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Saturday, March 3, 2007

JAPAN LITE

Niseko -- growing up like St. Moritz


If you asked the town of Niseko, Hokkaido what it wants to be when it grows up, it would say St. Moritz, Switzerland. Now there's a town with a vision. And due to what I call "Why not?" town planning, it may even get there. I have faith that Niseko will someday join the European Union.

A Niseko pension gives passersby food for thought
A Niseko pension gives passersby food for thought. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

The one thing both Niseko and St. Moritz do have in common is skiing. So what if there are no other similarities between the two towns? In Japan, similarities can always be created. First, Niseko adopted St. Moritz as its sister city. Then, the town built its train station using Swiss architecture. So what if the train station is in the middle of nowhere and tourists never see it? It will still look good in the brochures.

Lastly, Niseko named one of their bridges the St. Moritz Bridge. Wallah, we are St. Moritz!

The next thing Niseko needed to be more like St. Moritz was a little bit of fantasy. And with Niseko's famous powder snow, it was like icing on the cake.

You can book your ski trip through Deep Powder Tours, or Niseko Powder Holidays, and stay in accommodations with names like Shinsetsu (new snow), Hatsu Yuki (first snow), Fresh Powder, First Tracks, Fresh Tracks, Powder Haven, and Powder Tracks. If you want it all, however, check into the Snow Universe Hotel.

But Niseko still needed something else to be more like St. Moritz -- glitz. And what better way to create glitz than with lights? Niseko lights up the ski mountain nightly for night skiing. Not with just normal lights either, but with huge panels of stadium lights in reds, greens and blues. And just like every cake needs a decoration on the top, they put a giant thermometer at the top of the mountain that glows so it can be seen from the village below.

Despite Niseko's efforts to be more like St. Moritz, these are not the things that impress foreign tourists. We like the things that make Niseko so unmistakably Japanese. And if you look further, these things can still be found here.

Among the luxury apartments is the original Niseko, with Japanese family-run pensions called Hurry Slowly, Popcorn, and Potato Chips. You can still stay in small hotels such as Blow Hard, Penguin or Konkurito (concrete). Train buffs will enjoy a stay at the pension Locomotion.

Just as eclectic are Niseko's bars such as Blo blo, with murals on the walls and the Gyu bar, which you enter through a refrigerator door. Hank's Bar is a cozy log cabin run by four cats and is one of Niseko's original watering holes.

Once inside these bars, you can drink sake while watching the snow fall from their giant picture windows. You can cram into crowded Bang-Bangs for grilled chicken on a stick or sit on the floor Japanese style at Mina Mina. At B's Cafe you can still get the Cake Sat for 750 yen or Seefood Rice for 950 yen. Now that's Japan!

After a cold day on the slopes, you can warm yourself up with a bowl of crab ramen at the local noodle shop, soak in the onsen hot springs or get a shiatsu massage.

And the next day you can get up and do it all over again.

Makes you wonder why Niseko would ever want to grow up to be like St. Moritz.



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