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Niseko’s snow is unrivalled
Every winter, the freezing winds of Siberia sweep across the Sea of Japan, creating huge quantities of snow which then falls in abundance onto the mountains of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.
By the end of the season, the snow averages 15m (50ft) in height, and some two-storey buildings are almost buried. As a result, Niseko is acknowledged among powder hounds to have the best snow in the world, and has won ‘Best Ski Resort, Japan’ at the World Ski Awards multiple times.
It’s a great ski resort for foodies
The cold waters of the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan surrounding Hokkaido are teeming, bringing forth stellar seafood from sea urchin to fat scallops and hairy crabs.
On land, the volcanic soils produce a bounty – the island is known for its potatoes, corn, dairy, luxuriantly marbled beef and the fragrant pork from the herb-grazing pigs of Makkari.
All of this means that Niseko has excellent access to fresh local produce. Here, Michelin-star restaurants sit alongside traditional sushiya and izakaya, modern-contemporary tapas and Aussie-style coffee shops.
The town’s onsen are perfect for an after-ski dip
Part of the Japanese après-ski ritual, onsen are indoor and outdoor pools filled with water from geothermally heated springs which average 40-42°C (104-108°F).
Separated into male and female bathhouses, guests are required to shower before entering au naturel. There are some rules to observe in Japan’s onsen: no clothes, no phones and no tattoos – though some have relaxed rules regarding tattoos in recent years.
Embracing the onsen tradition post-piste means no aches and pains, as the therapeutic waters soothe both muscle and mind.
Skiing and snowboarding in Niseko
With three gondolas, 31 lifts and just under 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares) of groomed runs, Niseko is a powder paradise – be it for beginner, intermediate or expert powder hounds. There’s also an extensive night-skiing course.
The backcountry ski area, which is accessed through nine gates situated across the resorts, is almost equal to the groomed runs, making it the off-piste pilgrimage for many professional skiers and snowboarders across the world. It is imperative that those on-mountain observe the Niseko Rules at all times.
Getting to know the mountain with an instructor (at least on the first day) is highly recommended. Every resort has multiple ski schools offering private, group and kids’ ski and snowboard lessons – language isn’t a problem as instructors come from the world over, speaking English, Mandarin, Japanese, French and Russian. Group lessons average ¥11,000 (£76) per day, while full ski-gear rental – which includes skis/snowboard, poles, trousers, jacket and helmet – costs about ¥9,000-11,000 (£62.40-76) per adult per day, depending on the length of your stay.
The four resorts of Mount Annupuri are accessible through the Niseko All Mountain Pass, which costs about ¥8,000 (£55.50) per adult per day, or ¥28,100 (£195) for four consecutive days. The pass also gives complimentary rides on the Niseko United Shuttle Bus.
Relax and warm up in Niseko’s onsen
The onsen or hot springs experience is not to be missed, and some seasoned Niseko-goers visit up to three times a day, never once bathing in their own hotel rooms. The higher-end stays normally have private, in-apartment onsen, while other properties such as The Hilton Niseko Village, Niseko Prince Hotel Hirafutei and Yugokorotei in Annupuri are open to the public.
Standalone onsen such as Iroha in Annupuri, Yukichichibu in Chisenupuri, Koikawa in Annupuri and Kira No Yu in Kutchan are also worth a dip, costing between ¥500-1,000 (£3.50-7) per entry for adults, with children under the age of 12 at half price – towels and toiletries are provided.
Alternative winter activities in Niseko
When not traversing the mountain, eating or relaxing in the onsen, snow-shoeing is an excellent way to explore Niseko – organise a guide to take you on a hike through the snowy forest to the frozen Half-Moon Lake, where you’ll enjoy not just the spectacular view and serenity of nature, but also stunning photo opportunities. Alternatively, try reindeer-sledding, snowmobiling or snow rafting.
