For most visitors to Niseko, Annupuri has always been a bit of a mystery. A cursory glance at the lines on the course map is as close as many people get. You either need to face the elements close to the peak or take a bus from Hirafu. But one thing is for sure – it’s worth the effort. Partly because of its relative obscurity, and partly because of its vast and varied terrain, many of those in the know head straight to Annupuri for first lines after a dump. The whole of the Niseko United is actually located on Mt Annupuri, but only the one resort takes the mountain’s name as its own.
Annupuri has long been a special place for me. I first came to Niseko in 1994 and by chance stumbled across it while my partner was earning her stripes on the Hirafu family double. After a few enjoyable but tame runs down the main slope, I spotted a group of three gaijin (foreigners) covered in powder – huge grins frozen across their faces – at the base of the Annupuri Gondola. After seeing the beaming trio bounding up the steps to get back on the gondie, I decided I’d sneak in the closing door behind them to have a chat. They turned out to be two Qantas pilots and a steward who had a three day layover in Sapporo. Qantas was flying to Sapporo long before mainstream Australian ski tourists were commonplace. The crew and I chatted they soon offered (or perhaps I persuaded them) to take me where they had been. Not many people were heading off piste in those days and soon we were dropping into a steep, wide, untracked meadow of fluffy, white powder. It was my first ever taste of riding real powder and I’ll never forget it. They say one hit of heroin and you’re addicted, but I couldn’t imagine any white substance more addictive than this powder. I was hooked and have been ever since. Fortunately for us junkies, regularly reaching the same high with every hit in Niseko is entirely possible.
Located furthest to the west (skier’s right) of the four resorts that make up The Niseko United, Annupuri is actually often exposed to harsh winds and can suffer from low visibility. Nonetheless, when conditions are right there is no better place to be. The terrain varies from gentle to really quite steep. Despite riding Annupuri most winters since, to this day I can still find pockets of powder I haven’t ridden before.
Annupuri is the only resort in Niseko that even low to intermediate skiers and boarders can ski from the top of the gondola to the bottom. Groups and families of all levels can ride all day together while ensuring everyone has a great time. From the top of the gondola, powder hounds can get their off-piste fix, while others cruise down the main slope before meeting back at the base for a toilet break or hot drink from the vending machines. Everyone can then settle back into the gondie to warm up, exchange stories, prepare strategies for the next run and do it all again.
Although my guess is you’ll be having so much fun you’ll be tempted to skip lunch, the three restaurants at the base of the resort provide good quality affordable staple Japanese skiing fare – think pork cutlet on curry rice or pork ramen. If you need a longer break and have a big appetite you won’t regret taking a short walk to the Mokumoku-tei Barbecue House, to the right of the Nook Hotel bus stop, where you can indulge in all you can eat yakiniku (pan fried meat Korean-style) barbecue (¥1,890 for 60 minutes).
Considering the investments that have been made in the other three base areas of the Niseko United resorts – Higashiyama (Citigroup), Hirafu (Australian developers) and Hanazono (Richard Li’s PCPD group) – it’s interesting to note that the area with what many consider the best terrain seems to have almost sneaked under the radar of major investors.
The Annupuri lift system and all the land around the base are owned by Otaru-based Chuo Bus Company who established the resort in 1963 and continue to operate the lifts and some other businesses in the area. Although it may seem unusual for a bus company to own a ski resort, Annupuri CEO Toshio Fujisawa points out that the idea to establish Annupuri was to increase passenger numbers on the Niseko branch of their business. When asked what the future holds for Annupuri, Fujisawa says it won’t follow in the steps of Hirafu. “We have no immediate plans to develop the base of the resort any further, but whatever we do we’d like to keep it a quiet haven that people of all nationalities can feel comfortable in”. When pressed if there had been interest from investors in the resort, Fujisawa disclosed that they had received some approaches from companies interested in purchasing the resort, although nothing has yet tempted them to sell. “Annupuri will never become like Hirafu. We are located in a quasi-national park zone, so development here will be strictly regulated”.
