I’ve heard so much about Niseko, one of the mountain ranges of Japan known for it’s powdery snow and friendliness to foreigners. I visited for the first time earlier this year and it definitely left a positive impression. Here’s my beginner’s guide to tackling Niseko along with highlights of the trip. Note that this is just a summary and blog-oriented opinion from a first timer’s trip to Niseko – for a comprehensive travel guide, try using Japan Guide which was an absolute lifesaver for planning my trip.
Your closest airport is the New Chitose airport at Sapporo. There are a whole bunch of buses which go from the airport and from Sapporo city direct to Niseko, but they typically leave first thing in the morning (anywhere from 7:30-9am, depending on your pick up location), so unless you’re flying in at some insanely early time, you’re best off staying a night at Sapporo and then taking the bus the morning after. It’s definitely worth checking out Sapporo, and if you can time it in February I’d highly recommend checking out the Sapporo Snow Festival.
Remote toilet break on the bus ride. Nothing here but the overpriced tourist shop
A direct bus to Niseko will take roughly 3 hours depending on where you’re staying. I booked a bus through White Season Good Sports as they had the cheapest prices and also had a good range of pick up locations within Sapporo city. They’ve also got a discount if you book online! It was really easy to use, but make sure to bring along water and snacks as your one toilet break will be at a remote information centre with a limited variety of overpriced tourist goods.
The main drop off point will be at the Grand Hirafu Welcome Centre. From here most accommodations will organise a shuttle bus to come pick you up. If your accommodation forgets (like mine did), there’s a free phone and WiFi inside which you can use to make contact.
Once you get to Niseko, you’ll need to choose which mountain base is best for you. Niseko is a massive ski resort made up of several mountain bases. They all join up at the top, so it’s possible to ski across all the resorts on the same ski pass and to experience a different run everyday. There are three main resorts/village bases:
Source: Japan Guide, http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6720.html
- Grand Hirafu
- Niseko Village
Grand Hirafu is the biggest of the three villages and comprises of an ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ village areas. It’s also the main bus destination, housing the Niseko Welcome Centre, and most transfers will happen here. It’s pretty high tech, with heated roads and foot paths (no slipping, yay!) and there’s a whole range of accommodation and restaurants scattered throughout. Staying at the upper village is the most convenient to the chair lifts (0-5 minutes walk) but also the most pricey. The walk from the lower village isn’t too bad, albeit uphill, but if you live on the outskirts there is also a shuttle bus (not sure about the frequency of this though). If you’re into a variety of entertainment, bars, restaurants and nightlife, this is the place to be. I stayed at the upper village and loved the convenience!
The few hours of blue sky we saw (with Mt. Yotei in the background). Also check those heated roads and foot paths!
The ski runs at Grand Hirafu are long and varied, and there is a good variety for beginners to advanced. It also connects directly to Hanazono (another ski base), which is a much easier mountain, containing nice, long green runs. I liked the variety here and the highest proportion of foreigners are here, so if you don’t speak a word of Japanese you’ll be fine here.
Picture perfect fluffy snow! But the higher up you get, the foggier it gets (ie. poor visibility)
The next closest village is Niseko Village. There isn’t much here other than the Hilton Hotel – everything else is a bit far to walk for my liking, so I didn’t end up checking it out. Hilton Hotel offers some nice dining options though including a sushi buffet and bistro, and they have the nicest toilets you can publicly use, so it’s a pretty nice pit stop if you end up skiing down the Niseko Village mountain. There is a mini touristy type village next to Hilton Hotel with a few restaurants – I’d avoid them as they are exorbitantly expensive and purposely built for tourists.
The ski runs at Niseko Village are narrower and the mountain itself is a lot smaller. There are less beginner runs here, and it’s easy to exhaust the runs here quickly.
(L) Night skiing with the thermometer reading -13°C. PS I’m wearing a brown beanie…it’s covered in snow
(R) So much snow we couldn’t even open our window. But at least we get a natural bar fridge
Further west lies Annupuri, which is the least touristy village of the three (a lot more local Japanese people are here). Aside from the resort restaurant at the base, you’ll need to walk quite a bit to reach any other restaurants, and most buildings here are accommodation options.
Annupuri’s mountain runs are the most beginner friendly – most are green and are really wide, flat and cruisy. Not recommended for the advanced snow bunnies who are looking for a challenge, except at the very top of the mountain where it’s a double black.
