The Trip: Niseko, Japan

Once a sleepy farming village on Japan’s northernmost island, Niseko is now an internationally renowned luxury ski destination, blessed with spectacular, pristine mountains, crystal-clear rivers, and deep, dry powder snow delivered with such Japanese precision that it has a nickname: Japow

Niseko is actually an area that can offer year-round activities. In summer, thanks to its location, it avoids the soaring temperatures, high humidity and rain suffered by the rest of Japan, and so outdoor activities shift from hurtling down snowy mountain slopes to river rafting and kayaking, along with fishing for red-spotted masu salmon and Japanese char on the Shiribetsu River, mountain biking, tree trekking, horse riding, paragliding, rock climbing and hot-air ballooning. 

There are three golf courses, too, and the 18-hole, par-72 Niseko Golf Course was designed by Arnold Palmer, and is famous for its par-3 fifth hole, as well as for its pond and guard bunker. The towering peak looking down at it, Mount Yōtei, is a 1,898m-high volcano that looks so similar to Japan’s most popular and best-known mountain that it is often referred to as Hokkaido’s Mount Fuji. It and the chain of mountains around Niseko have hundreds of natural trails, ideal for snow-related and every other outdoor pursuit amid some of the most epic scenery in Japan.  

Which is what makes Zaborin, an avant-garde, luxury ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) tucked away in secluded Hanazono Forest so unexpected. The clue to its raison d’être lies in the name, which means “to sit and forget in the woods”.  

‘Our modern lives are so busy that we felt taking time to be quiet and still the mind was the ultimate luxury,’ say Zaborin co-founders Michèle and James Marshall. ‘For us, the best way we could provide this was through a ryokan and the traditional sense of Japanese hospitality or omotenashi, as the experience of getting away from the pressures of daily life just to eat, bathe and sleep epitomises the art of stillness.’

Every detail and decision taken in creating Zaborin reflects this essential philosophy. The Marshalls found a tranquil retreat deep in an ancient white-birch forest in a sheltered valley. There are just 15 generously sized detached villas, each a serene sanctuary furnished and modelled after the classical Japanese inn, with minimalist interiors decorated in time-honoured natural materials, such as handwoven tatami mat flooring, stone, and hinoki cypress wood in an earthy palette of silver grey and cream. Unusually for a ryokan, guests have the choice of the customary futon or western-style beds. There are Japanese ceramics, bespoke bathroom products made with local ingredients, and samue (jacket and pant suits), sleek black hanten jackets and getasandals. 

The basic elements of a ryokan (“ryo” means travel and “kan” means inn) haven’t changed in centuries. Guests arrive, don a yukata (robe), enjoy long soaks in hot spring baths, preferably with a view of nature, and are served a set seasonal kaiseki meal in their room, typically a simple, elegant tatami mat space. Ryokan are renowned for their meticulous service, and from the start both staff and guests observe Japanese conventions and etiquette.

‘There is a powerful sense of stepping away from daily stresses when one arrives at a ryokan and slips on a yukata,says Michèle. ‘It is so simple yet comforting that you instinctively begin to relax.’

Sumptuous sofas, underfloor heating, and the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that frame native forest views and bring the light indoors add a refined take on present-day comfort. Indeed, Zaborin achieves one of the most challenging of feats in Japan: blending the modern with the ancient without diluting the quintessential ritual. 

Every villa has complete privacy – especially useful given that, unlike the communal onsen that most ryokans offer, each one comes with both an indoor and outdoor terrace hot-spring onsen, so guests can immerse themselves in nature and experience the calming effects of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing). Because, according to historic etiquette, a barrier between skin and water bathing should be avoided, even open-air bathing is naked, and the gensen kakenagashi baths source free-flowing, mineral-rich, hot-spring waters directly from a natural 42°C spring. There is also a communal outdoor foot bath in the ryokan garden.

The lobby offers another haven of harmonious calm with two cosy lounges, each with a huge open fireplace and stunning views of Mount Yōtei, and the library lounge, which has an excellent selection of books, from art, architecture and design, to novels, poetry and classical literature from around the world.

The villas and public areas are decorated in a mix of ethereal black-and-white photographs of Hokkaido landscapes, contemporary work by local artists, and an eclectic collection of Japanese objets d’art, from ceramics to bonsai.

Private Zaborin events include sake and whisky tastings (the nearby Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery produces Japan’s finest award-winning whiskies) and a formal tea ceremony. Or retire to the magnificent 11m-long counter carved from a single tree for a cocktail and a panoramic view of Mount Yōtei.

Dining is in the Irori room, with seating around a central fire pit or in a series of private dining rooms where guests are served Zaborin’s authentic kita kaiseki, a classic northern kaiseki multi-course menu featuring special locally sourced and foraged seasonal ingredients. Chef Yoshihiro Seno, a Hokkaido native who has returned home after working in Tokyo and New York, brings his own passion for simple, naturalistic assembly and presentation.

The importance of slowing down is nothing new, of course. Ryokans have welcomed guests since the ninth century, but nevertheless Zaborin provides an opportune reminder that the ultimate luxury is time: time to slow down, quiet our minds, and just relax, and that it is an indulgence to travel and return home rested and rejuvenated. 


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