Already known for her skiing, Niseko elevates luxury

Niseko, on the northern island of Hokkaido, has long been known as a skiing mecca, thanks to the 15 meters of pristine powder that blows from Siberia every winter.

Over the past decade, however, an influx of foreign and domestic investment has transformed the city – once a paradise for snow-loving backpackers – into a luxury travel destination with an emerging food scene. Last year saw the launch of Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono, while the Six Senses and Aman resorts are slated to open next year.

Sleek new arrivals bring an international touch and add sophistication to the region’s original blend of understated style izakaya pubs, hidden cocktail bars and craft beer bars.

Cooking is a priority at luxury properties such as the recently opened HakuVillas, a boutique collection of lavish suites that come with butler service, a driver, and a private chef.

A potato tart is presented on a bed of ancient pottery shards in Somoza. | MELINDA JOE

“My vision for this project was to create a place where multigenerational families could come together and feel completely taken care of. I come from a large family and eating good food has always been important to us, ”says Michael Chen, co-founder of H2 Group, the company that operates HakuVillas in the heart of Niseko’s largest village, Hirafu.

When I step into HakuVillas’ sumptuous three-story, seven-bedroom penthouse, chef Luiz Low greets me with a sumptuous spread of homemade salumi, black caviar with ikura (salmon roe) and a glass of Dom Pérignon. Low, who is originally from Malaysia and has worked in Shanghai and London, uses local ingredients such as king crab, Mangalitsa pork, and Hokkaido dairy to create eclectic menus merging Japanese, Mediterranean and Pan-Asian flavors.

Served in an expansive dining room overlooking Mount Yotei, dinner includes a mosaic of raw tuna with seasonal vegetables and rice cooked in a clay pot topped with sea urchin and truffle. The centerpiece of the meal is a perfectly seasoned and deliciously marbled wagyu steak, grilled over sizzling flames in a Spanish Josper oven: Chen’s family has been developing the recipe over the past 15 years. At HakuVillas and HakuSteak, the 16-seat restaurant on the resort’s first floor, the A4-grade organic beef for the signature steak comes from a ranch on the southwest coast of Hokkaido.

Eager to promote the region’s burgeoning food scene, HakuVillas has organized collaborations with acclaimed local chefs such as Yuichi Kamimura, whose eponymous restaurant, Kamimura, has a Michelin star. Originally from Hokkaido, Kamimura honed his skills at Tetsuya’s in Sydney before moving to Niseko to open his own restaurant in 2007.

Over the past two decades, he has cultivated close relationships with producers such as organic growers Green Farm and Kutchan Hirafu Natural Eggs free-range chicken farm. At Kamimura, he showcases the bounty of the region in modern dishes such as peach and cucumber tarts topped with blueberry sorbet and spicy garlic scapes and chives.

“The number of upscale restaurants here is still low, but Hokkaido ingredients are shipped all over the country. I hope more people come to Niseko as a food destination, not just for skiing, ”he says, noting that summer is the best season for Hokkaido’s bountiful fruits and vegetables, as well as for them. popular delicacies such as sea urchins.

Led by soba noodle master Tatsuru Rai, Rakuichi's specialty is soft soba made from 100% buckwheat flour.  |  WITH THE AUTHORIZATION OF RAKUICHI
Led by soba noodle master Tatsuru Rai, Rakuichi’s specialty is soft soba made from 100% buckwheat flour. | WITH THE AUTHORIZATION OF RAKUICHI

Like Kamimura, Rakuichi, run by venerable soba noodle master Tatsuru Rai, is a foodie destination that began to attract foodies from all over the world before the luxury development boom. The restaurant rose to fame after being featured in Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” in 2011; Rai then demonstrated her noodle making skills at the MAD Culinary Conference hosted by Rene Redzepi from Noma in 2014.

Located in a charming wooden cottage built by Rai himself, Rakuichi specializes in soft and elastic soba made from 100% buckwheat flour. The noodles are prepared from scratch in front of the guests and served with tempura at the end of a multiservice kaiseki meal. The seafood-centric menu features signatures such as thick-sliced ​​pan-fried bonito topped with katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings) and shallots. Dishes such as raw botanebi shrimp, stuffed with minced meat myōga (Japanese ginger), and sea urchin scallop tartare and miso mousse go well with Hokkaido’s selection of sake.

Jewel-toned candies quickly follow one another at Pierre Herme afternoon tea at Park Hyatt Niseko.  |  MELINDA JOE
Jewel-toned candies quickly follow one another at Pierre Herme afternoon tea at Park Hyatt Niseko. | MELINDA JOE

Niseko’s reputation as a culinary hub is growing as more and more restaurants enter the market. In the eastern village of Hanazono, Park Hyatt Niseko offers a dizzying array of dining options, with 11 bars and restaurants spread across the resort’s four buildings. China Kitchen serves expertly prepared dim sum for weekend brunch, while three-star chef Hiroshi Nakamichi’s Molière Montagne specializes in fine French cuisine, and a Sushi Mitsukawa branch offers customers a taste of fruit. seafood from Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture.

Park Hyatt’s popular Pierre Herme afternoon tea is served in the hotel’s spacious lounge. The experience is a multi-course affair that begins with savory bites: cold-smoked scallops, gougères filled with seasonal vegetables and creamy white corn soup. Tiered platters stacked with jewel-toned candies – like the classic Pierre Herme Ispahan dome, a delicious rose petal, lychee and raspberry cream confection on a macaroon cookie base – arrive in quick succession.

In the evening, the hotel bar provides a perfectly sophisticated backdrop for modern cocktails and an impressive range of Hokkaido whiskeys. During happy hour, playfully named ‘Gin O-Clock’, patrons can sample a selection of local artisanal gins.

At Somoza, a contemplative gallery and restaurant in the Hanazono region, food functions as a vehicle for cultural exploration. British-born founder and designer Shouya Grigg fell in love with Hokkaido while cycling along the island’s coast 28 years ago. Since then he has made Niseko his home and part of his mission is “to interest Japanese people in the culture and history of Hokkaido,” he says.

Somoza is located in a renovated wooden farmhouse, moved from Tochigi Prefecture.  |  MELINDA JOE
Somoza is located in a renovated wooden farmhouse, moved from Tochigi Prefecture. | MELINDA JOE

The complex is housed in a renovated wood Kominka (traditional farm) meticulously moved from Tochigi Prefecture. In the main gallery downstairs, the ongoing exhibition “Hokkaido Through the Ages” features works of art and artefacts spanning the history of the region, including pottery from the Jomon period (10,000 – 200 BC ) and works created by the indigenous Ainu. Upstairs, the restaurant is anchored by a massive circular table under the curved beams of the wooden ceiling. The wrap-around windows overlook the Io River, which is flanked by silver birch, oak, and Ezo red pines.

Led by Chef Tatsuya Ozeki, Somoza’s cuisine is inspired by the region’s history to present creative and modern dishes incorporating French influences. In order to “further link menu and exhibit through experiential meals,” Grigg asked Ozeki to research the food culture of the people of the Jomon era. A potato tart, enhanced with edible forage flowers, is presented on a bed of antique pottery shards, and a smoked Hokkaido oyster is drizzled with dark green konbu kelp oil. The gazpacho is served with a bun made from buckwheat and nuts, essentials from Antiquity.

“Storytelling has always been very powerful, but it’s something we’re losing these days,” Grigg says. “The best way to share stories is to sit face to face with people. “

In accordance with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is urging residents and visitors to exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, concert halls and other public spaces.

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