Consider taking a day trip to the seaside town of Otaru via the Nikka Yoichi Distillery, which is a great place to shop for souvenirs – the award-winning single-malt brand was born in Hokkaido 85 years ago, and some would consider it a crime not to pick up a bottle or two. While in Otaru, stroll alongside its historic canal, visit the Music Box Museum and partake in confectionary at one of the cute cafés along Sakaimachidori.
A more relaxing day can be had with some yoga at Powder Yoga, visiting the Hilton Spa for a shiatsu massage, or heading out to Kutchan for café and museum hopping.
The produce in Niseko is of such good quality that, on busy ski days, you may wish to make your own breakfast from bread, fruit and dairy sourced from the local grocers.
For a quick coffee run, the counter inside the Rhythm store at the main Hirafu intersection makes a great cuppa. And if there’s time to linger over breakfast, Hirafu’s Green Farm Cafe and Koko offer sweet and savoury western food such as eggs, pancakes and fry-ups, as well as good coffee. Open from 11am, Guzu-guzu’s decadent dutch babies (large American popover-pancakes) are an indulgent ‘rest-day’ treat for brunch.
On-mountain lunch spots worth trying include rustic Boyo-So, a wooden hut serving hearty Japanese donburi on the Hirafu slopes, and The Lookout Cafe for exquisite mountaintop views at Niseko Village.
Many ski-in, ski-out places also offer quick and delicious meals, from Singaporean fare at Roketto, to Japanese and Southeast Asian at The Village, and the extremely popular crab ramen at Hanazono Edge.
Off-mountain, check out Annupuri’s Rakuichi – the 12-seater sobadokoro (soba restaurant) is a must-try. In Hirafu, Niseko Ramen Kazahana serves some of the best Hokkaido-style ramen in the area. There’s also Italian-Japanese fare at Somoza Gallery, housed in a 100-year-old kominka building deep in the forests of Annupuri.
In 2012, The Michelin Guide awarded Kamimura restaurant one star, and it is still the ultimate dinner splurge while in Niseko. A more casual option is the all-new Kitchen, which is also managed by Kamimura. Indeed, an excess of fabulous restaurants are spread across Niseko, some which need to be booked months in advance.
For authentic Napoli-style pizzas using fresh local produce, don’t miss Del Sole in Annupuri – it’s small, so expect to wait. Ezo Seafoods in Hirafu is a must for stunningly fresh local seafood, cooked (or not) to allow the freshness to shine. Authentic izakaya Ebisutei is great for grazing over a selection of local dishes and sake, and warming up with a ‘genghis khan’ (lamb) barbecue at Niseko Soan is always a good idea.
Meanwhile Kutchan town’s casual restaurants are worth exploring for something a little further off the beaten track – Yakitori Torimatsu and Jungle Brothers are amongst these.
Pro-tip: Dining in Kutchan is cheaper than dining at the main Niseko resort areas.
Watering holes abound in Niseko, with an impressive selection of bars and pubs to suit different tastes. In Annupuri, enjoy casual beers at Back Door or compare homebrews at Niseko Brewing. At Niseko Village, sip craft cocktails while slope-side gazing by the fireplace at Tomioka White, or have a lager at Ezo Pub.
Listen to jazz greats while quaffing local single malts at the extremely Instagrammable Bar Gyu+ in Hirafu, or dress up for fine wine at The Barn by Odin. Downtown in Kutchan, pop into Boroya for natural wines and Sakebar Sasa for a specialist selection of local sake, whisky and shochu spirit. And of course, a paper cup of steaming mulled wine from the food trucks near the Hirafu intersection in -12°C (10°F) chill is simple, but incredibly satisfying.
Niseko is comprised of the ski resorts which flank the 1,308-m (4,291-ft) Mount Niseko Annupuri. Its four primary areas are Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village, Annupuri and Hanazono, which are collectively known as Niseko United.
Wherever you choose to stay, learn the lay of the land with the mountain map, and always be on the lookout for majestic Mount Yotei, an active volcano also known as the ‘Fuji of Hokkaido’, on clear days.
