The freezing wind’s howl was deafening, and it blasted my face with ice, sharp as needles, which penetrated deep into my skin. My friends Ken and JD are with me, huddled up together, hoods covering their helmets, not looking any better than I am and probably feeling the same.
The chairlift finally reached the top, and we quickly meandered our way to the left of the slope while pushing through the strong wind; As we gazed up, we realized exactly the reason we flew halfway around the world to brave the elements and suffer such conditions.
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The peaks are blanked in ethereal white, covered in that deep champagne powder we call Japow. All our pains seem to have subsided, and we are thrust into a winter wonderland we have always dreamed of.
Together we float down in excitement yelling at the top of our lungs on a short run covered in dry fluffy white dust; then we ride the lift back up only to find that in the ten minutes we spent on the seat, crisp filtering of new snow has covered our previous tracks!
Welcome to Hokkaido, one of the snowiest places on Earth
It snows continuously and there’s always fresh untouched powder everywhere.
Why come here to ski or ride?
The Niseko ski resort in Hokkaido is a well-known resort among Powderhounds. The promise of deep powder is excessively alluring. The month of December has daily snow and continues to January with maybe two bluebird days in between. In February, it slows a down but still dumps plenty of snow. By then the base is at the peak, and there is plenty of good riding for the Powder snob. You could bounce on pillows and jump on fluffy covered platforms like a Mario Brothers video game.
While the terrain in Niseko isn’t the gnarliest (especially compared to North American Ski resorts) but it has by far the best powder, best slack country (easily accessible backcountry) compared to other resorts in Japan.
What type of skier or rider are you?
Niseko is more suited to skiers and boarders of beginner and intermediate skill levels. There are many groomed runs if that’s your thing, but even these get a heavy dusting of snow, and soon you’ll find yourself floating on and surfing on the groomers.
It’s all about the powder in Niseko, and it has great off-piste riding/skiing
Thankfully they’re not as restrictive as Hakuba when it comes off-piste and out-of-bounds riding. The tree skiing is amazing, but you’ll soon find you only have until noon before it gets tracked out by other skiers; It can get very crowded here. Fair weather riders probably won’t like Niseko as bluebird days are few – the Sun rarely shines here, and it’s always snowing! Want to get a tan? Try Hakuba instead.
Advanced riders will probably frown at the mellow terrain, but they will find no other place with consistent powder; they will have to look a little harder for an adrenaline rush, but it can be found off-piste
The Best of Both Worlds
Niseko is something between a full-blown destination resort and a laid-back local’s hill like Sierra at Tahoe in California, and it’s technically four separate resorts called Niseko United and is interconnected: An’nupuri; Higashiyama Village (Niseko Village); Hirafu; and Hanazono. There’s a separate resort, Moiwa, but it’s also connected by a lift.
Where is it and how do you get there?
Niseko is located in the second-largest island of Japan, Hokkaido, which lies 100km southwest of Sapporo and is near Mt Yōtei (the “Mt. Fuji of Hokkaido”) a perfect area to capture all the snow.
You can reach Niseko by flying to New-Chitose International Airport from Tokyo or Osaka, and by ferry (not recommended) to Sapporo. From there you can take a shuttle bus either from Sapporo or the airport. It’s better if you book the shuttle in advance: Niseko airport shuttle or you can buy a package that includes shuttle service.
What else to do there?
Niseko has better nightlife and choices of restaurants than other ski resorts in Japan. I thought it was a little more expensive compared to Hakuba as Niseko caters to western tourist and not locals.
There are restaurants all over the place, and some are westernized, offering fares such as burgers, fries, pizza, fish & chips, you name it. There are also local restaurants offering Hokkaido specific dishes such as crab miso ramen, but I wouldn’t recommend you order it, it’s $25 a bowl!
All this is centered on Hirafu village known for the vibrant nightlife that Niseko is famous for. I was wary from the few rowdy Aussies (and Chinese) wandering and yelling about late at night, but if you can’t beat them join em; Or simply run off to a quieter area like An’nupuri, Niseko Village, and Hanazono.
Where to stay?
Niseko has many accommodation options, and they include pensions, lodges, apartments, hostels, and hotels. It doesn’t matter which village you stay in because there’s a bus that connects the communities. I recommend using Airbnb to book options outside of Hirafu village with the most expensive accommodations. Buy the right lift ticket package as some will include the bus fares.
What about other skiing/riding close by?
Fresh tracks often disappear by noon, but there are lots of other places and activities to score your powder fix. You can take a side country tour, earn your turns at one of the many backcountry areas, or even try your hand at heli-skiing. You can also climb Mt. Yohtei if you want but bring an experienced backcountry partner with avalanche gear.
What’s the culture like?
It’s very westernized; I thought I was in Australia the time I was there. It’s much easier for English-speaking travelers compared to Hakuba, which could be a bad or good thing depending on your preference. English is spoken by most of the staff at the accommodations and restaurants, signs around the resort are in both English and Japanese, and restaurants have English menus.
The westernization has led to it being not as cheap or unique as other Japanese ski resorts, if you’re looking for culture and cheap, go the Hakuba instead. Overall I’d say I had to make more effort to earn our turns.
I either had to get up to the hills early for easy freshies or do a short hike up the peak of Mt Annupuri which provided the longest powder runs in Niseko, the main resort areas are busy, and there’s one-man chairlift at the top of the ski fields and usually have enough powder which gets tracked out by noon.
We had a great time making lines on awesome JAPOW in Niseko, but I still prefer Hakuba both for the quality of the terrain and not-so westernized culture.
POWder your nose at Niseko:
Niseko is on the island of Hokkaido. You can get there by ferry, but the best way to get there is taking a flight from Narita Airport or Haneda to New Chitose Aiport in Sapporo. From New Chitose, you have the option of taking the train/bus/rental car/taxi/private transfers. I recommend you take the train. If you have the Japan Rail pass all the better.
The tiered pricing on the lift tickets is reasonable. You can buy lift tickets for how many hours or days you spend on the mountain. Take a look here for the Niseko United, and Hanazono & Grand Hirafu lift.
Costs? Niseko is a touristy place. Aussies flock here in droves during winter. Prices are comparable to western prices. It’s relatively more expensive than Hakuba. Still, it’s not as bad as my home state of California.