Annupuri has seen its share of investment, with the Annupuri Nikko hotel recently reopening its doors after being closed for several months for a complete refurbishment. All rooms, common areas and restaurants have been redone and a new onsen has opened. One investor who has been very active in the Annupuri real estate market is Chris Peck, a former successful investment banker from Tokyo who began acquiring land in Annupuri in 2002 and now owns a substantial allotment of land at the base of the resort. Peck gave up his banking career in 2006 and relocated to Annupuri full time to oversee the development. Although reluctant to reveal the exact extent of his land it is known to be a large portion of the land from the main road up to the beginning of resort. Peck has built a series of impressive houses in ‘Annupuri Village’ that up until now he has sold only to friends and colleagues from Tokyo. “At Annupuri we have almost a blank slate to work with. We’re in the process of planning exactly where it fits in the grand scheme of Niseko,” says Peck.
Peck knows a good ski resort when he sees it. He’s skied all over the world and worked in Colorado resorts for nine years as a student. “I actually met my wife on a weekend ski tour from Tokyo to Hokkaido. I’d been coming to Niseko for several years and found myself spending most of my time skiing and riding Annupuri,” Peck recalls. “I always thought it had the best skiing on the mountain so I began to look at what land was available. As with the development of any major lifestyle resort, the natural environment is the first consideration. If the resort is then built to a high quality people will want to go there.” The on and off mountain layout in Annupuri gives the feeling that a well developed resort at the base could be quite exceptional.
Almost all of the resort from the main road up is zoned quasi national park, the lowest tier of the three local national park classifications. Buildings are permissible, but only on minimum 600 tsubo lots (2000m2). These laws will likely define the area, and many see them as a positive for Annupuri’s future. A combination of the zoning and the owner’s vision should see that Annupuri Village is a long process of steady development.
Large single structure houses on big blocks will no doubt attract the family end of the market and it is this sector that has been investing in Annupuri Village to date. Peck is in the process of appointing a company to formulate the master plan with a view to create a thriving family friendly resort that he envisages could accommodate 2000 beds in 10 years.
Annupuri, like Higashiyama is located in the Niseko-cho (council) area, and hence under a different jurisdiction than Hirafu and Hanazono, which are in Kutchan-cho. Niseko-cho’s 4500 residents are predominantly involved in farming and tourism and Peck is well aware of the need to incorporate the local community in his plans. He has initiated English lessons for the local elementary school and has installed the new rail in the terrain park complete with hand prints of local children.
Like the rest of the Niseko, ensuring the resort is popular year round is vital to long term success. All Annupuri lodge owners open their resorts year-round and some even claim to be busier in summer than winter. There is a healthy parasailing business through the summer once the gondola re-opens in June. Horse riding, hiking, golf and fly fishing are the major activities, and Shakotan beach is about 30 minutes drive away.
Although currently there are only a few restaurants at the base of Annupuri, a traditional German style micro-brewery, typical of the kind common in nearby Otaru, is slated for development in the near future. As construction continues it’s likely that more restaurants and nightlife will inevitably follow. It will certainly be interesting to see where Annupuri eventually settles in the grand scheme of the Niseko United.
To get to Annupuri from Hirafu you can ski, bus or drive.
To ski there from Hirafu take the Ace Pair lift #4 to the top of the mountain and traverse right. Keep traversing past the two side by side single chairs (Wonderland chairs A and B), which are part of Higashiyama. Once you reach the double chair you’re in Annupuri and you can head down.
You can also take the Ace Pair lift # 3 and traverse or walk to the top of the Higashiyama gondola, then ride down to the Wonderland Single Chairs A and B. Ride either of those up before traversing a short distance to the right before heading down.
If the lifts higher than Higashiyama Gondola or the King hooded Triple #3 in Hirafu are not running, you’ll need to take the bus from the base of the Hirafu Gondola or Higashiyama Resort… these are the days everyone has trouble getting there so it’s well worth the 45-minute trip.