Skiing in Japan, Niseko; By Ben Thorpe
Hokkaido, Japan has long been established as a world-class international ski destination. Consistently cold winter temperatures, combined with regular snowfall, provide a ski experience like no other. With a large ski area, excellent transport links and foreigner friendly infrastructure, the Japanese ski resort of Niseko finds itself at the forefront of winter sports in Hokkaido. Located just a two hour drive from Sapporo and Hokkaido’s main international airport, New Chitose, the number of visitors to the area has increased dramatically in recent years.
Hokkaido’s Powder Paradise
The ski season in Niseko starts at the end of November and runs through until early May, with the heaviest snowfalls between late December and mid-February. On average, the area receives over 15 metres of snowfall a year. It is certainly testament to the work of the snow clearing teams that the area continues to run so smoothly throughout the season!
The Niseko United Resort is made up of four individual ski resorts, all with their own base areas, and linked with the “All-Mountain Pass''. Grand Hirafu, Hanazono, Niseko Village and Annupuri are all connected via lifts at the top of the mountain and provide over 40km of ski runs. Grand Hirafu is certainly the unofficial heart of the resort with the majority of village infrastructure, from ski in ski out hotels through to private chalets and casual lodges. Free buses operate between the resorts during the winter season, so even those guests choosing to stay further afield have easy access to the slopes.
Those looking for vibrant nightlife and a wealth of dining options would certainly be wise to stay in Hirafu, but accommodation pricing does tend to drop the further out one ventures. More adventurous types, or smaller groups, can find great deals in areas such as Annupuri, while still having access to all four ski resorts.
Niseko's powder snow; By Ben Thorpe
Where should you ski?
No matter your ability level, Niseko has terrain for you. An abundance of powder snow creates wide open bowls, tree runs as well as mellow open slopes. The sides of marked runs are the perfect place for those still finding their feet to experience powder snow, without the fear of getting themselves stuck. For those more well-versed in riding powder, side country “gates” can be accessed from the resort and supply some of the deepest lines available. Recently installed new lifts at the base of Niseko Village put the area on par with the likes of Hanazono for beginners, with a large amount of uncrowded, gentle slopes being the perfect spot to start your journey into winter sports.
For those looking for an insider guide to untracked lines, the below ski runs are excellent starting points:
Strawberry Fields (Hanazono) - Famous among locals in the resort, but still often elusive to visiting tourists! Located directly underneath the Hanazono 1 chairlift, Strawberry Fields benefits from being located low down on the mountain. This means even on days where the wind may have stopped the very top lifts, powder is still easy to find! The sheltered terrain offers a long cruisy tree run to those skiers who drop in right away, but traversing around to the right is also a good option to find those pristine lines and steeper terrain. The area collects snow moved around by the wind, so can often be even deeper than surrounding tree runs!
All tracks lead directly back onto a marked piste, meaning there is no need to worry about going the wrong way!
By Ben Thorpe
Super Ridge (Grand Hirafu) - Similar to Strawberry Fields, Super Ridge is located at the bottom of the mountain, to looker’s left of the Center Four chairlift. Steeper lines are available to those who traverse further around and again all runs lead back to the slopes. Runs are short, but the turns can be so good, we guarantee you’ll be going back for more.
Mizuno Sawa Gate 11 (Niseko Village) - One of the most popular areas among local riders. Gate 11 is accessed from the Niseko Village Gondola and involves a short walk up to the gate entrance. The shape of the mountain terrain and predominant wind direction mean this area is a magnet for snow.
Follow underneath the Gondola for easier turns, or head right to the steeper valley area, all of which lead back onto the slopes. The gate is monitored by ski patrol and only opens when conditions are suitable, but be sure to bring your snorkel when it does!
Annupuri Peak Gate 2 (Annupuri) - Head to the top! While the peak of Mt Annupuri, which hosts the four ski resorts, is accessed from Grand Hirafu, Annupuri Gate 2 will get you close. Wide open bowls with only sporadic tree cover provide an easier run, with little worry about choosing a specific line. With the Annupuri resort area being quieter; it is possible to lap this course several times a day and still find unbelievable snow. The bottom of the run leads into a long valley, which offers up some great natural half-pipe shaped terrain. Access is from the Jumbo Pair 4 lift, which is a longer journey from the resort base, but the long run down more than makes up for it.
Snow clearing; By Ben Thorpe
My legs are done!
The best part of the Niseko area is once you are done skiing for the day there is still a wealth of bars and restaurants to explore. After a well-deserved, restorative soak in one of Niseko’s many onsen (hot springs), you’re ready to hit the town. Located in Hirafu, Musu and Tamashii are recommended options for people looking for a good après-ski atmosphere. Open from lunchtime, both offer a good selection of well-priced drinks and are also popular options among locals. Doors stay open until well after midnight, and events with local DJs are always a guaranteed good time.
Those wanting a more traditional feel can head to any of the area's excellent Izakaya restaurants. Open from early evening, these options are great for groups with children or for those who would rather be seated at tables. Pricing is excellent at this style of restaurant, and the atmosphere generally turns more relaxed as the evening goes on. Options such as Jam Bar and Mina Mina serve delicious food, and are a popular spot for the local Japanese population to relax after work. This presents a good opportunity to practise your Japanese phrases!
Mt. Yotei; By Ben Thorpe
Niseko also boasts Michelin Star dining and high-end bars for guests looking to sample the very finest food and drink, and Kamimura remains the go-to spot for fine dining. Hokkaido-born chef, Yuichi Kamimura returned to Japan after studying at one of the most prestigious restaurants in Sydney. Kamimura-san brings together local and international ingredients, creating a truly exceptional dining experience that is not to be missed. Note that booking in advance is absolutely necessary.
For alcohol connoisseurs, a wide range of Japanese whiskeys and elegant cocktails are available at the Niseko staple, Toshiro’s Bar. Opened in 2014, this classic bar offers a relaxed, but sophisticated atmosphere in the heart of Grand Hirafu; a perfect option for couples looking for something a little more intimate.
How to get there?
Niseko ski resort; By Ben Thorpe
Transport links between Shin Chitose Airport and Niseko are excellent, with a wealth of bus operators providing regular shuttle services. While private transfers and train connections are also available, buses remain the most convenient and budget friendly option. Journey times range from two to three hours depending on the provider.
If you are looking to visit Niseko for the first time, using companies knowledgeable in the area, such as Japan Ski Experience, can take the stress away from planning your trip. With over 14 years experience in providing Japan ski holidays, as well as expert staff on the ground, Japan Ski Experience are able to assist with all aspects of your trip; from transfers and Niseko accommodation through to lift passes, rental equipment, lessons and excursions.
Article written by Duncan Manser, Hokkaido Assistant Manager at Japan Ski
Experience: Duncan has been based in Niseko, sharing his love of powder snow and Japanese culture with Japan Ski Experience guests for the past 8 years.
When not putting together itineraries and welcoming guests in resort, he enjoys snowboarding, soaking in onsens and studying Japanese.
Photography provided by Ben Thorpe, Director and Hokkaido Manager at Japan Ski Experience. Ben has been based in Japan for 20 years, and lives in Niseko with his wife and 2 daughters.