Sunday, 23 December 2012

Skiing in Japan

If you've come to Japan to experience some of the best powder snow in the world (some people would say the best, but I don't have enough experience to judge) then this post aims to be a basic introduction to vegan survival the three locations I've been: Gala Yuzawa, Hakuba and Niseko. With the exception of Hakuba a typical "meal" consists of a small bowl of chips (called "fried potato" / furaido poteto) and a bowl of white rice, with all the soy sauce you want. And you'll probably need to ask especially for the bowl of rice (you won't find it on the vending machines which dispense tickets which are exchanged for meals). You might find a green salad if you can convince a flexible chef to leave off the dressing. This is all filling enough, but hardly satisfying after hours on the slopes. In short: GO TO HAKUBA!

The main exception to this rule, and therefore the top recommendation for ski resorts in Japan goes to Hakuba, a vegan oasis in the Japanese ski world, and also the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. This is because there is a vegan restaurant right on the ski slopes and because the Hakuba Highland Hotel has chefs willing show off their culinary skills and cook up fresh, delicious and authentic Japanese food, which is probably the best Japanese food I've ever eaten.

It's not just the Olympic past which make Hakuba worth visiting.

And it's not just the food either - the views are spectacular.

But it can also get quite blizzard-like up the mountain!

Hakuba lies almost directly across the main island of Japan from Tokyo, about 50km from the West Coast. It's possible, but slow, to reach it by conventional train, with the best route being a shinkansen to Nagano (about an hour and a half), and then a bus to Hakuba (about an hour). It's a perfect location for a three-plus day excursion from Tokyo. It's generally significantly cheaper to go through a travel agent for a deal combining the shinkansen and the hotel (and possibly lift pass) than to book both independently, and it has the added benefit of the travel agent being able to explain vegan requirements.

I was fortunate to be in Hakuba after a massive snow drop in April 2012.

It was probably the result of some good research by my travel agent (Jack Rabbit Travel in Motomachi, Yokohama) and perhaps a little good luck too (given that it's not something likelafter drawing the curtains in the morningy to be listed in Japanese travel literature!) that she discovered that the Hakuba Highland Hotel chefs are willing to cook delicious Japanese food for a visiting vegan. Their reportiore was, understandably, somewhat limited at first, but it grew over the course of my two visits, and included egg-less tempura and various hotpots (as in Taiwan, but with seaweed as a stock).

the morning view from my window at Hakuba Highland Hotel

2013 Update: The food was even better - and quite spectacular - in my recent trip. I can't recommend Hakuba Highland Hotel enough, but it's vital to let them know in advance that you're vegan.

a typical oishii vegan dinner at the Hakuba Highland Hotel

The food was beautifully prepared (of course) and I really enjoyed trying authentic Japanese cuisine cooked by a local chef. Portions were generously sized, and a couple of times they brought out so much for breakfast (which I had to cook myself over a burner) that I nearly missed the shuttle to the skifield. 

Cooking the range of foods over the flame was quite a novelty. Allow plenty of time for these breakfasts!

But all this breakfast requires is some serious eating.

2013 addition: It just keeps getting better and better!

The mochis (top right) were pre-cooked, but they also gave me a burner to heat them up.

2013: Daiya may not have made it into the Japanese culinary world yet, but I was so sure the cheesy topping on the potato really was that I apologised and said I couldn't eat cheese. The mildly-offended waiter explained that it was made of soybean powder. Their chef is amazing!

I'm not a big fan of onsens, but the Hakuba Highland Hotel also has a nice outdoor onsen, and it's a great way to soak tired limbs after skiing, with a mountain view and snow almost up to the edge of the (covered) bath itself. The hotel is warm, clean and friendly, and a short, free shuttle-ride from the train station (where the bus from Nagano Station stops) and the ski fields.

Nearby on the slopes of Happo One Resort is the incredible Roots Cafe. It is owned by Evergreen Outdoor Centre, which was started by Dave Enright eleven years ago, when he ran courses in avalanche safety and worked as a sole ski instructor. From there the business has grown into a hive of year-round outdoor education activities. I have been pleased with my ski lessons over the last year.

Roots Cafe, Happo One Ski Resort
 Five years ago Dave started Roots Cafe as a way of giving back to the community. Not only does it use locally produced vegetables and organic rice, but Dave grows some of the produce himself during the summer months. It also holds regular charity events, including one event which raised enough money to buy and deliver a new tractor for a tsunami-stricken village in Tohoku.

