Japan’s Après-Ski Scene Has Rare Whisky, Raucous Pubs, and Epic Bragging Rights


5 minute Read

Eskimos have 50 words for snow, but the French encapsulate a lot of what makes winter awesome in one hyphenate: après-ski. The French term for “after-skiing,” it’s what elevates any ski trip beyond a mere day on the slopes.

The phrase emerged in the 1950s to describe the festivities that ensue when the chair lifts close. This post-skiing, extended happy hour features plenty of alcohol and the eating that comes with it.

During the past decade, Japan’s ski and snowboard scene has exploded, putting it on the map of the global ski stage. Now, this pastime with origins in Europe is getting a Japanese accent.

Most of Japan’s recent ski and snowboard boom is on the northern island of Hokkaido, where several resorts have embraced Hokkaido’s average annual snowfall (as high as 45 feet). Of Hokkaido’s two biggest ski resort areas — Furano and Niseko — the latter has more infrastructure for foreign visitors. At several hotels across “Niseko United,” a collective of four adjacent ski resorts— Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu, and Hanazono — you might just find yourself on a Japanese ski holiday.

In Hokkaido, the après-ski scene spans chic izakayas (Japanese gastropubs), raucous pubs, steamy hot springs, and bars specializing in Japanese whisky and hard-to-find, regional craft beers. Sure, in Hokkaido, there are also bars that specifically embrace après-ski in the Western sense — with beer, live music, and American-inspired bar food. But when in Japan, do as the Japanese do.

Craft Beer and Cocktails at a Mini Mall

It’s not hard to find Odin’s Place at the main intersection in Hirafu (it’s located in the center of town and helpfully known as “Hirafu Intersection”). Odin’s Place is essentially a three-story mini mall with a few boutiques, a Burton store, and some izakayas, all of which are pretty stylish looking after a sleek renovation.

Here, you’ll find the Niseko Taproom, featuring craft brews from lesser-known Japanese breweries, including Obihiro’s kurouto (a stout), Otaru’s dunkel, and Niseko’s IPA. It’s a mature, refined beer experience.

At the trendy après-ski bar and bistro Mùsu, mixologists shake and stir Japanese takes on classic cocktails: the Yuzu Negroni, with Yuzu gin and Niseko sake; the Fall Fashioned, which has Hokkaido pumpkin bourbon in it; and the signature Pachinko Punch, which features cinnamon rum from Okinawa, among other things. There’s also the staff favorite, the Wasabi Margarita, featuring wasabi-infused tequila and a garnish of nori seaweed.

Home Sweet Sake

If you’re looking for a low-key place for après-ski, an izakaya like Mina Mina will do the trick. It’s a warm, wooden, homey kind of place — so homey that you kick off your shoes when you are seated at a table.

Here, the quintessential Japanese booze is sake, or rice wine brewed in one of six types, from junmai to daiginjo. Each sake has unique characteristics that are often generally described as “clean,” “dry,” “full-bodied,” or “smooth” — like grape wines. Locally brewed varieties are served up hot or cold, and they pair perfectly with the Japanese food served here, especially burdock chips, a kind of Japanese French fry made from the local burdock root. Burdock chips are chewy and crispy and have the texture of asparagus when you bite into them.

Other sake bars worth checking out in Hirafu — though not as homey — include Momiji and Coto Bar, which features sakes from Kyoto, Niseko, and all across Japan.

Hidden Hipster Hive

Down a dimly lit side street off the main road in Hirafu, there’s a lone refrigerator against a wall. Open the door, duck your head, and step inside, and you’ve found Bar Gyu+, a speakeasy with an international vibe, specializing in Japanese whisky.

Anyone who’s seen Bill Murray’s performance in “Lost in Translation knows that Japanese whisky — specifically one from Suntory — is for “relaxing times.” But the Suntory company produces other whisky brands, like Yamazaki and Hibiki, that have also garnered praise.

Vest-clad bartenders work their magic and pour acclaimed spirits, some so impressive they’ve beaten out distilleries in Scotland for the best whisky in the world. This hidden stash of world-class whisky might be considered the “reward” for having “discovered” the establishment. However, this unique bar isn’t so much a secret — everyone in town knows it as “the fridge door bar.” Expect a wait during busy hours, as space is limited.

Bar Gyu+ ; the quirky fridge door bar in Hirafu village! #fridgedoorbar #bargyu

A post shared by Leslie Heng (@blackmobil) on

Party Time

Party scenes at the bars in Hirafu  are reminiscent of an ’80s ski movie. Wild Bill’s sports a pool table and dart boards, with a lively snowboarder scene. Many young Australians have embraced inexpensive ski holiday packages and a shared time zone with the Land Down Under, and this is their spot.

Beers are poured en masse, but don’t go looking for a black tall boy of Sapporo (named after the nearby city in Hokkaido). Instead, Sapporo Classic is on tap. A local brew not exported overseas, it’s the perfect beer to raise in the air when you’re drunkenly singing “Wonderwall” along with the rest of the bar.

Other party bars include Bigfoot Lodge and Tamashii. The former serves Wagyu cheeseburgers and other Western-inspired fare, as well as cocktails featuring Japanese whisky, sake, sochu, and local yuzu.

Après Eats

There are plenty of options to rice-wine and dine after skiing, especially in Hirafu, the main town of the Niseko area, which is accessible via buses from the resorts. Different izakayas serve sushi, ramen, grilled yakatori skewers, and other dishes.

Soup curry is a Hokkaido delicacy — specialty of the house at Tsubara Tsubara — which is perfect after a day out in the cold. Another local specialty is lamb “Genghis Khan,” a shareable hot platter of lamb medallions surrounded by grilled vegetables. Try it at Puku Puku Tei.

However, the Japanese shared table experience doesn’t always involve sizzling meat. There’s also shabu shabu, where a boiling pot of broth filled with meat or seafood bubbles at your table. Crabs star in the version at The Crab Shack in Niseko Village; and sharing a pot of snow crabs in northern Japan is akin to sharing cheese fondue after skiing in Switzerland. (Although if you fancy the latter, The Alpinist, a fondue and raclette place in Hirafu, heeds the call if you want to get cheesy.)

Naked and Chill

If you want a quiet night — or just a sobering session before or after going out on the town — you’ll find peace at an onsen, or hot spring. Après-ski all across Japan almost always includes time at an onsen, and the traditional Japanese practice of soaking in thermal baths. Onsens are found in most hotels, or at standalone facilities like the Goshiki Onsen at Annupuri. They all initially involve disrobing all the way down to your birthday suit. (Don’t worry, the onsens aren’t coed.)

It’s important to wash yourself before and after your soak, so there are bathing stations after the changing room to do so. At first you might be weirded out lathering up your naked self in front of strangers, but at least there’s a partition between bathing stalls. Each one has a stool to sit on, a handheld shower head, and a bucket to collect water, plus soap, shampoo, and conditioner. How you choose to wash is up to you — just don’t start a water fight with your neighbor.

After washing, you take your clean, naked body into a relaxing indoor or outdoor pool of naturally hot, mineral-rich water. Be wary that tattoos are taboo in many onsens in Japan. Niseko is fairly lax due to its influx of foreign visitors, but don’t go flaunting your ink. Try covering it with a bandage or your towel, out of respect for local customs.

As the hot water envelops your skin and the moment relaxes your muscles from a day on the slopes, you understand why Japanese snow monkeys are often seen doing the same thing.

Cover photo credit: Facebook.com/pg/Hanazononiseko

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