Header image courtesy of Oliver Dickerson (via Unsplash)
There really is nothing like Niseko—the quality of snow in this region is spectacular and there are plenty of quality instructors with a ton of experience. There are a variety of slopes within a short radius, so ski enthusiasts have a ton of options. Here’s our guide to one of the best places to ski and snowboard in Asia, if not the world.
Niseko is a town composed of three main sections of ski runs on Mount Niseko-Annupuri. They are split into—Grand Hirafu-Hanazono, Niseko Village, and Annapuri. A 30-minute drive in the southeastern direction is Rusutsu, another ski resort on the other side of Mount Yotei. A 23-minute drive west of Hirafu is Moiwa, also another small ski resort. Rusutsu and Moiwa are smaller ski resorts and tend to be more popular among the local Japanese people rather than the international community.
Niseko is a 3-hour car/bus ride from Sapporo international airport. You could rent a car at the airport, or book a seat on White Liner, a Niseko Ski bus.
Niseko’s most winning feature is not only its accessibility but also the frequency of snowfall. The best time to visit is from December to March, during which it can get extremely snowy, so you'll get a refill of fresh snow on a daily basis.
Unlike other popular ski resorts such as Whistler in Canada and the Swiss Alps, Niseko is rarely icy and prides itself on offering powder skiing and snowboarding. The way to powder ski is different from icier conditions and is generally considered safer—the more powdery the snow, the less slippery it is and the easier it is to brake. Furthermore, powder conditions can encourage skiers to tackle more ungroomed and “off-piste” trails.
Grand Hirafu consists of green (beginner), red (intermediate), black (expert), and off-piste routes, catering to different experience and confidence levels of skiers and snowboarders. The best way to figure out what you prefer is to try all the runs (that you’re comfortable doing), and then redo the routes you like! The off-piste routes are non-official paths you can take down the back of the mountain, usually favoured by people who are more experienced and looking for a challenge.
For beginners who would like some guidance, we recommend going to a ski school. There is Niseko International Snowsports School (NISS) in Hanazono, Niseko Village Snow School in Niseko Village, Niseko Base Snowsports (NBS) in Hirafu, Niseko Annapuri Ski Snowboard School (NASS) in Annupuri, and Hokkaido Mountain Experience (HME), whose instructors will travel to wherever you are.
We recommend using the snow school located closest to you for convenience's sake. Most snow schools offer ski/snowboard rental services, but it is best to check beforehand. For example, HME does not offer rental services. Check out Rhythm, a ski and snowboard rental service right in the centre of Hirafu, offering good quality equipment. They’re a great alternative if your accommodation does not offer any rental services. For those who are more advanced and are staying in Hirafu, and would like an instructor or guide to take you around to the other ski resorts, we recommend using HME.
Unlike many other ski resorts in other parts of the world, there is rarely a line for chair lifts, except for the ‘family run’ on the Grand Hirafu section, which is at the bottom and is most used by children and beginners. The most popular ski runs are in Grand Hirafu and Niseko Village.
For those who really love powder skiing, we recommend heading over to Rusutsu and Moiwa to test out more ski runs. Unlike the Alps in Europe, and the massive mountains in Canada, Niseko’s mountains are wide rather than long, which means that the routes are less exhausting and more beginner-friendly. It will take you just 30 to 40 minutes to make your way from the top to the bottom of the mountain, whereas on other slopes it could take you hours to make it down.
If you get hungry along the way, there are plenty of cafeterias scattered all over the slope to stop for lunch or snacks. Rest House Ace Hill, King Bell Hut and Hanazono Edge are good options for lunch because they are the most spacious. Expect classic Japanese meals such as ramen, omelette rice, and don bowls. However, our favourite one is Boyoso, a cosy little mountain hut restaurant that has mini wooden chairs and tables. Their best dishes are the beef rice bowl and tonkatsu curry. Unfortunately, Boyoso is located in the middle of the mountain, where it can be best reached after a red or black route, so beginners might have to hone their skills a bit more before they can reach it.
If you’re just looking for some snacks and a warm drink, the 1000m Mountain Hut offers the richest and most flavourful hot chocolate and cookies for you to munch on during an afternoon break. It is also located right next to the 1000m bell, which skiers love to ring whenever they pass by as a celebration for reaching such a high altitude, so head on over and give it a ring after warming up!