Mt Yotei on a semi clear day
Smack bang in the middle of rural Hokkaido, hidden under the snow pack is Hirafu village, the centre of the Niseko ski region for visitors. Hirafu is filled with little restaurants full of delicious cuisine, worthy of foody-visitors alone. From the soup curry, to the okonomiyaki, even the local ambassador is a potato! And who can go past buying some Royce chocolates at Chitose airport?
Hirafu is a friendly and fabulous village lying under the gaze of Mt Yotei – an extinct volcano that looks more like Mt Fuji than Mt Fuji itself. Unlike some other ski resorts across Japan, the small size of the mountain town does allow for easy walking around, though beware of its icy roads. Conveniently, the town also provides a free shuttle to move you around the village.
Looking off the Ace pair 3 chair in Grand Hirafu
I have put together the top 8 must-try restaurants for your visit to the Niseko region. This list is merely to get you started on your own food exploration of the region, and offers just a taste of what you will find in this friendly village. Check them out when you’re there, you won’t be sorry.
THE TOP 8
My favourite place in all of Niseko. As you enter, there are tables to the left and right, elevated under the windows with cushions for seating. Western table and chairs are limited, but also present around the warm wood-stove in the middle of the room. The keen staff are incredibly welcoming and helpful. Make sure you come with a few friends so you can order as much as possible on their menu. Must-try dishes are the crispy skinned salmon and the gobo (or burdock chips). Deep fried root vegetable with sprinkled sea salt. Chewy yet crispy and so more-ish, they are an appetiser that will help with your daily fibre intake (so beware if you are in shared sleeping arrangements). The agedashi tofu, stacked likes bricks on your plate with accompanying dipping sauce will make you wonder why you ever thought tofu was just for hippy’s. The jajamen noodles with a cracked egg on top that needs to be mixed through to give a rich, creamy texture, is sublime. This place will have you searching for Japanese restaurants once you are back from your holiday. But I am sad to say that after 10 years of searching, I still have not found any restaurant in Australia that can compare to Mina Mina’s tasty morsel’s.
A little restaurant down the bottom of Hirafu village. It has a tasty menu full of interesting dishes that far exceed the idea of Japanese food being “just sushi”. The friendly staff greet you and seat you in one of their tables in their low-lit dining room. A relaxed atmosphere and warm setting is what you’ll appreciate here. The chicken meatballs with sour plum are a must.
3. A Bu Cha 2
This is the tasty sister restaurant of the original A Bu Cha, and is located half way up the hill’s main street. Unlike it’s original, it does take bookings and there is a much larger area for seating. This is the place to bring a large group and go-to-town on ordering. You can’t go wrong with anything on this menu. They have a friendly, noisy atmosphere with the staff (all 30) calling out a friendly “Irrashaimase,” to all that enter.The karaage chicken and the pork gyoza are the go-to’s here for appetisers and from there it’s open to choose your own adventure. “Full” is not adequate enough to describe how you’ll feel after attempting to taste all the delicious options on their menu. So just bring a bunch of buddies and dive on in.
Chicken skewers and edamame - what more could you want?
4. Oknomiyaki Ju
This family-run restaurant does excellent Oaska-style okonomiyaki – Japanese savoury pancakes. Full of pork (or whatever protein you choose), cabbage and egg, and topped with bonita flakes, or greens and Japanese mayo, these will leave you feeling very satisfied after skiing all day long. This restaurant is not in Hirafu village, but is located a little out of town, seemingly in the middle of nowhere to western tourists, at a crossing between Annupurri and Niskeo Village. A bit more difficult to get to (preferably you have car access) but definitely worth the trek. They will grill your pancake with chosen ingredients right in front of you and ensure you are pleased with their food and service.
