It's snowing . . . my husband and I stare out the window in awe as our bus turns on to the main street of Hirafu, the central and most populous of the four ski resorts that make up Niseko on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido.
We are here in search of powder. Previous such expeditions have ended in disappointment. Aside from a couple of days of brief snowfall in Banff, Canada, the promise of reliable snowfall has thus far proved elusive. So, with stories of near-empty runs and daily dumps of champagne powder in Japan, hubby and I had booked our holiday with barely contained excitement.
At the village welcome centre, a representative from our tour company says it's been a "good season" so far. The forecast is for consistent snowfall for the duration of our 10-day visit, courtesy of the seasonal winds from Siberia that pick up moisture from the Sea of Japan and deliver it to Niseko in the form of what the resort describes as "some of the driest, lightest powder in the world".
This is why Niseko is no longer the snow junkie's best-kept secret.
It was, once, when limited Western accommodation and minimal English translations meant the area went largely undiscovered by the hordes of Western tourists who descend on the resorts of Europe and North America each winter.
But as word spreads of this magical place where powder is plentiful and crowds are sparse, tourists the world over are arriving in increasing numbers.
These days, English translations can be found on (almost) every menu, street sign and ticket machine and Western condos jostle for space with the Japanese ryokans (inns) and pensions (bed and breakfasts) along Hirafu's streets.
The regulars are aggrieved that their mountain has been inundated with tourists. Besides the "crowds" (they use the word loosely - it is still rare to see a queue for a ski lift here), they say a lot of the character has gone.
But to first-timers, Niseko is still a world of its own, untainted by the big Western corporations - with the exception of the ostentatious, James Bond-esque Hilton in Niseko Village, of course.
For every Niseko Pizza, (an uber-trendy Western hangout famous for owner-chef Cezar Constantin's mouth-watering pizza, ribs and chocolate fondant), there are another 20 izakayas (literally meaning "sake shop"), identifiable by the red lanterns hanging outside and the fact that their owners speak little English. Share-businesses such as the tiny A Bu Cha, a bakery by day and izakaya/bar by night, accept cash only, although the new, bigger A Bu Cha 2 up the road accepts credit card and offers free wi-fi.
Anyway, it's the snow we've come here for, and even the regulars acknowledge this crucial ingredient hasn't changed. The 64 runs across the interconnected resorts of Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu and Hanozono are of varying lengths and difficulty. At each, the powder defies description.
We avoid the runs of Hanazono, unflatteringly nicknamed Flatazono by some of the regulars, and instead spend most of our time honing our skills on Grand Hirafu. We also fall in love with the thick, soft powder on the runs of Annupuri, which can be reached from Hirafu by traversing across the top of the mountain or by taking a 30-minute bus ride from the base. Here, we discover it is still possible to make "first tracks" - in snow untouched by others - late in the afternoon.
I stick to the main runs but my husband, a more advanced snowboarder, ventures off-piste (outside the groomed courses) and returns with stories of waist-deep powder and awe-inspiring scenery.
I hear myself declaring I've "never had so much fun in my life". The feeling of floating through this stuff is unbeatable.
Of course, ski bunnies know that the best accompaniment to good snow is a ski-in, ski-out hotel. Although much of the accommodation in Hirafu is little more than a five-minute walk from the nearest ski lift, there are few truly ski-in, ski-out hotels here.
Such lodgings are expensive; it is much cheaper elsewhere in the village, and cheaper still on the outskirts of Hirafu. But we have taken advice from family friends who make the journey to Niseko every year, and splashed out on the Niseko Prince Hotel Hirafutei.
Derided by some Westerners for its "industrial" appearance, the 160-room Hirafutei is known for two things: its convenient location beside Hirafu's family run; and its rotenburos - loosely translated, hot baths.
Japan is famous for its onsens, or hot springs, but with its rotenburos the Hirafutei goes one better.
Sixty-two rooms contain the private rotenburos. Although walled in on three sides with a glass window on the fourth - through the glass we can see beginners on the family run below - the bath is technically outside and thus the area itself is not heated.
At first, the Japanese-style room takes a bit of getting used to. Hubby looks unimpressed to learn that what makes for a living room by day is transformed into the bedroom by night. He finds the thin futons laid out over the tatami mats uncomfortable and the small, bead-filled pillows even more so. But after an extra layer of bedding is added and a Western "makura" (pillow) is located, he is somewhat mollified.
But any disappointment he harbours with our traditional lodgings are washed away after that first soak. Having stored our boards in the locker rooms downstairs we drag ourselves up to our room and, after a quick shower, into the rotenburo.
It's heaven. And, after five minutes in the hot water, I feel like a million bucks.
- fact file *
·We flew Cathay Pacific, which includes a stopover in Hong Kong and then direct flight to Sapporo.
·All-inclusive packages can be booked through NSW-based ski specialists Deep Powder Tours. Visit deeppowdertours.com or phone 1300 205 451.
·English-language ski/snowboard lessons are available through Niseko Base Snowsports and Niseko International Snowsports School. Other ski schools offer private lessons for English-language speakers.