Roots cafe has now grown into a busy cafe, and you'll be lucky to find a seat during the busy lunch period around midday. What I tend to do is come early (say between 10:00 and 11:00) and then again for a late afternoon snack around 3:00 - 4:00, to tide me over to dinner. Note that the main courses (eg the wraps) are only available until 2:30, but there are plenty of snacks available afterwards. They also sell baked goods which are ideal for quick snacks on the ski lifts.

Snack time. Wrapped bars and biscuits are fresh from the oven, and make great snacks for the ski lifts. The tea was good too.
Unfortunately on my first visit, I simply didn't know about them, and found out by chance from a vegetarian ski instructor on my last day, and on my second visit (in April, partly to try this cafe), it had closed for the season the day before I arrived. I finally made it here in February 2013, and wasn't disappointed. It just makes the whole ski experience so much nicer when hot vegan food is so easily available.

How many ski slopes are there in the world where one can find hummus and pita platters right on the slopes?

The food is simple, healthy and delicious, and very suited to a hungry, non-vegan ski-boot-clad clientele, both Japanese and foreign. They use organic rice, and locally grown vegetables.

Lunches like this Mexican Wrap are available until 2:30.

But the Soup of the Day (here Minestrone) and snacks like these Soy Karage balls are available all day.

Cows milk is available for drinks upon request, and their burger buns contain milk powder (because they are bought from outside) but otherwise everything is vegan. Some sauces contain honey, so if you don't eat honey, then ask which products contain it (and please read this article).

The range of wraps (including falafel) were my favourite, but they also had this Chinese dish and an Indian-style curry.
Roots Cafe (and Evergreen Outdoor Centre) is on the slopes of Kokusai. The Hakuba Highland Hotel shuttle bus stops at the Gondola, from which it's possible to get to Kokusai by skiing either of the former Olympic routes (black runs). It should also be possible on green runs, but it's a bit more complicated (check a piste map). Alternatively, it's only a five to ten minute walk around the base of the mountain.

I recommend eating twice at Roots Cafe - preferably first before 11AM, and the next before the 2:30 finish of main dishes (snacks are available until 4:30) - and at the Hakuba Highland Hotel, but should you find yourself in Hakuba in need of food in the evening, the only Indian (and Nepalese) restaurant, Hindi Momo, has two vegan main dishes, Dahl and a Spinach-tomato curry, and the owner was happy to explain what was vegan. I found the dahl to be the best of the two.

Dahl and rice from Hindi Momo, Hakuba

August 2013 Edit: I originally noted that the nearby Goryu resort has a Subway restaurant, but have since learned that the breads (like virtually all of the sauces) all contain dairy products, so I don't recommend going anywhere other than Hakuba.

Also in Nagano (a train, bus and walk from Nagano Station) are the famous snow-monkeys (Japanese macaques which bathe in "onsens" during winter. I haven't (yet) been, and am undecided about whether or not to. So far as I can tell, including from accounts by people who have visited, there are no issues of abuse, and the monkeys are not in any form of dependence or captivity. Feeding them, for example, is prohibited so as to prevent them becoming dependent on humans. One could argue that humans are intruding on the monkeys habitat, with swarms of tourists pouring through daily, while however it is a perfect opportunity for the public to see and experience the sentience of non-human animals in their natural habitat. If you do go, please let me know what you think.

View Hakuba Vegan Spots in a larger map

Gala Yuzawa is where Tokyoites go for a day on the ski slopes. The station is owned and run by the JR Company, and the shinkansen station, locker rooms and gondola entrance are all in the same building - Japanese efficiency at its best. Being owned by JR, they offer an excellent package including the train (about 1.5 hours each way) and a lift ticket for around 10 000 Yen (depending on the time of year). This is less than the train itself, so the lift pass is essentially thrown in free. Tickets can be bought from major JR stations.

It tends to get quite crowded on weekends, especially with young snowboarders who seem to come more as a social outing, and they often sit down and talk on the pistes - beware. However, for a day on the ski slopes from Tokyo, this is the place to come.

Food wise, it's the standard green salad, chips ("fried potatoes") and a bowl of white rice. I always bring snack food with me.

ramen and rice with soymeat from T's Tantan in Tokyo Station

Since the shinkansen goes back to Tokyo station, on the way back is a perfect time to go to T's Tantan, the vegan ramen restaurant located inside the train station itself and not far from the Shinkansen entrance. It's located on Keiyo Street (an underground food "street") inside the gates of the station itself.

Niseko is a Meka for snow sports, boasting what some would call the best powder snow in the world (though Hakuba is also excellent). I visited three ski fields: Niseko, Kokusai and Mt Moiwa. Whereever you go, if you take just one piece of advice from this blog, bring plenty of snack food with you. Due to my late order and the Xmas backlog, my veganessentials order didn't arrive before I left, and I could really have done with all those snack bars I'd ordered, especially while travelling and on the slopes!

