Niseko's best restaurants: Where to eat in the 'Aspen of the East'

Niseko's best restaurants: Where to eat in the 'Aspen of the East'

This Japanese resort town has become a world-class winter destination with a fantastic food scene to match
Yuichi Kamimura's 40-seat temple of haute gastronomy serves French cuisine made with produce sourced from neighboring Hokkaido farms.

Touted as Japan’s snow capital and famous for its light, powder-dry snow, Niseko is widely regarded as one of the top 10 ski resorts in the world.

But while most ascend its slopes to ski and snowboard, Niseko is not a one trick pony.

Of late, the “Aspen of the East” is swiftly coming into its own as a world-class winter destination, brandishing swish apartments, boutique lodgings and top dining options.

Adding to the dazzle is the recent debut of Asperges Hanazono, where Hiroshi Nakamichi -- chef-patron of Sapporo’s 3 Michelin-starred Moliere -- is set to up the ante on fine dining with his Hokkaido produce-inspired haute French cuisine.

More casual F&B options -- ranging from izakaya, seafood to bistro fare -- abound and the latest to join the fray is Kutchan Bistro Sakaba by Yuichi Kamimura of 1 Michelin-starred French fine diner, Kamimura.

Until these new restaurants prove their mettle, here's a clutch of ‘must-try’ eateries to add to your Niseko dining radar.

Visitors are recommended to reserve well in advance in winter.

On the Rakuichi menu: Hand-cut hot and cold soba. And little else.

Rakuichi Soba

Anthony Bourdain featured this 12-seat eatery by soba master Tatsuru Rai in his TV show, "No Reservations," and it has gained global fame and a cult-like following ever since.

Housed in a wooden lodge in the forested reaches of Annupuri, Rakuichi Soba’s Japanese-worded lunch menu features nothing more than hand-cut hot and cold soba with a choice of tempura vegetables or duck.

Everything is cooked-to-order, so be prepared to wait – the umami-packed offerings are well worth it.

If you prefer a more elaborate meal, there's the 6,000 yen-a-head (US$57) kaiseki dinner. Reservations permitted at dinner only.

431 Niseko, Niseko-cho, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido 048-1511; +81 136 58 3170

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Kamimura

Yuichi Kamimura, who spent five years cutting his teeth at Tetsuya’s, helms the kitchen at his eponymous 40-seat temple of haute gastronomy tucked on the ground floor of Shiki Niseko serviced residences in Hirafu.

While his cuisine is unmistakably French, chef Kamimura sources the majority of his produce -- think wagyu, duck, seafood and cheeses -- from neighboring Hokkaido farms.

The best way to sample his craft is via the 13,000 yen-a-head (US$124) 10-course degustation menu, highlights of which may include Haboro king prawn sashimi with prawn roe and butter sautéed Sempoushi oyster with Spanish chorizo in garlic chive sauce.

Kamimura, First floor, Shiki Niseko, 190-4 Yamada, Kutchan-cho, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido 044-0081; +81 136 21 2289

Ezo’s specialty is pristine Hokkaido seafood.

Ezo Seafoods

Australian native James Gallagher and his Japanese wife, Keiko Takaoka, run this cozy 2-storey seafood eatery in the heart of Hirafu.

Now in its fifth season of operation, Ezo Seafood’s specialty is pristine Hokkaido seafood, sourced mostly from the neighboring islands.

Signatures include freshly shucked Akkeshi oysters, luscious Notsuke scallops (served sashimi style or pan fried with soy and sake) and lip smacking soy-braised rockfish.

While they are all delicious, your meal is not complete without a bowl of Koshihikari rice grown from chef Takaoka’s family farm in Chiba.

Ezo Seafoods, 170-165 Aza Yamada, Kutchan, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido 044-0081; +81 136 22 3019

Bang Bang

Opened since 1985, this yakitori specialist in Hirafu is a local institution -- and remains so despite the flood of yakitori eateries in Niseko.

Besides more than 30 kinds of binchotan charcoal-grilled meats, seafood and vegetables, the menu also features the ubiquitous sashimi, local snacks like pumpkin cake and okara (soy pulp) as well as staples such as grilled onigiri (rice ball).

If you don’t mind making a dent in your credit card, the grilled wagyu is to-die-for.

Located just steps away from Bang Bang is sister restaurant, Bang 2 – a convenient call if getting a seat at Bang Bang proves too difficult.

Bang Bang, 188-24 Yamada Kutchan, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido 044-0081; +81 136 22 4292

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Come for the buffet, stay for the Mount Yotei views.

Prativo

Most Niseko eateries thrive on dinner business but this out-of-the-way restaurant by Milk Kobo, which manufactures Niseko’s most popular yoghurt drink, draws a destination lunch crowd with its value-packed semi-buffet lunch (1,500 yen a head).

For mains, diners can pick from a menu of fish, meat or pastas, or help themselves to all-you-can-eat appetizers and desserts that include vegetables sourced from neighboring districts as well as Milk Kobo’s thick and creamy yoghurt drink.

The transcendental view of Mount Yotei, framed by floor-to-ceiling glass windows, makes a meal here all the more enjoyable.

Prativo, 888-1, Soga, Niseko-cho, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido 048-1522; +81 136 55 8852

The Barn

For rustic brasserie fare, The Barn by former Wild Bill’s owners, Brett and Takoya, rises to the occasion with a menu of French classics.

Housed in a lofty barn-like setting with floor-to-ceiling glass window in Hirafu, The Barn's menu features velvety chicken liver pate, hearty braised beef cheeks, fork-tender fillet mignon and sublime crème brulee -- prepared to the exacting standards of chef Kazuhiko Kojima.

The Barn, 170-323 Aza-Yamada, Kutchan-cho, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido 044-0081; +81 136 23 0888 

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Evelyn Chen traded her frequent flyer miles from her jet-setting corporate days for a critic's pen, and has been eating and drinking on the job ever since. She is a former Time Out food critic and current editor of Zagat Guide; her food and travel features have published in Destin Asian, Travel + Leisure SEA and Conde Nast Traveller. For a collection of her gourmet jaunts, visit www.bibikgourmand.com.

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