Powder Snow in Kiroro!

So after Korea in December last year, we really wanted the kids to pick up where they left off in terms of skiing. Since we had set our sights on Hokkaido since many years ago, we checked out the ski schools in Hokkaido for the best reviews and options.

Friends and other kind souls from Trip Advisor and forums shared that Niseko seemed to be the best bet for English instructors and good infrastructure. While the Hilton Niseko had good room rates if you booked early, it seemed somewhat limited when it came to dining options. Then there were also Furano which looked pretty magical but since we were taking Jetstar domestic (SGD200 return Nagoya-Chitose-Nagoya per person), it was a bit further to get to from Chitose (like 3 hours!).

So we narrowed the options down to Hilton Niseko, Rusutsu and Kiroro and while Rusutsu looked very attractive based on the scale of the resort, the ultimate decision was made based on the ski rates. Take a look:-

Please note: rates taken from respective official websites and for up to 14th or 15th Dec 2013. After that, it is high season rates. Exchange rate at Yen100 = SGD1.30

So it was Kiroro since that was the most value-for-money in terms of ski rates. Annie's Academy, as we found out, is also one of the best ski schools for children in Japan and even Europe. In terms of accommodation, we booked the Piano Hotel directly from the hotel website which only released Winter rates in early November. We booked a Standard Room for 2 Adults and 2 children with Breakfast and Dinner included for about $420 a night for 9 to 13 December 2013. While somewhat dated in decor, the room was spacious, had 4 beds and overlooked the courtyard of the hotel and snowy fields beyond.

On our way to Kiroro from Sapporo
Getting there:- we were in Sapporo first and while the initial plan was to take a train to Otaru Chikko station and try to hail the free shuttle from there to Kiroro, the sheer weight of our bags determined that we pay money for a direct bus from Sapporo to Kiroro instead, which got us there painlessly in about 75 minutes. We booked online with the Hokkaido Resort Liner for the Ski Bus which we boarded from ANA Hotel. We paid an online discounted fee of 1800 Yen for each adult and 900 Yen for each kid. There is a list of places where you can board in Sapporo so do check that out.

Registering for lessons:- so the priority was to sort out the ski lessons for the next few days so off to the Mountain Centre we went after we deposited our bags in the paid coin lockers. Things were not so frenetic as it was not high season as yet and kudos to the ski academy staff who really tried their best to explain what the Annie's Kids programme entailed to us. We eventually signed the critters up for 3 full days since there was really nothing much else to do in the resort. The snow shoe tours were not on as yet, the pool was only opened on 14 December (and we would have left) and we had already done the sledding in the Kids snow park.

We ourselves signed up for a full day group lesson on the first day and half a day on the second day.

Falling in powder is very nice ;)
Kiroro Powder:- is truly awesome! Many websites laud the powder snow that falls in Hokkaido's ski resorts and what they say is totally true ;). We were initially worried as it seemed the snow was late this year. Our first day in Kiroro saw overcast skies, with intermittent rain showers. This gave way to delicate snowflakes falling steadily on the second day and the rest of our days there, we were subjected to snow storms and blizzards! But this meant that snow accumulated quickly on the slopes so falling down was really quite painless ;). And we fell down quite a fair bit too as we were brought up steeper slopes for more advanced instruction. What was more painful was blizzardy snow pelting us in the face as we sat on the chair lifts ...

Family lift
The critters also seemed to take to falling down very well. They liked it so much that they were constantly sprawled out or rolling around in the snow. That aside, the parents are very pleased that they finally picked up the basics of skiing and were brought up the slopes by their super enthusiastic instructors. Two of the critters even made it up the more advanced slope and unlocked a whole new level of achievement! The advantage of being in a ski school like Annie's is, in my humble opinion, that there is a team of instructors looking after the kids instead of a 1 instructor to the group ratio. This definitely makes it easier to control the kids in terms of discipline and that is already half the battle won. The instructors were tickled by our critters default reply of "Wakarimasen!" (meaning = do not understand!) and made effort to communicate in English. Guess all went well in the end.

Our own instructors for both days were good in their own ways. With eons of experience behind them, we picked up new techniques and how-tos in 2 days. The Kiroro slopes are pretty interesting, with varying terrain instead of just straight courses and with a tunnel to go through, it sometimes felt like we were playing Mario Kart on the Wii. The longest course was about 2km so after going through the tunnel, it was pretty relaxing with few people around as it was still early season and nothing but miles of powder as far as the eye could see.

2km run great for relaxing skiing

Kiroro Grub:- There are 2 hotels in Kiroro and eating options are limited to what is available in these 2 places. We stayed at the Piano Hotel, which was more expensive but also had more restaurants and the natural onsen on-site. For our 4 nights there, we had a good variety of quality food for both breakfast and dinner. For decent espresso coffee for breakfast though, head to Cafe Pop, which also sports an egg station where the chef would meticulously mete out your omelettes with your choice of fillings. Our more memorable dinners were the ones with steaming nabe (鍋) and the yakiniku (焼肉), the latter for which reservations are needed.


Kids meal while adults had nabe!

Hokkaido Melon Pan!
At Mountain hotel, where the ski slopes are, choice of food is limited to what is served in the cafeteria. While tasty, 4 days of the same curry rice, pork cutlets and ramen, soon wore out our palettes and I even opted to go without lunch on 2 days. I did however, find freshly baked Hokkaido Melon Pan in
one of the souvenir shops, and it was super yummy! Oh and few things are as satisfying as ice cold beer in cold weather after skiing. So do suck down the Sapporo Classic beer as it is not exported
outside of Hokkaido.

Cafeteria food & Sapporo Classic!

Onsen:- there is a free hot water bath on the 8th floor of Piano hotel so for a quick dip without needing to brave the winds and snow outside, this would be good. There is also one in the Mountain hotel for guests there but for the real onsen with minerals in water and all, the Shinrin no Yu is located in so-called Kiroro Town which is basically the annex area outside the Piano hotel. We paid something like 800Yen for a 24 hour usage ticket and managed to go there twice. While not very big, its waters were definitely a good soak for post skiing sore muscles, if you discount the hordes of tour groups that empty themselves at the resort for the night. Something about being in the nude with gaggling aunties shouting at each other and demonstrating a total disregard for onsen etiquette had us seeking the secluded rotenburo (露天風呂), through the stairs, at the back of the onsen. Nothing quite beats the experience of soaking in steaming hot water with snow flakes swirling around and above you.

Overall:- Would we come back? Our group decided that as a place for skiing, Kiroro's slope and powder are impressive and so yes, we would come back. However, apart from skiing, Kiroro does not have much else to offer and the place is a bit lacking in atmosphere. Perhaps an option would be to do 2 nights here and then move off to Rusutsu or Furano as other ski stops. Oh well, something to ponder about for next year's holiday. Meanwhile, a blessed Christmas and a fabulous 2014 to all ;)