Getting There
The best way to get to Hokkaido for the environment is of course the train, and it's an interesting day's journey (or more if you stop off along the way) to take the shinkansen to Aomori and then an interesting trip through the world's longest undersea tunnel to Hokkaido, the Seikan Tunnel. (The Channel Tunnel has a longer undersea portion, however the the Seikan Tunnel is the longest and also the deepest rail tunnel). If you have a Japan Rail Pass (almost an essential for tourists who plan on leaving the Greater Tokyo are) it's all covered by the JR Pass, unless you want an expensive sleeper berth.

If you do fly, New Chitose Airport is about an hour and a half's flight from Tokyo, and flights leave from both Haneda and Narita airports. There is a Starbucks on the third floor. (Starbucks is usually the only place one can find soymilk, with an exception being Niseko, thanks to all the Australians). Also, the conveyor-belt sushi restaurant nearby has a few vegan options, including pickled plum, cucumber and gourd; these three can be found in sushi restaurants all over Japan, and are usually vegan. There are small dipping bowls for soy sauce under the conveyor belt for sushi, and ginger is in a box on the table. The powdered green tea is free (help yourself). Just don't be tempted by the deep fried squid legs or the crab intestine sushi, quite a bargain at only 200 and 300 Yen respectively.

sushi from the conveyor belt restaurant near Starbucks, 3rd floor New Chitose Airport


Niseko is almost a 'little Australia', and during the Xmas period I'd guess three quarters of people there, including many working in the restaurants, are Aussies, and most of the rest also foreigners, including many from Hong Kong and Singapore.

On the slopes themselves, food is mostly a matter of survival. Most places will serve white rice and "fried potatoes". King Bell on the Hirafu Slopes serve pizzas with dairy-free bases, and a pizza base with tomato sauce and basil was better than it sounded, even by the fourth one.
The Grand Hirafu Area was also the best area for night skiing, largely because the Gondola runs until late.

Best on the Niseko slopes: a vegan pizza base, chips and rice from King Bell in the Grand Hirafu  ski area.

At Annupuri, my favourite of the four ski areas, the Nook do a green salad, rice and "friend potatoes" - usual vegan fare. Beware that the last bus back to Hirafu leaves just after 8PM - I found out the hard way that it's a long taxi ride around the mountain, as easy as it seems to ski over it.

Best of Annupuri: a vegan lunch at the Nook, Annupuri ski area.

The Niseko Village Area area was the worst, with the restaurants (including the Lookout Cafe on the slopes) seemingly dominated by the Hilton Hotel, with food and prices to match. I couldn't find anything vegan, and prices for drinks were ridiculous. I don't recommend this area.

I never made it to the Hanozono Resort Area, so if there's a vegan cafe there I missed it.

For dinner, or a break during lunch, walk or take the shuttle bus to the Taj Mahal restaurant, about half a kilometre from the Grand Hirafu area. They were happy to make food vegan (and clearly made the effort to check ingredients) and the food, while the typical North Indian fare found all over Japan, was excellent.

On Sunday they have a buffet. Needless to say, little of it (basically Pappadoms and one curry) was vegan, but they cooked me roti, an additional Channa Masala and offered alternatives to other items not vegan. All up, it was a great deal at 1950 Yen (my other meals there were about the same price). The owner, originally from Bombay, has lived in Japan for fourty years, and he also has branches in Chitose (near the airport) and Sapporo. The Taj Mahal is the obvious choice for dinners or a good satisfying lunch while at Niseko.

A vegan modification of the Sunday buffet meal at the Taj Mahal - a great deal at 1950 Yen!

They also have two buses/vans in the area, one by Seicomart, offering hot food on the go. I found the quality (not surprisingly) much lower than the restaurant, so it's well worth the walk to get the food fresh from the kitchen rather than from the microwave.

Kokusai, which literally translates to 'international' (though I only saw one other foreigner there, among several hundred Japanese - quite the opposite of Niseko) is about a two hour bus ride from Sapporo Station. Compared to Niseko, I found its runs to be longer and wider, and I enjoyed skiing there a lot.

the view from outside the gondola at Kokusai Ski Resort

It also has two Gondolas to near the top of the mountain, so this and the wide, long runs meant that a greater proportion of my time was spent skiing than on chairlifts or in cues than at other skifields.

