A Guide To Niseko
Japan is one of the fastest growing ski markets in the world. With plentiful snow, fantastic food and a unique culture it's popularity is well deserved. For those of you who are thinking about a trip to Japan here's a little guide to one of the most famous areas for foreign skiers, Niseko.
Niseko Ski Resorts
The Niseko group of resorts is made up of Annupuri, Hanazono, Niseko Village and Hirafu. They are situated on Mt Annupuri, with about half of the area on the mountain being inbounds trails, and the other half backcountry. Another area, Moiwa, is extremely close to Annupuri, but is not included on the Niseko United all mountain pass.
Hirafu is the largest village of the group, and is where a lot of people think of when they hear 'Niseko'. Here you can find the most restaurants, bars and western style accommodation of any of the resorts. Hirafu is a compact village broadly split into upper and lower villages, with the divider being the 343 road. In the upper village you can find the larger hotels, ski in-ski out apartments and the largest shops. In the lower village are more japanese style pensions, restaurants, bars and private houses. Some of the best restaurants are the michelin starred Kamimura, local style Izakaya, Ebisutei and the spot for fresh crab and oysters, Ezo seafoods. For bars, Bigfoot is always pumping, or stop by the tiny Barunba for their famous Jet li cocktails.
The skiing area of Grand Hirafu is also the largest of the group, with a big nightskiing area, allowing you to shred pow for a solid 12 hours a day. The lift infrastructure is a little dated in places, but is improving with the addition of a gondola a few years ago and a detachable quad this season. The downside of Hirafu is it's popularity, on powder mornings or when winds close the upper mountain, the lines can get long. The terrain is a good mix of nicely spaced trees and cut runs, highlights are Miharashi and Super ridge.
Niseko Village is actually not much of a village, there are a 2 large hotels at the base of the ski resort, and some smaller lodges set a little further back. It can be a good option if you like everything close to hand as the Hilton has a selection of restaurants, an onsen and a gondola running from right outside it's door. The inbounds skiing is a little limited, but the star of Niseko Village is definitely 'Mizuno no sawa'. This zone under the gondola is the only area on the mountain where bombs are used to control avalanches, allowing safer access to some great terrain. For food, check out the Melt buffet in the Hilton, or Milk Kobo for delicious dairy products.
Annupuri is far enough from Hirafu to feel sleepy and authentically Japanese at times. There is a little village at the base with some nice restaurants and traditional style lodges, this is also where you can find some of the best onsens in the area. Annupuri has some great slopes for beginners and intermediates, the jumbo hooded quad accesses a lovely mellow green run with a few different options on the way down. Annupuri is also popular for it's proximity to the 'back bowls', head all the way up to the top and out to the left for some epic pow runs. Food wise you can find some authentic pizza at Del Sole, feast on all you can eat Korean barbeque at Mokumokutei, or a more Japanese experience at the famous Rakuichi soba restaurant.
Hanazono is the smallest of the Niseko resorts, with hardly any accommodation at the base and just a string of 3 chairlifts, though they do access some great terrain both inbounds and in the backcountry. One classic zone in Hanazono is called 'Strawberry fields' and has deep powder mixed with great pillows and drops. At the base you can find the 308 building which offers some good food, but is often overcrowded, next door is Asperges, a fine dining restaurant which is a bit much for a ski lunch, but amazing for a dinner treat.
One of the (many) reasons Niseko has become so popular is that it allows backcountry access from the lifts, even though some other resorts in Japan don't even permit inbounds tree-skiing. Entering the backcountry from the gates dotted around the mountain is a great way to ski or board some fantastic snow. But please respect the Niseko rules and be aware that leaving the gates means leaving the ski resort, it's strongly recommended that before backcountry skiing you are educated in avalanche safety and carry your transciever, shovel and probe. It's also a good idea to take a guide for a day to orientate yourself.
A quintessential Hokkaido ski experience is chilling out in an onsen, a naturally heated hot spring bath. Many hotels in the area have one and it's a great way to relax your muscles after skiing. One of my favourites is Yugokorotei, near Annupuri, and another good option is Yukoro in the lower village of Hirafu. Onsens are typically segregated by gender, but if you're a mixed group, you can all bath together at the Niseko Grand, also in Annupuri.
To get to Niseko, the closest airport is Sapporo Chitose, which can be accessed from Europe through Tokyo or Seoul. From Chitose it's a 2 and a half hour drive to Niseko, buses, taxis and trains are available.
Written by James Winfield, a resident of Niseko for 9 winters, and a lover of powder skiing and Japanese food. transitionski and hokkaidocollective.