Oh, to be an expert skier! To regale friends around the fireplace with tales of graceful tackling of notorious black run courses like, say, the Streif in Kitzbühel, or perhaps the ominously-named Harakiri in Mayrhofen, both in Austria, versus vanilla days spent dodging kids on the bunny slopes is a winter’s fantasy indeed. But, regardless of one’s skiing (or snowboarding) ability, there is no shame in proclaiming a proclivity for more languid, cold weather pleasures instead.
Enthusiasts of Japan’s famed Niseko region have long been hard-pressed to choose from a myriad of distractions. The powder snow is, after all, famous the world over — thanks to a merry dance between Siberian winds and moisture from the Sea of Japan, which results in the lightest, driest snow cover that has to be experienced to be believed.
Then, of course, there is the cuisine. The thought of a bowl of piping-hot snow crab ramen far surpasses that of a pumpernickel sandwich any day, if you ask us. And then there is the call of the onsen — natural thermal springs rich in minerals that work wonders at soothing body, mind and soul, particularly after a hard day on the freezing slopes — not to mention cultural and natural distractions that include breathtaking vistas of the exceedingly photogenic Mount Yotei, a dead-ringer for Fujiyama.
With all the above elements taken into consideration, it comes as no surprise that YTL Hotels has recently launched a brand new property — its fourth in Japan, after the Hilton Niseko Village, The Green Leaf Niseko Village and the Kasara Niseko Village Townhouses — in Hokkaido. Christened Hinode Hills for the rising sun, the all-suite hotel is part of a three-phase development within the Niseko Village masterplan.
With the first block, named Ten (sky), launched to great success on Dec 5, plans are being discussed with YTL’s contracting partners to commence construction on the remaining two blocks — Yama (mountain) and Chi (earth) — once the white season, or ski season, ends. “The philosophy behind the elements used in the naming of the buildings is that any journey and experience within Hokkaido and indeed Niseko is so tied to these elements,” says Datuk Mark Yeoh Seok Kah, executive director of YTL Corporation, who flew in especially for the launch ceremony. “[For the first phase], Sky harkens to the source of the great snowfall that has driven Niseko’s renown, particularly over the past decade. Then, there is the mountain skiing and hiking and the views of Mount Yotei, and all the local produce and even the water, which comes from the earth.”
Located at the foot of Mount Niseko-Annupuri, Hinode Hills offers ski-in, ski-out access and is also strategically located adjacent to the Upper Village gondola, giving guests superb mobility around the mountain. A newly opened “magic carpet” lift ensures further accessibility to other parts of Niseko Village, including to the neighbouring Green Leaf property without having to walk or take off one’s skis. The first phase of Hinode Hills also comes complete with the Carvery restaurant, operated by the people behind Singapore’s successful Wolf Burgers chain; a small in-house onsen; and a host of ski services on-site. The other two blocks will boast similar services but with its their own distinct identities.
Positioned differently from YTL’s current portfolio of properties offerings, which are hotel and luxury villa-based, Hinode Hills operates more on a serviced apartment concept, with suite configurations of one to three bedrooms, each with living, dining and kitchen facilities. “This is definitely geared towards families,” affirms Yeoh. “Whether you prefer self-catering or hotel services, it is all up to the guest. We believe the diversity of lodgings we are adding to the existing inventory in Niseko Village meets the demands for all travellers and will achieve healthy occupancy rates year-round,” he says, alluding to Niseko’s increasing popularity during the green season, or summer, when travellers come to enjoy the great outdoors and activities such as golf (Niseko is home to two courses: Niseko Golf Course, designed by Arnold Palmer, is considered challenging, while the Niseko Village Golf Course has been voted Japan’s Best Golf Course at the World Golf Awards for five consecutive years since 2015), biking, hiking and fishing.
“The white season is very, very strong,” Yeoh says, revealing occupancy to be at about 92% for the past eight years, “but the green season is gaining traction.” The Green Leaf, for example, is now open all-year round as the market demand is there, he adds. “The Niseko summer experience is very enjoyable. I have personally visited in all the seasons, with each having its own charm. But, speaking as a Malaysian and looking at my size, [the biggest draw] is always the food,” he laughs. “Come in May, when it’s the uni (sea urchin) season, or in autumn, when it is pumpkin and harvest time, with so many special things to eat. Hokkaido also has a short farming calendar, so they are very productive, ensuring there is always something fresh and new to enjoy.”
Industry watchers would have, by now, also gotten wind of YTL’s fifth property set to open next December. And for luxury enthusiasts, the news is epic indeed, for the upcoming Higashiyama Niseko Village will be the fifth Ritz-Carlton Reserve in the world, after those in Thailand’s Phulay Bay, Puerto Rico’s Dorado Beach, Mexico’s Los Cabos and Bali’s Ubud. Ritz-Carlton Reserves occupy the uppermost echelons of the renowned luxury hospitality brand and are accorded only to exquisite parts of the world that offer distinctive personality, uncommon luxury and a rare sense of place. “Absolutely, it will be the fifth Ritz-Carlton Reserve in the world,” says Yeoh, smiling. “[As a Ritz-Carlton Reserve,] the Higashiyama Niseko Village will be the epitome [of luxury] while representing the southern border of our developments. There will only be 50 keys, each with direct and the best views of Mount Yotei.”
The Ritz-Carlton Reserve mantra is about a unique experience, so expect this to run throughout the property. The restaurant, for example, will focus on the best of Hokkaido produce. “So, say, we serve prosciutto, it will be made using only the very best meat from Makkari,” says Yeoh. “Or if it’s a porterhouse steak, expect only the best A5 grade Tokuchi beef. Everything will be locally sourced and of the best quality.”
Higashiyama pays homage to the original name of the location, which was changed to Niseko Village after Citibank, from whom YTL bought the property, rebranded it. “Higashiyama, after all, refers to ‘East Mountain’ as per the direct translation,” says Yeoh. “And we saw the opportunity to bring back the identity of Higashiyama as an anchor to all these experiences … that everything is about this remarkable destination — the local produce, the snow, the trails, biking and hiking these mountains, the onsen water which is pulled from the earth directly below the properties. Luxury will be the expectation, but the factors that will stay with our guests as memories for a lifetime will be intimate, unscripted and cultured, all of which are unique to Higashiyama.
“To be fair, we have to thank God for this,” Yeoh continues, referring to YTL Hotels’ decade, and counting, of success in Niseko. “The natural beauty of this place is simply unbelievable. It’s the snow, which you are witness to.”
Asked if he takes to the slopes himself, Yeoh chuckles and replies, “My wife and my daughter ski. Me? I prefer to ride in my ‘Ferrari’. Here, the ski patrol uses bright, red snowmobiles in the event of emergencies; I have one that my staff take me out on. I affectionately call it my ‘Ferrari’ … it is my substitute for skiing.”
Rates at Hinode Hills vary according to season, and range from JPY61,000 (RM2,300) to JPY118,000 (RM4,500) per night for the studio and three-bedroom suites respectively.
This article first appeared on Dec 23, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.