All things considered, the chief draw of Niseko — and Hokkaido in general — has to be the rugged natural surrounds and everything that springs from it.
For most people, this means some of the best powder snow on earth, though the Niseko area is also gaining renown as a summer destination. But regardless of season, visitors are bound to work up an appetite, and there’s no better place to sample soul food made with some of Japan’s finest ingredients than Niseko.
An Dining occupies most of the ground floor of Ki Niseko, a resort hotel recessed from the main road that winds between Mount Annapuri and Mount Yotei, a conical stratovolcano that recalls Mount Fuji. While An Dining serves breakfast and lunch, and features a bar, it really comes into its own at night, when the lighting is formal but friendly — classy without being stark.
If the food can be summed up, the term would be shin-washoku (new Japanese cuisine), a blend of new and traditional techniques masterminded by the man in the kitchen, Executive Chef Shinichi Maeda. A native of Fukagawa, Hokkaido, Maeda’s connection to food runs deep.
“I’ve been cooking since I was 6 or 7 years old,” Maeda says. “Both grandmas, one grandpa, my uncle — they were all head chefs or owner chefs. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. My grandma had a massive vegetable farm as well, so in the morning I would go to the farm and run around picking and eating.”
Maeda studied and worked in software design, but quickly switched vocations to become a sushi chef in Tokyo for four years. He then headed to Australia, where he worked for 12 years. In that time, he learned from chefs with various culinary backgrounds and picked up a Chef’s Hat award in the 2012 Queensland Good Food Guide. By 2014, however, he was ready to bring his experience back home. He partnered with the stakeholders of Ki Niseko and An Dining opened in December of 2014.
With Maeda, any given meal is a curated tour of textures, temperatures and flavors. The tofu starter came topped with salsa made from tomatoes produced near Funka Bay and raised on hot spring water — making for a good balance between acidity and sweetness — mixed with mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica, similar to parsley) myōga (Japanese ginger) and shishito pepper.
“The tofu is from the local Kutchan soy bean with a sesame dressing, made in-house,” says Akinori Yamamoto, the restaurant’s manager.
More food arrives: a sushi platter that doubles as a sculpture and a traditional wasabi oroshi grater made with shark skin affixed to a wooden palette with rice glue.
“Using this makes the best consistency, and the flavor improves,” Yamamoto says. “When you grind with those sharp metal graters, the consistency isn’t right. Using a circular motion, like sharpening a pencil, is best.”
There is sake-steamed oyster from Akkeshi, sea urchin from Otaru and tender pork belly from the island’s northern reaches, cooked for 12 hours and served on local Kutchan potato mashed with miso, atop bonito-infused yogurt sauce with oil from garlic chive extract oil.
But it’s the Nemuro trout, smoked with the wood of cherry blossom trees, that really holds the attention. Somehow both light and hearty, the fish is complemented by yellow beer jelly made with a pilsner and a hint of lemon, Hokkaido horse radish and yogurt sauce. On the side are myōga ginger, fruit tomatoes, a dehydrated and fried shiso leaf, organic lime cucumber from nearby Lalala Farm, and hoozuki (ground cherry), which has a refreshing, fruity flavor, almost like a grape.
Speaking English with traces of an Australian accent, Maeda, who turns 39 this year, says more and more people are visiting Niseko in the warmer months. Business is good, but he remembers the beginning in 2014, when he returned after being away for 16 years.
“I was quite nervous when I came back,” he says. “I had no connections. In the first year I tried my best to establish connections with farmers, fishermen and markets. In the second year, I spent all morning from 6 a.m. shopping, then returned to do tests, because back then things were quiet and I had time.”
Today, he has direct contact with more than 100 food producers of all kinds.
While he showcases Hokkaido ingredients in summer, winter drives him south to source ingredients, something he always insists on doing personally.
“It’s really a shame — people from all over the world come here, but in the winter months we don’t have much,” he says. “We have rough weather, and we can’t even get fish. So I travel to Kochi in Shikoku and to Kyushu, because they have it when we have nothing. But I want to use Japanese produce, not from overseas, and I want to tell the customer who grows it, who catches it and why I use it.”
Although An Dining keeps Maeda busy, he’s now studying sansai wild mountain vegetables, and plans to open a boutique restaurant focused on produce from only the Niseko area in the future.
“These days, you can order anything from the internet. You can get almost anything the next day,” Maeda says. “But I want to introduce something you have to visit Hokkaido to get — things that are picked that morning, that could never survive the trip to Tokyo. I want to do something really special. That’s my goal.”
For more information, visit www.kiniseko.com/dining.