It’s the final night of our three-night stay at Kiroro Resort, on Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido, and a soothing stillness descends along with the big, fluffy flakes of snow that have been falling almost non-stop since our arrival. With only two hotels tucked in the bowl of a small valley, Kiroro is a far cry from its bigger and busier neighbour Niseko. But not long after the sun sets and the entire valley becomes shrouded in darkness, cheers ring out as the sky lights up in a dazzling display of fireworks.
Kiroro, it seems, has a lot to celebrate. The one-time corporate retreat for Japanese conglomerate Yamaha (whose chairman tasked his staff 25 years ago with locating the best snow in all of Japan) is attracting more and more visitors for its world-class skiing and snowboarding, Japanese-style hospitality and wide range of activities to keep the entire family entertained. And, as locals are quick to point out, the best powder in the entire world.
It’s January when we visit and check in at The Kiroro, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel, which served as Yamaha’s employee retreat before it was purchased by Thai developer Property Perfect and converted into a 282-room hotel. Property Perfect also owns the 140-room Sheraton a few minutes’ drive away, at the base of Kiroro’s twin mountains, and the Yu Kiroro condominium complex that’s due for completion by the end of 2019. Just a 90-minute drive from New Chitose Airport, Kiroro also happens to be the closest ski resort to Otaru and Sapporo.
After dropping our bags in the spacious double rooms situated around the hotel’s central atrium, it’s time for a tour of the facilities. As with most, if not all, Japanese hotels, there are various public bathing options including a smaller single bath inside the hotel and a larger complex that requires a brief walk outside but is rewarded with indoor and outdoor baths and — my favourite after a long day of skiing — massage chairs in the relaxation area.
The Kiroro also has an arcade, small fitness room, outdoor-activities centre, arts and crafts room, pirate- themed play area and makeshift town with bars and restaurants as well as a gear and souvenir shop. In winter, there’s a skating rink, snow park for kids and the Ice Star Resort bar/restaurant built entirely of ice.
After learning about the weather systems that bring cold air from Siberia and across the Sea of Japan to deliver about 21 metres of snow annually in Kiroro (only after which they move on to Niseko), we can hardly wait to hit the slopes. With snow falling steadily for about 150 days a year — which means Kiroro has the added advantage of Japan’s longest ski season, from November to May and sometimes even stretching into June — there’s no need for artificial snow and no risk of avalanche.
Once we’re geared up at the Mountain Center and equipped with a handy smart card that stores our sizes and lift passes, all that’s left to do is choose our first run. Kiroro comprises 22 groomed runs on Nagamine and Asari peaks, served by nine lifts (all covered except one) and a gondola. And the best part? Because this is Kiroro, and not Niseko or Nagano, we never have to wait in line.
So we jump on the gondola that takes us to the summit of Asari Peak and kick things off with a photo op at the resort’s famous Niisa Bell, a local landmark that appeared in the Thai film One Day and is said to result in marriage for couples who ring the bell twice.
The bell tower is also a fun way to see just how deep the snow is, which on the day we visited reached at least halfway up the 5.8-metre-high structure. But we came here to ski and for the rest of the day, that’s what we do. This being my first time skiing in Hokkaido — and first visit to the island since a three-month exchange programme in college — I had high hopes for its legendary powder.
And, as it turns out, it’s legendary for a reason. At times I feel like I’m floating down a run, at others both relieved and surprised when what would normally be a patch of ice carved by previous skiers or boarders is nothing but smooth, packed powder.
Kiroro has a good mix of beginner and expert runs, plus extra snow features and banks for practice and tricks. For the more adventurous, it also has extensive off-piste offerings. Skiers must register with a Mountain Club, where they’re provided with safety equipment and tracking devices. Thanks to these measures and various checkpoints, it’s possible to find anyone lost or injured in the backcountry within 20 minutes.
Off-piste skiing is certainly something to aspire to on our next visit, but after talking to the hotel staff and local residents we could be back even before the next ski season. Hokkaido is one of those rare places that can truly claim to be a year-round destination.
From the lush beauty of spring (despite the lack of a rainy season) and the perfect hiking and golfing weather of summer, to the beautiful display of autumn colours (not to mention Japan’s biggest and best beer festival), and of course that powder in winter, the island satisfies all comers. And perhaps the best news I’ve heard: no mosquitoes.
Finally, and one of the main reasons people visit Japan, is the food. Hokkaido, I’m told by our Kiroro hosts, supplies most of the country’s foodstuff. It’s most famous for its seafood and dairy products but the island also produces some of the finest fruits, vegetables and speciality dishes such as ramen and jingisukan (the latter being the iconic grilled meat-and-veggie dish otherwise known as Genghis Khan).
The restaurants at Kiroro, like the rest on the island, focus on serving the best of the season. For our winter visit, that means big, meaty king crab legs, colourful assortments of fresh-caught sashimi, thinly sliced pork belly for hot pot, and some incredible sake.
As I’m lying back in my massage chair after a full day of feasting, snow-cat touring and snowshoeing, flakes continuing to fall silently outside, I wonder how I’m going to describe the Kiroro experience. And then I recall the words of the resort’s COO, Lothar Pehl: “You have to see it to believe it. It’s as simple as that.”
Yu Kiroro, a ski-in ski-out luxury condominium, is the first of many exciting developments at Kiroro Resort.
Since acquiring the two hotels and ski resort at Kiroro in 2012, Property Perfect has set its sights on creating nothing less than “the premier alpine destination in Asia”. The next step in its master plan is Yu Kiroro, a 108-unit luxury condominium due for completion in December of this year.
The six-storey building sits in between the Sheraton and Tribute hotels and will be connected to the slopes by a new combi lift/gondola serving all three buildings. It will also offer ski valet services, a family-friendly snow sports area, and natural indoor and outdoor hot-springs baths as well asstandard amenities such as all-day dining and a fitness centre.
Inside, the units range from one-bedroom (667 square feet), two- bedroom (904 — 1,367 square feet) and-three bedroom (1,313–1,507 square feet), to a four-bedroom penthouse (2,874 square feet). Even the smallest units are suitable for long stays with full kitchens, washers and dryers, and all furniture and accessories provided.
The design, meanwhile, is described as 70 percent alpine and 30 percent Japanese with muted colours, and wood and stone finishes. The penthouse also features a private outdoor bath and spacious entertaining areas. Yu Kiroro is just one part of Property’s Perfect long-term vision for the valley. The Thai company plans to develop an entire village with villas, townhouses and apartments centred around dining and shopping areas, a premium ski club for the winter and various outdoor activities year-round.
With more and more visitors hailing from Thailand, China, Indonesia and the rest of the region, Hokkaido could well be on the cusp of an Asian ski boom. And if the 2020 Olympics raise the level of international tourism even further, Kiroro could well be perfectly positioned for its developers and investors alike.
For more information on Yu Kiroro, including floor plans, property news and investment opportunities, see yukiroro.com. For information on Kiroro Resort, see kiroro.co.jp. Both properties are accessible from Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, with non-stop flights from Hong Kong (roughly five hours) available from Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines.