Lauded for its deep, featherlight snow, Niseko is Japan’s powder capital – a winter wonderland renowned not just for its snow activities, but also for its exciting food and drinks scene. Whether it’s your first time or you’re back for more, here are the ins and outs of a ski holiday in Niseko.
The ski resorts are open from December to April, but go too early and you might miss out on the epic snow dumps that Niseko is known for. Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Chinese New Year are the peak periods, which means higher costs and many more people. Our advice? Go between mid-February and the end of March, when the snow is plentiful but the crowds and rates have eased. The temperatures average a low of -11C (12F) to a high of -1C (30F) in February, with March a degree or two warmer.
Our preferred mode of transportation from Hokkaido’s New Chitose Airport to Niseko is by the mountain coaches, they are easy to book online, reasonably priced and convenient to get to – you don’t have to leave the airport or lug your bags far (no fun in subzero temperatures). The journey up the mountain takes two hours, with a toilet stop in-between.
The four ski resorts in Niseko offer several stays to consider. Hirafu is great for an energetic and mobile group of friends, as Niseko’s highest concentration of restaurants and bars are here. Accommodation runs the gamut from boutique ski-in, ski-out properties to standalone luxury chalets with a concierge (for restaurant bookings, rentals, trips) such as those by The Luxe Nomad, as well as more affordable apartments and hostels.
For families, especially those on their first trip, one of the ski-in, ski-out properties at Niseko Village will provide a great introduction for all. There’s a lot less headache if you can step from your hotel straight out onto the slopes – no lugging of kids, ski gear and other paraphernalia over ice-slick streets. This area also has a small shopping street and a number of restaurants close by.
For experts looking for great tree runs, Hanazono is a great place to be – the area boasts a sparkling new Park Hyatt, the only hotel there. On the opposite side of the mountain to Hanazono, the Annupuri ski area is perfect for those who prefer a more serene, authentic experience. Here, log izakayas (bars serving drinks and snacks), ryokan (inns) and soba noodle shops sparsely dot the landscape, among the birch forests.
The first time on the mountain is always daunting, so shell out for a group ski lesson or mountain guide on the first day. Ski instructors also share invaluable onsite tips and favourite runs that will greatly help improve your skill levels and confidence to later navigate the mountain on your own.
Queuing for the ski lifts and being out on crowded slopes is no one’s idea of fun. Try bucking the schedule by going out before breakfast, coming back when the post-breakfast crowd descends, then going out again when they disperse for lunch. Niseko also has an extensive night-skiing course, which means you can try your hand at night-skiing when the crowds retire for the onsen and après. Get your ski passes online for immediate access and cheaper rates.
Visiting an onsen (a bathhouse fed by geothermal springs) is a ritual ingrained in Japanese culture. Some find it harder to embrace because visitors have to be fully naked, while sharing the bathhouse with others of the same gender, but it’s an incredibly relaxing experience once you get over any initial reservations. Some onsens have outdoor rock pools with spectacular views to enjoy as you sit in the tranquil waters, while others are more sterile indoor baths. Whichever your choice, respect the tradition by never dipping towels into the onsen and not taking your mobile phone in. Quieter times are early mornings, post-lunch and after dinner.
Niseko is located in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. The volcanic soils produce a bounty, while the seafood here is among the world’s best. Hokkaido’s food attracts visitors from across the globe, and in the winter it seems they all congregate at Niseko, with some of the top restaurants filling up months in advance. Some book their dining options even before they book tickets or accommodation; reservations can be made directly on restaurant websites with a credit card to guarantee. Alternatively, buck the trend and explore restaurants that don’t take bookings at all – from the food trucks in Hirafu, to ramen shacks, yakitori (skewered meat) and shabu-shabu (hot pot) restaurants.
Not a skier, or need a day off the slopes? It’s OK, there’s tonnes to see, eat and do in Niseko. Here’s a sample itinerary for a day.
Sleep in and enjoy coffee in bed as you gaze out at the snow, then go for brunch at one of the quaint cafés before taking the Niseko United Shuttle Bus to Kutchan town. There you can spend the afternoon shopping and visiting the Shu Ogawara Museum of Art and Natural History Museum. Unwind with an onsen soak and shiatsu massage come evening, before heading to Hirafu’s iconic Toshiro’s Bar for a drink before dinner. Other activities worth exploring are snowshoeing, cooking classes, snowmobiling, reindeer-sledding, exploring the beautiful Somoza Gallery, a visit to the award-winning Nikka whisky distillery and day trips to the seaside town of Otaru.
Wearing waterproof gloves, jackets and boots with good grip will ensure you stay warm in the cold air. Thermal clothes, a warm hat and of course travel insurance are also recommended for a stay in Niseko.