I am in no way a snow connoisseur but according to hearsay and unofficial surveys, Japan is reputed to have close to the best snow in the world. Nicknamed “Japow”, the snow in other parts of the world might not be as fluffy and powdery as what we experienced in Japan. When you narrow down within the scope of Japan, Hokkaido is the famed destination for winter activities and vacation.
The appeal of Niseko is real because this place tends to see repeat visitors. Popularised by the Australians and now perhaps South-East Asians, this is a good location for ski and snowboard newbies to get acquainted with the sports. Not just because of the vast variety of terrain and good quality of snow, but simply because there are plenty of English speakers and signages! Most of the service providers are also present online with English websites, which makes booking for ski lessons, equipment, shuttle bus and even restaurants easier prior to your trip!
Niseko comprises of 6 main ski areas – Hirafu, Niseko Village, Annupuri, Hanazono, Moiwa and Weiss. The first four are linked together a “Niseko United” ski pass. Moiwa is an independent ski area and Weiss is no longer operating, although cat-skiing companies head there for their ski activities.
Grand Hirafu is the largest ski zone and the most crowded. There is also a bustling town area at Hirafu which makes it a choice location to stay if you are looking to be near the amenities such as restaurants, bars and convenience stores.
Niseko Village is largely serviced by the YTL chain of hotels notably Hilton Niseko and The Green Leaf.
Annupuri is a smaller zone but it has good mix of trails and is often less crowded. The people there do know what they are doing and you are less likely to meet a ski/snowboard hazard as compared to at Hirafu.
Hanazono is another smaller zone that is accessible from Hirafu slopes. There is also an adventure park where you could try other snow activities such as snowmobiling, as well as zip line!
Moiwa is actually my favourite area. The snow was heavier yet fluffier than the other ski zones – perhaps it was the weather on the day I ventured to Moiwa – and it is easy to navigate and much less crowded. You could complete much more runs without spending 30 mins waiting for the chairlift or gondola.
Where should I stay?
If you are new to skiing and this is your first time to Niseko, you could consider opting for a ski-in, ski-out hotel at Hirafu or Niseko Village. In such establishments, the ski zones are just at your doorstep and you do not need to worry about walking or commuting to the base camp with your gear.
I have stayed at The Green Leaf and it is a good choice for those who prefer a fuss-free holiday. You could book your ski lessons and rent your ski gear at the hotel. The Chuo buses (Niseko public bus system) and airline shuttles stop by The Green Leaf. The hotel also has a great outdoor onsen free for all guests. However Niseko Village – where The Green Leaf is located – is quiet and family oriented. If you prefer to be in a bustling town, pick a hotel near the Upper Village of Grand Hirafu where you are within walking distance from the base camp or chair lifts.
If you are more adventurous or you are with a big group, you could look for Japanese style pensions or apartments for your stay. Many Japanese and foreign investors own property at Niseko that double up as vacation stays.
Preparation before the trip
- Book your flight and shuttle – You should arrive and depart from New Chitose Airport at Sapporo. There are a number of airline shuttles that goes to Niseko – such as White Liner and Niseko Airport Shuttle. The bus ride to Niseko is close to 3 hours. Note that the earliest shuttle bus back to the airport will reach the airport at around 7.30AM. Therefore your flight out of Sapporo back home should ideally be after 9.30AM.
- Book your accommodation – If you intend to go during peak season such as end December, you would need to book as early as June as popular hotels get fully booked very soon.
- Book your ski/snowboard lessons – If you are new to this sport, it is highly encouraged that you take lessons. Start with at least three group lessons to grasp the basic. There are several ski schools in Niseko and the choice of ski school would largely depend on where you stay. Eg, if you stay at Niseko Village, you would go for Niseko Village Snow School. GoSnow operates from Hirafu.
- Rent your equipment – This also depends on where you are staying. There are a few choices at Hirafu and some offer early-bird rates if you book online early. If you do not have snow outfit which is highly necessary, you could rent from the store as well.
- Rent a car/van – If you are staying at a house or an area not so accessible via Chuo bus or hotel shuttle, I presume you are either quite adventurous or this is not your first time to Niseko. Haha!
- You do not need to book your ski passes prior to the trip. Ski passes are easy to get on the spot and you could decide which pass to get according to your comfort level – eg how high up the mountain you can go and how long you intend to be at the slopes.
- If you are a foodie, try to book your favourite restaurants at Niseko early. Popular eateries get fully booked quite soon and you wouldn’t want to be roaming the streets cold and hungry looking for a restaurant that is available for walk-ins.
- For those who just want to go for a Free & Easy trip without the hassle of making so many bookings, you could check out the packages from JTB which includes airport transfer, ski lessons, ski passes and equipment rental. The travel package for 2015-2016 season can be found here.
What do you do in Niseko other than ski?
- You could take part in other snow activities – such as snowmobiling, snow tubing and reindeer-sledding! I have also tried snow-shoeing at Mount Yotei, which was like hiking except that you need to wear a snow shoe while walking in the snow. You could search for such activites at Explore Niseko.
- Visit Kutchan town to pick up groceries, as well as check out the restaurants, bars and karaoke joints there if you are sick of the Niseko scene.
- Make a day trip to Otaru via Kutchan station.
- Go for yoga class at Powder Yoga. Don’t worry, it’s yoga in a studio but with the perfect window view of the snow!
You may wish to refer to the following posts: