Growing up skiing in the Austrian alps I admit that I was somewhat cynical about the prospect of skiing in Japan for the first time. In my judgemental mind sushi couldn’t replace fondue and the northern most island of Hokkaido would provide no competition for the beautiful Tyrolean mountains.
I have since quite literally eaten my words and now act as one of Niseko’s main unofficial ambassadors, positively imploring all ski lovers I know to visit there at least once. Based off my love of the resort, multiple return visits and intense desire to spread the word, I have put together my ultimate Niseko guide, starting with why you really have to go there.
Why to visit
I’m OCD about some things, lists being one of them, so there is no better way of presenting this compelling information than in a well structured bullet point list. Enjoy:
- Primarily, the powder. A combination of unique factors linked in someway to Siberian winds means that the snow in Niseko is unlike that anywhere else in the world. It’s incredibly soft and almost impossible to hard press meaning hours of knee deep powder without having to deal with the inevitable build up of icy crusted moguls that follow snowfall elsewhere
- The quantity of powder. It’s not just how good it is to ski (or board on) but how much of it there is. With an incredibly reliable amount of snowfall (albeit over a short Jan-March season) there’s no risk of exposed rock slopes here
- The people. No gruff bearded lift-men or annoying tourists cutting you up on the slopes. Japanese civility and graciousness reigns supreme
- The food. The Japanese are famed for a range of inconceivably delicious foods but here in Niseko the food is all local, drawing on the incredible produce reared right there on Hokkaido itself. And the restaurants, let’s just say you have to book months in advance for some, they are that good
- The après ski. But not as you know it. You too will learn that bathing in a natural onsen is a far more worthwhile way to spend an afternoon that singing German beer songs surrounded by rowdy drunkards
- Did I mention the snow? And the food?!
The best way to get here is to fly into Sapporo Chitose airport (an exceptional airport with essentially a whole shopping mall attached to it if you find yourself with time to spare). From the airport you can either book onto one of the many coaches which regularly shuttle visitors into the resort – I recommend the Hokkaido Resort Liner or if there are enough of you, it might be worth booking a taxi which saves having to wait around for the scheduled bus departure, although they are pretty frequent in peak season.
Niseko itself is actually made up of four villages; Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu, Hanazano and Annupuri, each of which has its own independently run but linked ski area. The ski pass can give you access to all zones but I recommend, no I insist, on you staying in Grand Hirafu. This is the main hub where most of the onsen, bars, restaurants and amenities are and it’s only by staying here that you will get the full Niseko experience.
Despite the well developed technology in the resort; electronic ski passes, complicated loos and the like, there are very few ways of accessing cash and very few restaurants accept card payments so take more cash than you ever think you might need and pay on card whenever you get the opportunity. Niseko is expensive, even by Swiss standards but when you’re there, despite any resolutions before going, you will be suckered into the mindset and spend more than you anticipate so at least go prepared.
English is widely spoken, mainly due to the popularity of the resort amongst Australians. Polite as they are, sharing your hotel with a coach load of Ozzie students may not be your thing so try and avoid going at key Australian travel times. Likewise avoid Chinese New Year when expats from all over Asia take to the slopes, ramping up prices and clogging up lifts.
And finally, go prepared. Restaurants book out in advance and other things sell out so get planning. But of course, you already are, that’s why you’re reading this nifty Niseko guide. You clever thing…
Where to Stay
OK, so a relative newcomer to the ski scene Niseko isn’t famed for its wide range of luxury accommodation options. I can point you in three main directions though depending on what you’re looking for.
- For the ultimate in boutique luxury. Head to Niseko’s only Design Hotels approved property Kimamaya. Read my full review here but suffice to say it is incredibly luxurious, perfectly located and its design and architecture along with service, are second to none. With only nine bedrooms it books out in advance so be keen and if you like space, go for one of their inspiring loft rooms.
- For hotel standards but a lower price tag. There is only really one option in Niseko but it isn’t a bad one; The Vale. With a location right off the baby slope, it’s modern, convenient and stylish and a great option if you are looking for something fun and practical for only two of you.
- For style conscious groups. There are numerous chalet type options in Niseko; apartments sleeping upwards of 4 people dotted around the village and offering a range of styles and standards. For true luxury opt for the Yasuragi apartments which are unrivalled in design. For a wider range contact some of the agents in the area who can let you know what’s available. Try here and here.
Keep in mind that the lifts are located at the very top of the resort, the restaurants in the middle and most accommodation in the lower section. The streets are narrow, relatively steep and often icy so you ideally want to be near a ski bus stop to hop on the free shuttle around the resort but as this can be crowded, the best is if you stay somewhere with a free drop off and pick up service.
What to Do
Maybe that’s a silly title for this section as the obvious answer is to ski. So let’s start with that.
