Have you ever wondered what’s it like in Niseko? I did.
After the announcement of DoubleDragon that Hotel101 will be the first Filipino hotel brand to go global with Hotel101-Niseko as its first hotel abroad, I became excited and curious about Niseko and what is there to see in the destination.
I have been to Japan more than a handful of times – to Osaka, Kyoto, Narra, Fukuoka, and Tokyo – but never to Niseko. While I have been seeing several friends skiing and posting photos from Niseko and Sapporo, I never really knew what else is there. And so, to satisfy my curiosity, I booked a flight and went to see for myself.
After much research, I learned that Niseko is a town located on the island of Hokkaido, Japan’s largest and northernmost prefecture. Moreso, the only way to Niseko is through Hokkaido’s capital Sapporo, Japan’s fifth largest city and “the second snowiest city in the world” according to AccuWeather.
Sapporo has been one of my dream destinations for a long time now. I have known of its existence, besides the beer that is its namesake, Sapporo beer, because of its famous festival, the Sapporo Snow Festival, which runs for around a week at the start of February and features more than a kilometer of snow and ice sculptures throughout identified locations in the city.
Going to Niseko
FROM Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, which was a two-hour flight from Osaka, we took a 2.5-hour bus ride to Niseko. We were dropped off at the Grand Hirafu Welcome Center, where we arranged for a pick-up to bring us to our hotel.
Niseko can be accessed by bus, which is the cheapest and most convenient way from the airport, through train (two and a half hours to Kutchan Station, then take a taxi or local bus to Niseko’s Grand Hirafu Welcome Center), or by taxi or a private car.
Flights to New Chitose Airport run daily from almost every major airport in Japan. The airport also has an international terminal, so visitors can fly directly, making international travel easy.
Niseko is well known for its light powder white snow throughout winter, typically falling from November to March. This attracts avid skiers and snowboarders and those enjoying winter sports and activities from all over the world. The main ski area, known as “Niseko United” is made up of four interlinked ski resorts – Hanazono, Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village, and Annupuri.
A must for food lovers as well
BESIDES all the snow, Niseko is also a destination for non-skiers. You can enjoy its culture, Onsen, and most especially food. In Niseko, you can sample the very best, as it is well known for its quality of meal options, and abundant fresh produce from land and sea, from delicious local ramen restaurants to food carts to Michelin-starred chefs.
A must-visit in Niseko is the famous Takahashi Farm, also known as Milk Kobo. Here you get delicious daily produce direct from the farm. They are most famous for their soft-serve ice cream, choux creme, and cheese tarts, but they also sell many other delicious dairy items such as cheesecakes, soufflé, cheese, and flavored ice cream.
In winter, you can take the Niseko United shuttle bus to the “Milk Kobo” bus stop which is right outside the building, and they have a large car park for visitors wanting to stop at the restaurants and dairy cafe. Milk Kobo is open from 9:30am to 5:30pm and may be accessed using the Niseko United Bus.
A hidden gem of Niseko
ANOTHER hidden gem and a must-visit when in Niseko is the Niseko Distillery.
I came across Ohoro Gin Standard, the first signature product sold by Niseko Distillery, in one of the supermarkets near the Hirafu Welcome Center. The name “Ohoro” originates from the Hokkaido native Ainu language meaning “continuity.”
After taking to the internet, I found that Niseko Distillery was just a few minutes away from my hotel, so I asked them to help me book a visit. We booked an English tour at 2 pm.
Niseko Distillery opened last October 1, 2021, as shared with us by Miss Kauri, our English-speaking Japanese tour guide for that afternoon’s tour which gathered two Chinese nationals, four Norwegians, and two Filipinos.
Niseko Distillery is a new venture of the Hakkaisan Brewery, a major Niigata-based brewery established in 1922 which is widely known for its sake.
The distillery’s location is strategic as Niseko “has an abundance of soft pure water flowing down from Mt. Annupuri, perfect for the production of spirits” and “the quality of crops produced” offers the best ingredients for alcohol production.
The Process of Making Gin
FROM a wide variety of botanicals such as juniper berries, coriander, angelica root, and lemon peel, Niseko Distillery selects the ones that will give the gin flavor they’re targeting. This also includes good quality Hokkaido botanicals that match well with the profile of Niseko Distillery’s gin.
They soak the botanicals in a 50 percent alcohol base spirit for several hours, up to several days. In this step, the botanical aromas, flavors, and essences are extracted and blended into the base spirit. The steeping is then stopped.
After, their equipment made in Germany slowly distills the gin. Instead of only simply immersing the botanicals in the base spirit, the “vaper infusion method” is also used, in which the heated and steamed base vapor is additionally passed through the botanicals in a basket where it further absorbs the aroma and essence of these herbs, peels, and berries. Distillation increases the alcohol content to about 70 percent, creating a gin liquor with botanical flavors and aromas.
Spring water from Mt. Niseko Annupuri’s high-quality underground water is then added to achieve the desired alcohol content. Since the quality of the alcohol is not stable immediately after the addition of water, it is stored for a period of time to stabilize the quality of the gin. After that, it is bottled and shipped for the customers to enjoy.
Last February 23, representatives of Niseko Distillery attended the World Gin Awards 2023 in London. The World Gin Awards select the very best gins in the internationally recognized gin styles and promote the world’s best gins to consumers and trade across the globe.
Niseko Distillery’s ohoro GIN received the GOLD Award in the Country Category for Japan.
260 Barrels of Whiskey
BESIDES their gin, Niseko Distillery started producing Whiskey in March 2021, with around two to three barrels or 170 liters produced per week.
Currently, they have 260 barrels of Japanese Whiskey sitting in different types of barrels, such as “American Oak previously used for Wild Turkey,” French Oak used to mature wines, and Spanish Oak previously used for Sherry.
It’s not until 2024 that Niseko Distillery plans to sell their whiskey, as for the whiskey to be called “Japanese Whiskey” it must mature for at least three years. For now, these barrels are all in their storage, maturing gently over time along with the changing of Niseko’s four seasons.
“Quite honestly, we still don’t know how we will sell this whiskey, how they will be packaged, and what the final flavors will be,” says Kauri, explaining that every six months, these Whiskey-filled barrels are opened for their staff to taste and assess their aging.
At the end of the tour, we were able to taste not only their award-winning Gin, but also the limited edition peppermint flavored one, and the freshly distilled whiskey (before it’s stored in barrels).
It’s quite exciting to look forward to what kind of whiskey Niseko Distillery will put out in 2024, but for now, the world can enjoy its exquisite and award-winning gin, the ohoro Gin Standard, and the ohoro Gin Limited Edition Japanese Peppermint flavored gin.
The ohoro Gin Standard goes for 4,620 yen or roughly P1,888 and the ohoro Gin Limited Edition Japanese Peppermint goes for 5,236 yen or P2,140 in the Niseko Distillery store.
Niseko Distillery Co., Ltd. Is located at 478-15 Niseko, Abuta District, Hokkaido 048-1511, Japan, and is open from 10am to 5pm. Guests can avail of its free tour at 10am and 2pm daily, which will last for around 60 minutes, covering the distillery, production area, barrel cellar, and tasting.
It’s best to inquire with Niseko Distillery in advance and reserve slots for the distillery tours, especially when requesting an English tour. Check out https://niseko-distillery.com/en/distillery
I cannot wait to go back to Niseko – for Hotel101 in 2025, for its snow, gin, and soon-to-be whiskey.
Brian K. Ong. CGSP is the Head of Public Relations of the Hotel101 Group.