The delight was written all over Mladen's face, even though much of it was obscured by a ice-encrusted snood and helmet, as he pulled the perspex chairlift down, protecting us from the horizontal snowfall. “Would you like to try some powder, Mike?,” my instructor asked.
A thick blanket of snow had fallen overnight on Kiroro, turning the forested hills and mountains of this corner of Hokkaido into a winter wonderland. A metre of the white stuff would pile up in just 24 hours, and it was only mid-December. Due to its proximity to the Sea of Japan, Kiroro averages a staggering 21 metres of snow at the 1,180m peak. That’s more than seven times the average in much of the French alps.
Japan’s northern island is heaven on earth for skiers who crave untamed powder conditions. And it surely could also have a claim to being the friendliest place to ski in the world. Where else is it customary for ski lift attendants — often a surly lot — to greet you with a broad smile and hello (“konnichiwa”) when you get on, and thank you (“arigato gozaimasu”) while disembarking.
The previous day, under Mladen’s expert tutelage, the snow conditions — classic “fresh layer on firm base” — proved perfect for learning long carve turns at speed and short bunny hop-style turns on a steeper sections across the resort's 23 runs. Today was wild by comparison. I struggled to keep control of my skis in the thick powder that would give way to smoother sections before changing up again. Progress was much slower as we battled -15C temperatures and horizontal snowfall. Despite the not-infrequent face planting, I had a blast.
As we took our final chairlift ride back to the Club Med Kiroro Grand, Mladen nearly poked another skier in the face with his pole as he tried to give us one final instruction on turning. His boundless enthusiasm was infectious and just what I needed to improve my technique.
Within a few minutes, I was back in the Kiroro Grand’s ski room, locking up my gear before heading for a long soak in the hotel’s onsen. Japan has thousands of traditional hot spring baths and Club Med Kiroro has its own, including open air pools. There are separate bathing areas for men and women and it is customary not to wear any clothes. It is an incredibly relaxing post-ski ritual which set me up perfectly for the more traditional — for us Europeans — apres-ski in the hotel bar, exchanging tales from the slopes with a beer, mulled wine or cocktail while watching the snow pelt down outside.
The main bar, lounge and entertainment area is the beating heart of the Kiroro Grand. By day, it’s the perfect place to stretch out your legs on a sofa with a good book during a break from skiing. In the evening, a variety of shows are staged across the week appealing to all ages — magicians, comedians, singers, DJs, gymnasts, often featuring Club Med staff — known as “genial organisers” — who strive to ensure you feel welcome and make everything as easy as possible for guests.
“Easy” is core to the Club Med offering. Any parent of young children knows how hard it is to get what everyone really wants from a holiday: rest and relaxation. Club Med is geared to ensure that adults come away with just that. Ski lessons are offered for children from four upwards while the kids club inside the hotel is basically a fantastic nursery for two-year-olds and up, with soft play, games, books and plenty else to keep children busy.
When it comes to dining, the Kiroro Grand’s expert team of chefs cook up a vast array of options that are — for a family-friendly all-inclusive — of remarkably high quality. Most of your time will be spent in Yoichi, the main buffet restaurant, which offers a mix of Asian and Western meals. The Asian choices range from make-your-own ramen, sashimi and katsu curry to giant Hokkaido crab and delectable dim sum, while a wide a selection of salads — the beetroot carpaccio with goats cheese and spring onion is especially delicious — and child-friendly European staples like pizza and pasta are also available.
The restaurant is divided into four dining areas, which along with the wide choice of food means you’re less likely to have that feeling over-familiarity towards the end of the holiday that usually comes with all-inclusive resorts. Your wristband also gains access to Asian speciality eaterie The Ogon, which specialises in hot pots, while, at an extra cost, you can also dine in The Kaen yakiniku (grilled meat) and Ebisi sushi restaurants.
The Kiroro Grand is aptly named. The 281 rooms are spread over 11 floors which look down on a cavernous atrium. Rooms feature Club Med’s signature interior touches — pastel-shade sofas and carpets, oak panels, beautiful prints. The hotel was originally built by Yamaha and echoes of its earlier incarnation remain in the pianos dotted around the property, and the artful sheet music detail on the lift doors. It is also unmistakably Japanese (hello, heated toilet seats and vending machines!). A number of rooms are in the traditional tatami style.
As tempting as it is to remain within resort's warm-and-fuzzy embrace, it is well worth spending an afternoon in nearby Otaru. The historic coastal city is known for its pretty canal, which can be enjoyed on a boat cruise, as well as being a centre for making glass. A ten minute walk from the canal and its plethora of craft shops and museums is the Sankaku market. It feels like you're entering another world as you step off the quiet street into the market with its bustling seafood stalls and queues of locals waiting to eat at tiny sashimi restaurants.
And despite Japan's reputation as an expensive destination for UK travellers, a favourable exchange rate means you can eat a delicious lunch washed down with a beer or bottle of sake for under £20.
The chance to sample Japan’s unique culture, with its incredible cuisine and unbeatable hospitality, makes a longer break, split between the snowy mountains of Hokkaido and a week visiting Tokyo and perhaps one or two of Japan’s other endlessly fascinating cities, like Kyoto, Nara and Yokohama, a dream trip for this winter sports fan, despite the long-haul flight.
One where powder snow comes guaranteed, along with unforgettable memories.
Seven nights all-inclusive stay at Club Med Kiroro Grand from £1,979 per adult (based on double occupancy) without flights, or from £4,186 per adult with return flights from Heathrow and transfers included. Price based on departure date 24 March, 2024. Book now at clubmed.co.uk or call 03453676767
Five other exotic ski destinations
At a towering 3,268 metres, Oukaimeden in the Atlas Mountains sounds like it should be in the French Alps. However this ski area has only two lifts serving some of the most stunningly beautiful ski terrain in the world. The souks of Marrakech are less than a two-hour drive away.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Where my instructor Mladen learned to ski. The country offers 141 kilometres of slopes across 22 different resorts. They include Jahorina, just 17 miles from Sarajevo. The 1,900-metre mountain in the Diarnic Alps hosted women's alpine competitions in the 1984 Winter Olympics. It is also one of the cheapest ski resorts in Europe — expect to pay around £1 for a beer.
Deep in the heart of Tierra del Fuego, the quality of the snow at Cerro Castor — the southernmost ski resort in Latin America — is so good that some pro Europeans choose to do their summer training here. With 120km of ski runs, the resort has a lift capacity of 35,000 skiers per hour and boasts impressive views of the Nahuei Huapi lake.
Tiffindell, in the Drakensberg mountains, is one of only two ski resorts in southern Africa (the other being in nearby Lesotho). It was once rated 19th in CNN's top 100 ski slopes in the world.
Believe it or not, this summer holiday hotspot also caters for winter sports fans. The 2,000-metre Mount Olympus in the Troodos range offers a modest four kilometres of slopes, although the challenging North Face ski area has hosted a number of international competitions.