5. Tsubara Tsubara
This is the place to go for Hokkaido’s local dish – Soup Curry! A little down the road again from the main Hirafu village towards Kutchan, this restaurant will create a dish like you have never tasted. You will fall in love with this mix between Japanese noodle soup, laksa and curry. Sounds interesting, but I can see you’re still a little dubious? Trust me, it’s delectable. Choose your meat, vege’s, spice levels (there are 10 levels to choose from) and noodles. You will have a bowl of goodness to keep you grinning from ear to ear and raving to all your pals back home. It will even have you trying to replicate it back in Australia, to no avail, for alas, there is nothing else anywhere like Hokkaido’s soup curry.
6. Asahikawa Ramen Tonzanken
This place is conveniently located half way up the main street of Hirafu, so you can pop in for lunch during your ski break. No reservations here, so get in early for lunch or dinner. With the largest list of ramen options you will see, the serving sizes can provide one person with lunch and dinner. Delicious, tasty and straight up filling, you can’t go wrong with a bowl of this soupy noodle dish.
Filling ramen for all
There used to be a food van that also provided excellent ramen, but I have not seen it in recent years. Perhaps the dog that resided in the kitchen should have been a sign of an eventual end.
7. Guzu Guzu
This fabulous Japanese take on a German-style bakery is located towards the town of Kutchan. It’s open for lunch from 11am to 4pm and only takes cash. Tower-high layer cakes and sandwiches are a change from the traditional Japanese fare around town. A change for a day can be nice. As they say, variety is the spice of life
Loving the trees in Miharashi
If you’re holding out for a Western style meal and just want something familiar, the burgers at JoJo's restaurant at NAC are the best on the hill. Set on the mezzanine level above the bouldering wall and outdoors shop, the friendly staff will cater to your hunger with a range of burgers and other delights to choose from. And if you’re legs are needing a rest off the hill, why not give the boulder wall a try – see how your arms and hands deal with a bit of a work out for a change? But you cannot go to NAC without trying their blueberry smoothie – delicious, filling and extremely satisfying.
A LITTLE EXTRA
Eating out all the time can leave you feeling a bit weary of protein and carbs, and tempura vegetables may not satisfy your need for some lighter, brighter foods. A trip into Kutchan on the free (after 6pm) 20-minute bus ride will take you to the co-op – a regular supermarket full of fresh vege’s and whatever else you may need. The quirks of a Japanese supermarket are definitely worth the trip. Everything is individually wrapped – even the capsicum’s, and there are things singing at you from all food displays, trying to get your attention to their product.
Japan does snack food like nobody’s business. Chocolate, chips, lollies – all waiting for you to explore their original and different flavours. The convenience stores of Japan offer much more than what you find in Australia and are worth exploring.
Onigiri from Seicomart at the traffic lights in Hirafu will use up your loose change and satisfy you for a cheap lunch. A triangle of rice wrapped in seaweed with chicken or nata beans (or a multitude of other fillings) in the middle are delicious and (reasonably) nutritious. If you can’t read hiragana, you can use the little pictures on the pack to tell what filling is in the middle of your triangle shaped rice. Otherwise, just have a swing and try whatever you pick up. But be warned, you must open the plastic wrapper in the correct order to ensure it remains wrapped in seaweed, otherwise you will end up with a messy, yet still delicious, handful of rice. Here's a link on how to open onigiri here.
Late nights in Seicomart
After a night exploring the bars of Hirafu, rather than chasing after a kebab for those midnight cravings, get yourself down to Lawson for some fried chicken. Nobody does fried chicken like the Japanese. They must have out-done The Colonel’s secret recipe, as it is the tastiest fast-food you will ever see. No wonder the Japanese love chicken for Christmas.
If you're after some baked goods Japanese style, you can't go past the sweet goodies at the traffic lights from A Bu Cha Bakery. Delicious and not quite nutritious, but you can just ski harder tomorrow.
Gyu Bar, famous for its fridge-door entrance, is a friendly bar worth popping in to. It’s hot Bailey’s and milk is far better than a hot chocolate for warming up after skiing in the Siberian-blown weather. A sure-fire way to warm Hirafu and its 3 mountains into heart for good. You’ll be back for more, of that I am certain.