Niseko — where the powder is voluminous, après ski happens in onsens (hot springs), and culinary adventures abound — is a popular destination for international travelers. Japow, the nickname for the average 600 inches of powder that arrives from Siberia each winter, is what puts the resort so firmly on the map with skiers and snowboarders. On the north island of Hokkaido, Niseko includes four main separate, but linked, resorts (collectively called Niseko United). Beyond the slopes, the island is renowned for world-class seafood, produce and beef as well as beer, whiskey and even some sake. Its excellent restaurants, from simple noodle bars and laid-back izakayas (Japanese pubs) to fine dining at the Michelin-starred Kamimura, spotlight the island’s bounty. Though often called the Aspen of Asia — and, indeed, Niseko is undergoing a similar luxury building boom — this Japanese resort is forging its own identity, from design to food to culture and wellness scenes.
1) 1:30 p.m. Artful dining
Perched on the side of a cliff in the Hanazono area, Somoza, a serene gallery and artful restaurant, is housed in a renovated wood kominka (historic farmhouse). A typical thatched roof has been replaced with steel, but its traditional shape still evokes a samurai helmet. Head downstairs to its main gallery where an ongoing exhibition, “Hokkaido Through the Ages,” presents a history lesson while showcasing artifacts from the founder and designer Shouya Grigg’s personal collection. There’s pottery from the island’s ancient Jomon period (from about 10,000 B.C. to 300 B.C.); and a carved kabuto sword stand with deer antlers and other works by the Ainu, people only recently recognized by the government as Japan’s indigenous inhabitants. On the main level are handmade ceramics from Japanese artisans and Mr. Grigg’s minimalist black-and-white photographs of snow, trees, mountains and abstract patterns inspired by nature. (Somoza will open an additional adjacent art gallery this spring.)
Somoza serves some of the most creatively delicious food — inspired takes on Japanese cuisine with Italian influences — in Niseko. Its changing seasonal menus focus on local ingredients, such as duck breast with Kutchan potato, crab and sea urchin consommé, or salmon smoked on-site, all served on beautiful ceramics. Lunch is about 5,000 yen, or about $46. (Also, ask about the restaurant’s matcha tea ceremony.) Sit by its glass windows and gaze onto silver birch, oak and ezo red pine trees. The restaurant offers free transportation from Hanazono for lunch.
2) 5 p.m. Snow-surfing
West of downtown Hirafu village is Gentemstick, the groovy shop of the local legend Taro Tamai, the father of Japanese “snow-surfing.” This Zen-like approach brings snowboarding back to its roots, with the rider using body movements and techniques from surfing to follow the terrain of the mountain. Lining the walls like sculptures are colorful surf boards from Mr. Tamai’s personal collection, and handcrafted snowboards made with bamboo and other woods (88,000 to 162,000 yen). With good surf breaks a short drive away, some locals even ski in the morning, then surf in the afternoon. Purchase a beanie or T-shirt, then head upstairs to the shop’s cozy cafe, art gallery and yoga studio.
3) 6 p.m. Strolling through Hirafu
Hirafu village is Niseko’s cultural heartbeat, brimming with bars and restaurants, food trucks, coffee spots like the Mountain Kiosk Coffee stand, ski shops, condos, boutique hotels and luxury chalets. Drop into Powder Art Gallery for contemporary works by emerging artists from Tokyo, Europe and New York. Stop at Niseko Taproom for local craft beers like Obihiro Kurouto or fruity Onuma Snowdrop I.P.A. Enjoy Hirafu’s organic funkiness before a new massive town center development, called Aruku-zaka Street, comes in the next few years.
4) 7:30 p.m. Dinner on a stick
Yakitori — meat, seafood or vegetables on skewers — is popular throughout Japan, and Bang Bang is a Niseko institution. Reserve bar seats and watch chefs grill over a special charcoal called binchotan, made from oak and valued for its high, clean heat that enhances textures and flavors. From gizzards and heart to neck and feet, almost every part of the chicken’s here, with crispy skin a standout. So are Hokkaido Wagyu beef skewers, Hokkaido crabs and Akkeshi Kakiemon oysters (about 10,000 yen). If you can’t get a reservation, Bang 2 — next door, its more casual eatery — now offers the same menu.
5) 9:30 p.m. Whiskey nights
Down a dimly lit Hirafu side street, people stand in line to pass through an old-fashioned red refrigerator door (an Instagram favorite) plastered with stickers. Dubbed The Fridge, Bar Gyu+, with its cozy speakeasy ambience and candlelit wooden tables, is famous for its old and rare Japanese single-malts, a selection that changes every season. Ask what’s behind the bar for off-the-menu pourings of sought-after whiskeys like Karuizawa or Hanyu, and expect to pay almost 22,000 yen ($201) for some shots. Sip as a D.J. spins vinyl, mostly jazz tunes. Still want to dance? A short walk away is the fun new Powder Room, an upscale club with quality wines and cocktails that feels more Hong Kong than Niseko.
6) 8 a.m. Fuel up
In central Hirafu, Green Farm Deli & Cafe roasts its own coffee beans. Fuel up for the slopes over hearty pork hash with poached eggs, or an egg wrap, all from local ingredients, alongside your latte or cappuccino. Breakfast, about 2,000 yen.
