“I used to walk over the land in all seasons, in weather like this, snowshoeing, getting a feel for the place, where the sun comes up, where the wind comes from,” Peter “Shouya” Grigg said, describing time spent on his plot of secluded land in the Hanazono woods of Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture of Japan. The weather he mentioned is the near-constant snow that falls on this part of Hokkaido, a permanent scrim of white that produces 50 feet of fluffy powder during an average season. It makes for some of the best and most reliable skiing on earth at nearby ski resort Niseko United. And on this land, just a few miles from Hirafu, the resort’s boisterous ski town, he’s built what may be the country’s most interesting and exquisite boutique hotel: Zaborin.
Technically, Zaborin is a ryokan, the Japanese equivalent of a bed and breakfast or inn, which is characterized by a degree of interaction with the owner, a communal area for lounging, tatami mats and futons in the bedrooms, in-room kaiseki dining (a tasting menu, basically) and access to onsen, or hot springs. Another intangible but important feature of a ryokan is that guests are meant to submit to the order and pace of the place: shoes off, meals on schedule — a cordial dance between staff and guest in which each, in a way, has equal power. Grigg, who is originally from Leeds, England, and lived in Perth, Australia, before moving to Hokkaido more than 20 years ago, doesn’t toss the ryokan rule book out the window at Zaborin, but he does give it a thorough update.
“This is far from being perfect,” Grigg said of his creation. “Perfection doesn’t interest me. I prefer something that’s unique, interesting, alive and changing.”
The building, fashioned loosely after the idea of a samurai village, consists of a two-level communal area with modern furniture, a library, an open fireplace, a 36-foot bar made from a single tree and massive glass windows out of which, on a clear day, guests can see the sun kiss Mount Y?tei. The 15 rooms wrap around an inner garden, each spacious and comfortable with plush futons for sleeping, big leather couches and modern amenities like Apple TV, Bose speakers and a minibar with good whiskies from Yoichi distillery. Rather than communal baths, the onsen here take the form of private stone or wooden baths, rich in minerals and heated by geothermal hot springs deep underground. Dining is private, but rather than in the room, it happens in dining rooms where a handwritten menu offers a preview of elaborately plated, delicate meals: a bright puree of Yoichi apple and mountain yam, a tiny local turnip stuffed with king salmon mousse and seared Wagyu beef from eastern Hokkaido. The cumulative effect feels both old world and contemporary, with no artifice or nostalgia.
“This is far from being perfect,” Grigg said of his creation. “Perfection doesn’t interest me. I prefer something that’s unique, interesting, alive and changing.” But with the snow falling so lightly and delicately that it seems to slow time, the smell of larch firewood burning in the lounge and the promise of a perfect ski day tomorrow, this is as close to perfection as one may find in Japan.
A version of this story appears in Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 286 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from five distinct locations around the world. Subscribe Now: $39