps to your wrist upon arrival. This device, which you don't even take off in the bathtub, unlocks your room, your ski locker and pays for the extras you want to buy (such as premium wine). Even upon arrival, my ski jacket and pants are already hanging in my room and putting on my skis and boots takes a record 15 minutes.
A former Sheraton hotel, the property has been renovated to make life as simple as possible for guests, including locating the ski lockers on the ground floor, making it easy to get out into the snow.
My room is a spacious Junior Family Suite with a separate living room, a large master bedroom, two bathrooms, and panoramic mountain views. Fluffy cushions line a comfortable alcove where you watch the skiers whiz by outside. The master bathroom has a soaking tub, perfect for soaking while watching the snow fall. The windows open if you want fresh air - a great selling point for anyone who has endured one too many sleepless nights in overheated ski resorts.
Kiroro Peak also has an upbeat artistic bent, including a life-size red deer sculpture in the lobby. The main hall of the complex has floor-to-ceiling windows, where you can recline on the sofas with a cocktail. Complimentary snacks like pastries, sandwiches, and drinks seem to be available all day. The space becomes a lively entertainment area at night.
However, it's the staff, who come from a dozen different countries and are all fluent in English, and the impeccable service that make this place tick.
Known as GOs (Gentle Organisers), a term invented by Club Med decades ago and used at its resorts around the world, they do literally everything from cleaning, cooking, serving you coffee, chatting with you over dinner, and singing and dancing. at the resort. Evening shows on stage. Coco from Perth explains all this when she joins us for a drink on our first night before he starts his shift as sound guy at 9pm. “It's our life,” she says. “It's hard work, but we love it. Every night is a party."
For the next four days, I eat more than I normally would in four weeks; kidding myself that I'm recharging after a hard day of outdoor exercise. Unlike the all-inclusive buffets you might find elsewhere, the quality of the Western and Asian dishes is standard a la carte.
Beer, wine, sake, and other decent drinks are all included, and there's a selection of premium wines and spirits for an extra charge.
The tranquility of hotel life allows one to concentrate fully on what we are all here for: I ski every day, snowwalk through a Narnian landscape of snow-covered forests and icy streams one morning, and spend an hour most afternoons relaxing at the resort. Fourth floor onsen, overlooking the peaks.
The nightly performances are a dazzling display of song, dance and light shows, but unfortunately, I miss the Freddy Mercury tribute on my last night after passing out in a coma after dinner.
If an all-inclusive resort isn't your usual cup of tea, take note: This one is worth a try.
The writer was a guest of Club Med.
I need to know
- Club Med will offer Australian guests special introductory rates of $2,622 per adult for seven nights at Club Med Kiroro Grand (opening later this year) for bookings from December 1, 2023 to June 14, 2024.
- Seven nights in a Club Med Junior Family Suite during low season are $24,046 for two adults + two children (12 years and older); or $13,358 for two adults. Prices include all meals and drinks, ski passes and group ski/snowboard lessons.
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miguel smithNorth Asia correspondentMichael Smith is the North Asia correspondent for The Australian Financial Review. It is based in Tokyo.Connect with Michael atGore.Email Michael firstname.lastname@example.org
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