7) 9 a.m. Four mountains
One pass offers access to Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu and Hanazono; one day costs 8,000 yen if bought online. (Niseko also participates in the global Mountain Collective and Ikon Pass, season-long lift passes to top worldwide resorts, including Niseko United.) Venture out with an instructor to guide you around the mountains for an overview, or to get tips for powder. Niseko’s slopes offer lots of variety, from beginners to advanced, with the highest elevation only 3,937 feet. Intrepid skiers can go from one resort to the next, beginning at Hanazono and ending at Annupuri. (A free bus can also take you to each base.) At the top of the Niseko gondola, ski to the sleek wooden Lookout Cafe and tuck into a bowl of simple seafood ramen (about 2,000 yen). Trekking up and skiing down the crater of Mount Yotei — a volcano, resembling a smaller Mount Fuji, that looms over Niseko — belongs on your adrenaline bucket list (guide required; contact Rising Sun Guides).
8) 2:30 p.m. Après ski ritual
With Japan’s volcanic landscape, there are ample onsens (geothermal hot springs) in Niseko; taking to the waters at a public bathhouse is both an essential ritual of Japanese culture and part of the ski experience. Join the locals at Yugokorotei, in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in Annupuri. Know the Japanese etiquette, such as bringing your own little “modesty towel” and soap to cleanse thoroughly before dipping, naked (no bathing suits allowed), into a communal outdoor pool. Like most onsen, this one is separated by gender. The outdoor pool, under a wood pergola and surrounded by snow and boulders, features mineral water pumped from the base of Mount Annupuri. It may be cold outside, but you’re relaxing your body and soul in about 130 degree Fahrenheit, mineral-rich bubbling water. Folding and placing the towel on your head is a custom. Cost: 1,000 yen.
9) 6 p.m. The art of noodles
Begin at Karabina, an izakaya occupying a small wooden hut at Annupuri’s base (note: this is the last season the restaurant will be open at this location). Shoes off, walk up a few steps to a cozy alcove, sit around a wood-burning stove and sip a local sake. Then walk a stone’s throw away down a pathway to another rustic wood dwelling, Rakuichi. Helmed by Tatsuru Rai, known for his artisan, local buckwheat noodles, this soba master was celebrated on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” and ever since it’s been a hard reservation to get. His wife, Midori, greets diners as they don slippers and sit at a no-frills, 12-seat wooden counter with views of the master at work on a ball of dough. Dinner comes kaiseki-style, a Japanese haute cuisine tasting menu that changes with the seasons. Nine simple dishes with bright flavors are presented on pretty Japanese ceramic plates and lacquer bowls. Order a Hokkaido sake to accompany, for instance, sashimi of sea urchin, toro tuna, smoked scallop and Mr. Rai’s hand-cut soba noodles. Select either cold with tempura vegetables, or hot with duck (an additional 800 yen). Finish with dessert. (Dinner is about 12,000 yen.)
10) 9:30 p.m. Niseko noir
Stop at Toshiro’s for a cocktail created by its bespectacled namesake proprietor and mixologist, celebrated for concoctions like Penicillin, a mix of whiskey, ginger and citrus, with a smoky spin (1,600 yen). Or try a ginger gimlet and a smoked old fashioned with local whiskey. More than 400 bottles sit behind the bar; select a tasting flight, from 3,600 to 45,000 yen.
11) 10 a.m. Shrines and temples
Grab a coffee at the Mountain Kiosk Coffee stand or one of the trucks in Hirafu and head to the non-touristy town of Kutchan (about six miles from Hirafu and 20 minutes by cab) where you’ll find the Daibutsuji Buddhist temple, featuring a prayer room with a gold-painted ceiling depicting a dragon shielding a Buddhist elder from a tiger (no charge, book in advance). Be mindful that temples and shrines are places of worship for local residents, as well as places to protect sacred objects. Other area shrines: Kutchan-jinja, where red, green and yellow flags line the simple wood interior; and in Niseko Town stands the small Kaributo-jinja.
12) 1 p.m. Swirl and other milk treats
Hokkaido, Japan’s top dairy-producing region, is recognized for offering the best milk in the country. Milk Kobo, next to the Takahashi working dairy farm in Niseko Village, is noted for hand-milking its cows, and its popular cafe and shop makes desserts and cheeses from the milk. Knock back a banana yogurt drink, which is packaged in a cute little bottle with cows on its label. Don’t miss the cheese tarts and cream puffs.
At the nine-room boutique Kimamaya in Hirafu, European alpine design meets Japanese aesthetics. Feel at home sitting around the living-room fireplace, sipping a glass of Burgundy from the owner’s private vineyard. An adjacent restaurant, The Barn, inspired by Hokkaido farm architecture, serves Western and Japanese breakfasts, and for dinner, French-Japanese food using local ingredients; it’s worth eating here even if staying elsewhere. There’s a small spa and two stone soaking tubs. Rates: 22,400 to 55,440 yen for doubles; lofts are 41,440 to 94,080 yen.
Nestled in a picturesque forest, the stunning 15-room Zaborin fuses a traditional ryokan experience with contemporary luxury. Guests relax in Japanese house pajamas, and dinner is an 11-course kaiseki meal of beautifully presented plates, with many foraged local ingredients. Rooms feature indoor and outdoor onsens. Rates start at 75,000 yen.
If you chose the Airbnb route, try to find a property in the vibrant Hirafu area. Here you can easily walk to restaurants and shops, and are near public transportation. Expect to pay around $155 and up for a one bedroom.
52 PLACES AND MUCH, MUCH MORE Discover the best places to go in 2020, and find more Travel coverage by following us on Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our Travel Dispatch newsletter: Each week you’ll receive tips on traveling smarter, stories on hot destinations and access to photos from all over the world.