Buy an all mountain pass which allows you to ski in all four areas as you will get bored otherwise. Start off by exploring the slopes themselves but then if you’re more experienced delve into the surrounding gates and the off piste terrain they give you access to, and all the glorious virgin powder that involves. But pay attention to boundaries and signs; closed off areas are seriously perilous. Rent your skis from Rhythm which has experienced assistants and a range of beginner and performance equipment.
Definitely try out night skiing early on in your trip as you’ll inevitably be hooked. As the slopes stay open till late but it gets dark relatively early the resort floodlights an impressive amount of slopes. Creating a magical experience and less crowded skiing this is the perfect time of day to ski. I would advise heading off the slopes for an hour or two in twilight hours to regain strength; possibly indulging in a coffee and crepe from the popular Niseko Supply Company.
On the nights you don’t ski, I implore you to try out the many onsen. There can be no better cure for mountain wearied muscles than bathing in natural baths of hot, mineral rich water. Read up on your onsen etiquette first as they’re pretty strict on protocol but otherwise let go of your inhibitions and spend an evening bathing with a view of snow covered mountains. The most popular onsen is the public one at Yukuro which is also the cheapest. But it is often swarming with Westerners which may ruin the romance a bit. If you’re looking for a bit more authenticity then check out the in hotel options here or here.
Where to Eat
Wow, the food! I’m a foodie at heart and love trying new places but Niseko is the one place I would go back to again, and again, and again for the food. I have tested out most restaurants and this is my pick of the unmissable ones for dinner:
- Ezo Seafood. Book online as far in advance as you can as this has to be the most famous place in Niseko. Serving up impossibly fresh local seafood it has a great atmosphere, a good wine selection but most importantly, a counter where you choose your dinner for the night based off that day’s fresh fish selection. Choose sushi, squid or a number of other delights but don’t miss their King Crab legs. The most delicious and flavoursome crab you will ever eat.
- Abucha-2. A raucous izakaya serving up a wide ranging menu this is the perfect place for groups where you can sample a whole host of Japanese foods such as shabu shabu (hotpot), sushi, yakitori, rice bowls and more.
- Rakuichi, located out of town, this tiny restaurant run by a husband and wife team can only seat 10 people per night. They serve up a set menu of utterly divine food, the highlight of which are the homemade soba noodles which you can see being prepared in front of you from your bar stool seats.
- Hurry Slowly. Another kaiseki (set menu) place serving up seasonal goods in a very intimate cosy environment.
- Rin is another local favourite serving up predominantly chicken skewers in a relaxed environment.
- Be prepared to smell as you leave Saika, a joint specialised in yakitori grilled over an open grill in front of the dining area. A small, cosy restaurant with delicious food and charming service it’s hearty dining after a long day skiing.
- The Barn. Whilst I love sticking to Japanese food when in Niseko, sometimes you’ll find yourself craving more familiar Western flavours. For a great atmosphere and reliable, tasty food head to The Barn which adjoins Kimamaya hotel. The other option is Niseko’s only Michelin starred offering, Kamimura, which is phenomenal but pricey, even by Niseko’s standards.
- Some other reliable ones if you struggle getting tables at the above include Ebisu-tei where the more adventurous can try horse sashimi, Bang Bang, another cosy but lively izakaya and Niseko Ramen Fuka which is super casual and walk in only but utterly slurpable in terms of the quality of ramen on offer.
Lunch is best grabbed on the mountain and my favourite places are as follows:
- For authentic Japanese mountainside dining – Boyo-So – no reservations, found at the top of Holiday Pair Lift and serving up great sushi bowls, ramen, pints of beer and a delightful filling katsu curry. All on communal indoor tables centring around a wood burning stove to warm your iced gloves on.
- For sushi. Stop into the sushi restaurant Shokusai Hirafu in the basement of the Niseko Alpine Hotel for the best lunch time sushi and sashimi in town, plus some great tempura as part of their lunch set menu.
- For convenient on the go food. Stop into the cool looking Niseko Lookout Café at the top of Niseko Village. The food is so-so but the location and views are spot on for a quick refuelling on the slopes
- The mountain huts provide a convenient place to stop for a hot chocolate and snack although I have never sampled their lunch time offerings
And as for bars, there is no shortage in Hirafu with some rowdy ones filled with Ozzie backpackers who know how to party, classier affairs found in The Barn and numerous pub options. The one worthy of its own mention is Gyu Bar. Otherwise known as the fridge door bar as it is subtly hidden behind, no surprises, an old fridge door, so much so that you wouldn’t find it unless you were looking for it. Get there early (Niseko isn’t a late night resort anyway) as when it’s full it’s full but settle yourself in for some fantastic drinks (sake, whisky and wonderfully warming cocktails including the Hot Buttered Rum, my personal favourite) and great atmosphere.
So, there you have it. A pretty comprehensive guide to Niseko. Now you have absolutely no excuse not to go…and please, take me…