By Jessica Kozuka
Oct 6, 2021
AFTER THE INTENSELY MUGGY HEAT of Tokyo in August, stepping out of the airport and into Hokkaido’s cooler climes is a balm. Honestly, the temperature difference is reason enough to brave a flight. However, I’m here on a mission: to eat. A lot. Two hours west, Niseko awaits. It’s a resort town that attracts hundreds of thousands of snow bunnies each winter, but I’m here to sample as much food as I possibly can, the best and most nuanced food Niseko has to offer because I’m hypothesizing that it’s just as worthy of the status of culinary capital as ski mecca.
With an average 15 meters of light, dry powder and mostly unrestrained off-piste and backcountry access, Niseko’s popularity has been growing steadily for two decades, driving an influx of new development. The hospitality scene welcomed a massive ski-in, ski-out Hyatt property in 2020, and Six Senses and Aman have openings slated for the next couple years. Full occupancy from December to March is no doubt an attraction, but these big names are also betting on the potential of Niseko as a summer retreat with food at the fore. Having clocked some pilgrimage-worthy fine-dining options, they’ll be adding a few of their own, too, of course.
I’m checking in to see what’s on the menu so far.
First stop is the three-floor, fully serviced penthouse suite at HakuVillas, capable of sleeping 16. There is nothing else scheduled for the day because, frankly, this uber-luxe neo-chalet is a destination in itself. Private chauffeur is included, but why even venture out when you have floor-to-ceiling mountain views and a veranda with fire pit and natural hot spring? And, no, not nearly done yet: there’s also a game room kitted out with everything from a custom shuffleboard table to the latest video game consoles, a staffed cocktail bar and wine cellar, a Golfzon indoor golf simulator programmed with 170 different real-world courses, a wood-lined sauna, a private spa suite, and — my favorite amenity — chef Luiz.
Luiz Low is the executive chef of attached boutique restaurant HakuSteak, but he also serves as personal chef for villa guests. Drawing on food from his native Malaysia as well as years spent in kitchens from Shanghai to London, here in Niseko chef Luiz turns Hokkaido’s bountiful produce into a unique fusion kaiseki with strong European and Cantonese influences.
HakuSteak’s signature A4 wagyu. Courtesy of HakuVillas (2)
Dinner’s standout is naturally HakuSteak’s signature A4 wagyu strip. The sublimely marbled organic beef is sourced under exclusive contract with a family farm that has been breeding Japanese Black since 1946. The steaks are cooked with exacting precision: cut three fingers thick, char-grilled at 400 degrees Celsius, and rested for 8 to 10 minutes. The result is a crisp, toothsome exterior around a buttery bomb of jus-packed umami.
T+L Tip: My must-eat rec here is a truffle-infused claypot rice topped with mountains of sea urchin from Rishiri and salmon roe from Rausu. Claypot cooking slightly scorches rice at the bottom, adding notes of crunchy bitterness to the natural sweetness. Meanwhile, the marine delicacies bring saltiness and creaminess for a riot of flavors and textures that has me signaling the butler for seconds despite the already precarious expansion of my waistline. Eh, a few aggressive rounds of shuffleboard would burn those extra calories, right?
THE NEXT DAY is a deep dive into Niseko’s fine-dining scene, starting with soba restaurant Rakuichi, a favorite of the late, great Anthony Bourdain.
Pulling off a rural road into a small gravel lot, it’s hard to imagine you’ve arrived at a world-famous restaurant regularly booked out months in advance. A sign points towards a weathered walkway zigzagging through the trees, leading to the door of an unassuming wood cabin. Inside is a 12-seat soba counter of butter-colored spruce helmed by master artisan Tatsuru Rai.
Assisted by his cheerful wife Midori and son Nao, Rai serves an eight-course kaiseki spread culminating in chilled soba that he prepares from scratch while you watch.
Courtesy of Rakuichi (3)
The meal starts with a veritable ship’s hold of seafood. Classic fatty toro bluefin sashimi is followed by a mélange of scallops, sea urchin, and botan ebi (those plump, large sweet shrimp endemic to Hokkaido) in miso foam, which is chased by seared skipjack topped with bonito flakes, and a whole Botan shrimp stuffed with finely minced myoga. Midori encourages me to pull it apart with my hands and suck the innards out of the carapace.
“Just go wild with it,” she smiles.
Everyone at the counter hushes in anticipation as Rai begins to prepare the soba. Normally, soba is cut with wheat flour as a binder, but Rai’s talent is in making noodles just as springy and cohesive out of pure buckwheat flour, called juwari soba, for unadulterated earthy flavor. In a custom black granite bowl weighing 80 kilograms, he hand-mixes his dough into a smooth ball.
Next, he rolls it out with a wooden dowel and then cuts the noodles into perfectly uniform strips. The whole process takes about 10 minutes, an efficient dance that transforms simple, rustic ingredients into something sublime.
With a quick yuzu sorbet to cleanse the palate, we’re off to our next feeding: a Pierre Hermé Paris afternoon tea at the Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono.
Pastry chef Adrien Nanus trained for six months at the Pierre Hermé kitchen in Tokyo to ensure the tea’s unique Hokkaido-influenced creations are in line with the famed pâtissier’s concepts. The afternoon tea therefore features plenty of famous Hermé flavors like Ispahan (a blend of rose, lychee, and raspberry), but equally reflects executive chef Steffen Gube’s locavore ethos with touches like a tart jam of endemic haskap berries and an herbal tea brewed with fresh thyme, sage, basil and four varieties of mint grown in an on-site garden.