Kokusai base

once the sun came out, the views from the gondola were spectacular

Don't expect much for lunch though. The only thing I could find at all (other than french fries) was freshly baked sweet potato (that's kumara for any kiwis reading this) from the dining area to the far right in this photo.

enter at the far right of this building (as seen from this direction) and sweet potato are sold at the first counter.
morning tea, lunch (and dinner if you stay long enough) at Kokusai Ski Resort

Mt Moiwa Ski Resort
For a more family affair, head to Mt Moiwa Ski field, near Sapporo. This is where families come for a day skiing, and where working folk duck by for a quick night ski after work. Facilities here are very simple, and food very basic. I found nothing vegan except fries and rice.

Mt Moiwa Ski area, close to Sapporo
Note: I am writing about the Mt Moiwa near central Sapporo. There is a much larger Mt Moiwa Ski resort close to Niseko, which I didn't go to. Also note that this is a skier only area (no snowboarding).

The views of Sapporo were amazing!

To get there, take the subway to Makomanai Station, and then there is a shuttle bus (or a taxi) from there.

my favourite run at Mt Moiwa


If you're in Hokkaido, chances are you'll go to Sapporo. I found it to be a very pleasant, liveable city. Being a planned city, it has straight, wide streets, and a central park-like avenue (Oodori) running right through the centre. It reminded me very much of Christchurch (especially with the hills in the distance) and of Kaohsiung, which was probably planned and built by Japanese at around the same time.
As an important aside, I recommend taking the train to Hokkaido if possible (especially if you are lucky enough to be able to get the Japan Rail Pass), however if you do fly I recommend learning steering well clear of Vanilla Air.

Oodori, central Sapporo

 I recommend three places to eat in Sapporo, all from Happycow.

Aoi Sora Organic Cafe
Being Sapporo's only vegetarian cafe (it's actually vegan and organic) this should be top of the list. The meal was fresh and delicious (such a change from days of rice and French fries) and the friendly owner speaks good English. It's well worth the effort to get there.

a set lunch from Ao Sora Organic Cafe, Sapporo

Iki Laboratory
Iki Laboratory (it's really a restaurant) labels many items on its menu 'vegan' and 'oriental vegetarian' (全素 - no garlic or onion). Portions were small (as normal in Japan) but for such excellent food, it was still good value. 

potato salad from Iki Laboratory

I think these were made from gluten, but I can't remember what they were called.

parfait - Iki Laboratory

Jyoti is an Indian restaurant right in central Sapporo. It serves typical but delicious North Indian food. It's friendly owner, Mahavira, is vegetarian, and uses separate utensils for his own food and vegetarian customers. I twice had the vegetarian set, with a Lacha Paratha (a kind of flaky bread which I'd never tried before) instead of the Naan. The staff were friendly and efficient and the food was excellent.

starters at Jyoti, central Sapporo

Lacha Parathi, dal and vegetable curry from Jyoti


  1. Hi Jesse,
    I'm a vegetarian from the Caribbean (grew up with Ital food). I've been living in China for 11 years. I've just spent a week in Hokkaido (Otaru, Niseko and Sapporo).

    I wanted to thank you for that great post on skiing in Japan.

    In China be a vegetarian is quite easy. a lot of veggie dishes. Of course its not NY (awesome deli and home cooking shop everywhere) or Bangkok.For the past 11 years I've been eating at least 5 or 6 different dishes per meal, china style :-). But I found surprising that in Japan its more a western way of the main dish and that's it. Maybe it is winter time so not so much veggies around. Well, I've managed to eat ok but not great.

    Then last day before the trip ends I found your blog. In Sapporo I when to Iki Laboratory.
    It is some cool home style vegan cooking.

    I was with my girl friend(not vegetarian but almost)and both, we've enjoyed the food and the kindness of the owner.

    I'm not into mock meat so the fried soy-meat balls was difficult for me but the rest was fabulous! So thank again for that review.

    Also I've shown the owner your blog and she remembers you from what you ate that day I guess :-)

    thanks again


  2. Hi -o_x-

    Thanks for the message - always nice to hear from a reader of my blog! How did you find the food in Niseko and Otaru? "ok but not great" would probably be how I would describe eating in most of Japan, though Tokyo has some good veg'n restaurants. Thanks for showing Iki Lab my blog!

    Interesting about China. Do you mean you eat this variety of dishes at buffet restaurants, or ordinary restaurants, or at home? In Taiwan buffet restaurants (where you pay by weight) are very common, so you get to eat a range of many different dishes. But it's true that the Japanese generally have a main dish, though a 'set' often includes a range of different dishes.

    I'm surprised you're not into mock meats, after so long in China? In Taiwan they are so popular. At first it took me a while to get used to them.

    I hope you had a good time in Japan!


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