Buzzing Hirafu has a grand scale of accommodation options for every type of visitor, from budget to traditional, and from self-catering to over-the-top slope-side behemoths with every luxury imaginable. It is also here that the most popular bars and restaurants in Niseko are situated. Be aware that all this means that while Hirafu is convenient and exciting, its slopes are often crowded.
On the northeastern face of the mountain, serene Hanazono is known for its exciting runs through silver birches and wide powder bowls.
There is only one place to stay at the base, and that is the luxurious Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono, a ski-in, ski-out hotel with ski valet, which opened in January 2020. There are also a handful of inns and self-catering chalets in the vicinity.
To the west, Niseko Village has a collection of sophisticated ski-in, ski-out properties, a dairy-farm/bakery of almost cult-status called Takahashi Farm Milk Kobo, and a reindeer named Rudolph pulling riders on a sled.
The runs here are tighter and more challenging, with quirky names such as Snorkel (snow so deep you need a…), Banzai and Miso Shiru.
South-facing Niseko Annupuri is the most quaint of the ski resorts in Niseko, with a handful of very good restaurants, and a smattering of ryokan, lodges and luxury apartments. The quiet, wide slopes here are perfect for beginners as well as skiers who are looking for a more peaceful trip. Those who want to be in the thick of alpine wilderness will revel in these surroundings and scenery.
Finally, the lesser-known Niseko Moiwa Ski Resort is located on the neighbouring Mount Moiwa, west of Niseko Annupuri. Known as a ‘one-resort’ mountain, it is pretty and quiet now, but there are big plans afoot to expand not just the ski area, but also to add the first on-mountain residences by the uber-exclusive Aman brand – opening in 2023.
Hokkaido is a one-and-a-half hour flight from Tokyo, but for those coming from further afield, airlines fly direct to Hokkaido from cities such as Sydney, Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.
Niseko is 120km (75 miles) from Hokkaido’s New Chitose Airport and is easily accessed via the hourly Hokkaido Resort Liner and White liner mountain shuttle buses. The fare is under ¥4,100 (£28.50) per person, per journey, but book in advance online as seats tend to be in high demand. Once at Niseko, the buses stop at each ski resort, where your accommodation provider can make arrangements for you to be picked up.
Private taxis are also available from New Chitose Airport, as are airport taxis, which range in price from ¥33,000-40,000 (£229-277.50) per way. Driving a rental car is also an option, with rates averaging ¥10,000 (£69.40) per day.
Alternatively, you can choose to travel by rail from the airport or Sapporo (the capital of Hokkaido) to Kutchan Station, the main stop for trains servicing the Niseko area. From there, make arrangements for your hotel to pick you up, or hop on the Niseko United shuttle bus to the stop closest to where you are staying.
Journeys by road take about two hours, while rail will take three.
Once at Niseko, the scheduled Niseko United Shuttle Bus runs from 7.40am to just past 10pm and is an affordable way to see all sides of the mountain. Otherwise, the costlier car rental and private taxis are the way to go. Some of the fancier restaurants also offer complimentary pick-up service for dinner – don’t be afraid to ask.
Teeming with people in peak season, Seicomart at the Hirafu intersection is the mountain go-to for everything from wine to ice cream, fruit and cereal. The Gorilla Supermarket and Sapporo Drug Store (don’t mistake this for a pharmacy) offer similar groceries in a less frenzied atmosphere.
Focus at The Maples and Niseko Physio offer physiotherapy services and The Niseko International Clinic is located on Route 343 close to Hirafu.
Kutchan town also has a few huge supermarkets (Lucky is a favourite), petrol stations, pharmacies and numerous clinics.
Pro tip: Temperatures in the winter season range from 0-11°C (32-52°F), so thermal wear such as Heattech clothing, insulated waterproof gloves, warm hats and water-resistant shoes with good grip are essential. And don’t forget travel insurance, especially when partaking in winter sports.