Among an astonishing 14-sweet selection, I was particularly enamored with a refreshing tarte citron following Hermé’s new lower fat and sugar approach from his revolutionary-for-a-Frenchman cookbook Gourmandises Raisonnées. Nanus’s gluten-free crust is made with a blend of flax, kudzu, potato, and rice flour, somehow achieving a buttery flakiness without any butter, while the bright acidity of the lemon meringue provides the same fulsome flavor of the full-sugar variety.
AT THAT POINT WELL AND TRULY STUFFED, I take a break of sorts to visit local farms with the ebullient Yuichi Kamimura, a protégé of famed Aussie chef Tetsuya Wakuda. Kamimura gave up a successful restaurant in Sapporo to move to Niseko. After he opened his eponymous French fine diner here in 2008, it shortly garnered a Michelin star and put the town on the radar for many foodies.
During the summer season, Restaurant Kamimura is only open from dinner Thursday to lunch on Sunday. This downtime is a chance for him and his staff to recoup, says Kamimura, a laid-back lifestyle that avoids the common culinary risk of burnout. It’s also a chance for him to explore Hokkaido, play with food, and discover new ingredients and preparations.
Courtesy of Restaurant Kamimura (2)
In summer, his degustation menus are packed with fruit, veg and edible flowers from a network of small producers like the organic and family-run Green Farm Niseko, where we are currently meandering through fields and greenhouses. Kamimura plucks ripe tomatoes, pungent chive blossoms, and herbaceous dill in turn, popping them in his mouth. This is often how he crafts his menus, he says, sampling what’s at the height of flavor.
Kamimura also tries to source his animal products locally, searching out humane, free-range farms like Kutchan Hirafu Natural Eggs. Taste is only one aspect, he explains. If animals aren’t treated well, he feels uncomfortable, an unease that spoils his joy in cooking. Conversely, knowing the animals are happy makes him happy and gives him a provenance he can gladly share with guests. After snapping approximately 1,000 photos of the adorably plump “locavore Niseko” hens smugly strutting and scratching in a field of chamomile, I’ll have to say I wholeheartedly endorse this food philosophy.
Next up is dinner at Somoza, a gallery-cum-restaurant in a traditional thatched farmhouse relocated beam by beam from Tochigi. An added basement floor houses a collection of art and artifacts spanning the history of Hokkaido, while the first floor is the venue for “experiential” degustation dining full of touchpoints from that timeline.
Courtesy of Somoza (2)
For example, one dish is a gazpacho of Zeitaku tomatoes garnished with mozzarella and edible flowers. Served alongside is a roll made only with ingredients eaten in the Jomon Period (14,000–300 BCE) like buckwheat, soy and walnuts. Elsewhere, the historical connection is in the presentation, as with a potato tartelette served on a bed of antique pottery shards and flints.
It’s an intriguing concept, although one that may require a great deal of exposition for most guests. Even without the detailed background, though, the wabi-sabi atmosphere exudes a peaceful timefullness, as spaces shared over generations tend to remind us of common human pleasures like the enjoyment of food and natural beauty.
AFTER RESTFUL NIGHT, my final day of food in Niseko kicks off with the Park Hyatt’s popular breakfast buffet, which is nothing short of a primer on the region’s culinary offerings. I nibble Yotsuba butter from the Tokachi dairy land, some addictive kurobuta jambon cru from Akaishi, and Kutchan aged potatoes, spuds stored in a snow chamber for 540 days to bring out a natural sweetness.
There’s also an unbelievably creamy tofu at the salad bar from a producer called Wakimizu no Sato. The hotel staff tell me they make all kinds of soy-based foods, and locals love to line up for fresh-from-the-fryer donuts crafted out of okara, the silty byproduct of tofu making. It’s near my lunch destination, so I pop over and manage to snag the second-to-last donut (errr, as well as a vanilla custard) to enjoy in their outdoor garden.
Wakimizu no Sato loosely translates to “source of the spring water.” It is indeed right next to a natural spring where snowmelt from Mt. Yotei filters through the ground to emerge again, infused with magnesium and other minerals. The shop uses the water for their operations, but it’s also a public good. As I munch on my sweets, a steady stream of locals fill jugs to take home. Even in summer, the water flows up at 6℃ and spills into a greenery-ringed pool, making it a pleasant place to while away an hour.
When I feel like I can look at food again, it’s off for one more only-in-Niseko meal at ramen shop Kazahana. They recently relocated from Kutchan to neighboring Makkari, which makes it harder to access without a car. However, it’s now in the same building as a public hot spring, which makes it even more worth the effort.
Kazahana combines two Hokkaido specialties — miso ramen and potatoes! — into one savory franken-food, their signature Niseko ramen. The standard crinkly Chinese-style noodles are served in a hearty miso soup with a nutty sesame boost and topped with chashu pork slices, menma bamboo shoots, and a sprinkle of corn kernels, before the whole thing is covered with mounds of thick vichyssoise foam. It looks a bit like shepherd’s pie but tastes creamy and complex, with the corn niblets providing an occasional sweet crunch.
As ramen is the go-to closer for a night out on the tear in Japan, it seems a fitting way to finish my Niseko food quest. At least the blurry, over-stuffed satisfaction I feel toddling out feels much the same. As does the certainty that I’ll do it all again sometime soon, maybe even before the first snow falls.