Niseko, Hokkaido – 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 in every winter from Siberia.
In the past decade, however, an influx of foreign and domestic investment has transformed the town — formerly a haven for snow-loving backpackers — into a luxury travel destination with an emerging culinary scene. Last year saw the launch of the Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono, while resorts by Six Senses and Aman are slated to open next year.
The stylish newcomers are bringing international flair and adding sophistication to the area’s quirky mix of low-key izakaya pubs, hidden cocktail dens and craft beer bars.
Cuisine is a priority at luxury properties such as the recently opened HakuVillas, a boutique collection of lavish suites that come with butler service, a chauffeur and a private chef.
“My vision for this project was to create a place where multiple-generation families could get together and feel completely taken care of. I come from a large family and having great 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’ opulent three-floor, seven-bedroom penthouse, head chef Luiz Low greets me with a sumptuous spread of house-cured salumi, black caviar with ikura (salmon roe) and a glass of Dom Perignon. Low, who hails from Malaysia and worked in Shanghai and London, uses local ingredients such as king crab, Mangalitsa pork and dairy from Hokkaido to create eclectic menus fusing 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 clay pot-cooked rice topped with sea urchin and truffle. The centerpiece of the meal is perfectly seasoned, lusciously marbled wagyu steak grilled over leaping flames in a Spanish Josper oven: Chen’s family developed the recipe over the course of 15 years. At HakuVillas and HakuSteak, the 16-seat restaurant on the first floor of the resort, A4-grade organic beef for the signature steak is sourced from a ranch on Hokkaido’s southwestern coast.
Eager to promote the area’s fledgling fine-dining scene, HakuVillas has organized collaborations with acclaimed local chefs such as Yuichi Kamimura, whose eponymous restaurant, Kamimura, boasts a Michelin star. A native of Hokkaido, Kamimura honed his skills at Tetsuya’s in Sydney before relocating 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 free-range chicken farm Kutchan Hirafu Natural Eggs. At Kamimura, he showcases the bounty of the region in modern dishes such as peach-and-cucumber tartlets topped with blueberry sorbet and spicy garlic-chive blossoms.
“The number of high-end restaurants here is still small, but ingredients from Hokkaido get shipped all over the country. I hope that more people will come to Niseko as a food destination, not just for skiing,” he says, noting that summer is the best season for Hokkaido’s plentiful fruits and vegetables — as well as prized delicacies such as sea urchin.
Like Kamimura, Rakuichi, run by venerated soba-noodle master Tatsuru Rai, is a dining destination that began attracting food lovers from around the world prior to the luxury development boom. The restaurant skyrocketed to fame after it was featured in Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” in 2011; Rai later demonstrated his noodle-making skills at the MAD culinary conference organized by Noma’s Rene Redzepi in 2014.
Located in a charming wooden cottage built by Rai himself, Rakuichi specializes in supple, springy soba made with 100% buckwheat flour. The noodles are prepared from scratch in front of guests and served with tempura at the end of a multicourse kaiseki meal. The seafood-centric menu features signatures like thickly sliced, seared bonito topped with katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings) and scallions. Dishes such as raw botanebi shrimp, stuffed with minced myōga (Japanese ginger), and scallop tartare with sea urchin and miso foam pair with the selection of sake from Hokkaido.
Niseko’s reputation as a culinary hub is growing as more restaurants enter the market. In the eastern Hanazono village, Park Hyatt Niseko offers a dizzying array of dining options, with 11 bars and eateries spread across the resort’s four buildings. China Kitchen serves expertly prepared dim sum for brunch on weekends, while three-Michelin-starred chef Hiroshi Nakamichi’s Moliere Montagne specializes in refined French cuisine, and a branch of Sushi Mitsukawa gives guests a taste of fresh seafood from Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture.
Park Hyatt’s popular Pierre Herme afternoon tea is served in the airy hotel lounge. The experience is a multicourse affair that begins with savory bites: cold-smoke scallop, gougeres filled with seasonal vegetables and creamy white-corn potage. Tiered trays stacked with jewel-toned sweets — like the classic Pierre Herme Ispahan dome, a delightful confection of rose petal cream, lychee and raspberry on a macaron-cookie base — arrive in quick succession.
In the evening, the hotel’s bar provides a fittingly sophisticated backdrop for modern cocktails and an impressive range of Hokkaido whiskeys. During happy hour, playfully named “Gin O-Clock,” guests can sample a selection of local craft gins.
At Somoza, a contemplative gallery and restaurant in the Hanazono area, food functions as a vehicle for cultural exploration. British-born founder and designer Shouya Grigg fell in love with Hokkaido while cycling around the island’s coastline 28 years ago. Since then, he has made Niseko his home and part of his mission is to “get Japanese people interested in the Hokkaido culture and history,” he says.
The complex is housed in a renovated wood kominka (traditional farmhouse) painstakingly relocated from Tochigi Prefecture. In the main gallery downstairs, the on-going exhibition “Hokkaido Through the Ages” displays art and artifacts spanning the region’s history, including pottery from the Jomon Period (10,000 – 200 B.C.) and work created by the indigenous Ainu. Upstairs, the restaurant is anchored by a massive circular table beneath the curved wooden ceiling beams. Wrap-around windows overlook the flowing Io River, which is flanked by silver birch, oak and Ezo red pine trees.
Helmed by chef Tatsuya Ozeki, Somoza’s kitchen draws upon the region’s history to present creative modern dishes incorporating French influences. In order to further “connect the menu and the exhibition through experiential dining,” Grigg asked Ozeki to research the food culture of Jomon-era people. A potato tartlet, accented with foraged edible flowers, is presented on a bed of antique pottery shards, and a smoke-kissed Hokkaido oyster is drizzled with dark-green konbu kelp oil. Gazpacho is served with a roll made with buckwheat and walnuts, key staples in ancient times.
“Storytelling has always been importantly powerful, but it’s something that we’re losing these days,” Grigg says. “The best way to share stories is to sit down with people face to face.”
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