We toured some of Japans best Ski fields and coffee shops last January. Here are some photos and a list of coffee hot spots to hit up on your next Japanese coffee and snow adventure.
We spent three weeks in the wintry North in the middle of January, when most Kiwis are hanging out at the beach eating ice-cream. The FRED team is happy to endure the polar extremes, because it gives us a chance to indulge in two of our most favorite past-times, Skiing and Drinking Coffee.
This was our second trip to Japan and it was quite a different experience. The weather was a lot more changeable (actually volatile might be a better word) and the coffee had improved markedly in our two year absence. We stayed at Hirafu Village which gave us access to the Niseko United ski fields. As well as some smaller local fields nearby. (Moiwa and Kiroro.) The snowfall this year was a little more patchy (for Hokkaido.) That means it didn't snow every day and we actually got into a little freeze thaw cycle which was scarily reminiscent of our home mountain of Mt Ruapehu for a day. And then the next storm hit and we were back to knee, thigh and chest deep powder.
I you ever go to Niseko spend the extra 2000yen ($20) and ski Niseko Village Misuno-No-Sawa. Its an avalanche control area which is opened up for a handful of powder-pigs, after undergoing a one hour avalanche safety briefing. It's enough to work up an apetite for coffee and scones at the Hilton Niseko Village, which at $45 is sheer lunacy but at least you get to sit in a plush lounge in your ski boots. The scones are good, the coffee is not good.
In Japan one does not speak poorly of ones' host, so I shall emphasise the highlights.
The 1000 metre hut on the Grand Hirafu skifield has THE BEST HOT CHOCOLATE YOU WILL TRY ANYWHERE...EVER!
Plus you can back it up with a shot of whiskey or sake or both you you are that type of skier or rider. The hut is a steamily traditional affair with a small wood burner and an equally small and rustic toilet. The whole affair is decorated in that curiously Japanese way of emphasising the beauty of everyday mundane objects. (Even in the bathroom)
The best coffee in the the entire area is the small coffee kiosk at the base of the Hanazono Ski Area. It is run by an Australian guy who brings his beans in from the USA.
(Don't make any assumptions about American Coffee until you read our trip report to Portland Oregon.)
Back to Hanazono, the double espresso I had was rich and smooth with full copper brown crema, no bitterness, just enough astringency to balance the sweetness nicely. It is very rare to happily back up a double espresso with another double espresso. Luckily I was working up enough of a (coffee) thirst smashing the powder in Strawberry Fields (Go there!!)
If you ever find yourself standing at that kiosk about to order a coffee, make sure you also order a pork bun. Espresso and Pork Buns are soon to become one of the worlds' great food pairings.
On other coffee matters, The North Face store in Niseko Village has a filter pour-over bar, so that you can sate your coffee and gear habits at the same time. The store itself covers two levels and has everything you need from the mundane to the serious, and at reasonable prices (for a ski resort.) The coffee is a local brand called Gravity, and is made with great care using traditional cotton filters and goose neck kettles. Third wave coffee can often suffer from the result not living up to the process, in this case the result was excellent. I had to admit that, for a big brand gear store, they made great coffee. This odes not change my view on Gallery-cafes, hardware-store cafes, and cat -cafes.) Although we were told about the Monkey- Waiter cafe to the East of Tokyo that we really wanted to visit, but ran out of time. (Google it, Yes they are Monkeys!)
The Niseko Supply Company has fantastic pastries and crepes and LaVazza Coffee, which was drinkable. In fact the whole of Japan has fantastic pastries.
Go the basement of any large department store anywhere and be amazed at the variety of French and Danish offerings. You can't eat or drink there though. It is generally considered rude to eat and drink while moving around in public. Like any large city in the world you need to know where you are going in order to get a great coffee. My advice, Eat like a local, Stick to beer, or green tea. On the subject of coffee avoidance, two of the FRED Team went to Starbucks Omotesando, which is basically a stunning rooftop garden on the sixth floor of the Tokyu plaza. I only mention this as it is a great metaphor for the East meets West mashup that Japan appears to be.
Sadly, due to time constraints, we were unable to seek out some of the coffee haunts which we had been hoping to find. That volatile weather I mentioned earlier delivered a metre of snow on to the New Chitose airport at Sapporo which meant our 90 min flight to Tokyo became a 48 hour marathon of trains taxis hotels and airport transit lounges.
There is no coffee air-side at New Chitose airport, nor food for that matter. There is an ice cream shop. He did a roaring trade.
We will be back.