The mountains light up for night skiing
Over the course of the week, I ate most of my meals at Grand Hirafu Village, with the exception of two meals (one at Hilton Hotel and one at Rakuichi Soba at Annupuri). There are a few restaurants on the various ski mountains, however they’re all really expensive, so you’re better off heading back to the villages during the day to eat lunch. Here are some of the more memorable meals I enjoyed:
Abucha 2 (Second)
Hokkaido Beef Shabu Shabu (hot pot) – ¥6,300 (2 people)
Hot pot is a perfect meal for winter weather! Hokkaido beef is pretty pricey but the quality is also top notch – the marbling is incredible and the beef is so tender it basically melts in your mouth. There are two dipping sauces provided, yuzu and sesame (the latter is so much tastier IMO) and also some vegetables. For two hungry travelling guys, the portions weren’t really enough but we also ordered a side serving of udon noodles to eat with the beef, which was delicious. This place is packed and on our first attempt to go, there was a wait of 45 mins which we rejected (way too long when it’s freezing and you’re hungry). On the second night we went much earlier (around 6pm). I’d recommend you either book or avoid the 6:30-8:30pm dinner period.
Hotel Niseko Alpen
Kaisen Don – ~¥1,500+
This restaurant is a Japanese sushi restaurant located on the bottom floor of the Hotel Niseko Alpen (I don’t remember what it’s called). For lunch, they’ve got great value seafood lunch bowls (kaisen don), featuring a whole range of sashimi on a bed of rice. The cheapest is ¥1,500 which is pretty cheap for seafood. They can get up to ¥4,000+ if you start ordering the really expensive stuff such as sea urchin, but my bowl (pictured) was pretty standard and cost around ¥2,000.
Potato Ramen – ¥980
Another winter favourite food is ramen – hot noodles in a rich broth, who could say no! There’s a different type of ramen at Hirafu called ‘Potato Ramen’. It consists of a standard miso ramen which is topped with a creamy and fluffy potato foam which sits lightly on top. There’s two ways of eating it – the first is to pick up the ramen and have the foam just run throughout the noodles and the second is to mix the foam into the noodles. I tried the first tactic a few times before mixing it through, and the former method of leaving the foam unmixed is so much better. When picking up the noodles, it also scoops up foams which intertwines between the ramen noodles, making it extra creamy when eaten. The foam also traps the soup heat within the bowl, so it’s a super hearty meal that matches the snowy weather. Ramen is also one of the cheaper meals you can eat at Hirafu!
Whilst staying at Hirafu Upper Village, I managed to visit two hot springs (aka ‘onsen’). For some reason, I imagined an outdoor hot spring to be sitting amongst the pristine snow with mountain views. Unfortunately my perception was very far from reality.
Hot springs are split by gender and will typically be housed inside a hotel or resort, with most open to guests for a small fee. There is usually an inside area that looks like a giant tiled or stone paved room, and then an outdoor section which is fenced off completely for privacy. There are also no scenic views (bummer!).
They all follow the basic rules of requiring everyone to strip down completely (no swimsuits) and to shower yourself before soaking in the hot spring. Tattoos are frowned upon (it’s symbolic of the Yakuza), but they seem a lot more relaxed at Niseko due to the number of foreigners. Towels can be provided for an extra fee, but if you BYO towel you can save some extra coin (~¥400). These are the hot springs I went to:
- The Vale Niseko – a classy hotel offering probably the most upmarket onsen. It’s black and slick looking inside, and will set you back ¥1,200. Their washrooms also have Aesop products – apply away!
- Chalet Ivy – OK so technically this one isn’t open to the public and is a private hotel. but I knew someone staying there. Towels here are also provided since it’s private.
- Expect expensive accommodation. Even the cheap options (hostels, lodges) are pretty expensive for what you get and will be more expensive than Tokyo city, but consider that winter is their peak season
- Book your accommodation way ahead (no later than November). The availability will be very scarce by November (I learnt that the hard way), and most properties still available then will most likely be the high end hotels and serviced apartments
- It’s extremely cold, so pack warmly. Whilst I was there in February, it averaged -8c, got as warm as -5c and as cold as -15c. It can also get very windy at the top of the mountain
- Don’t expect to see much sunlight. In my 6 days there, I only saw about 3 hours of blue sky. Every other moment was cloudy, grey and snowing. On the upside, there is an abundance of fresh snow!
- Everything is more expensive here. If you need to purchase snow gear or clothing, shop at a city prior to getting to Niseko (Tokyo probably has the best range; Sapporo has some selection as well). Restaurants and convenience stores are also more expensive here – expect about a 20% mark up compared to your average Tokyo restaurant
- Restaurants are packed full during the peak dinner period (6:30-8:30pm). Try and book restaurants ahead (your hotel reception can help out), go early, or expect to wait
- Speaking Japanese is not mandatory. There is probably the highest proportion of English speakers here compared to anywhere else in Japan, but of course learning some basic phrases will be helpful
Got a question about Niseko? Ask away in the comments below 🙂