Whether you’re a powder hound seeking some of the lightest, driest snow in the world, or a beginner looking for a safe place to take your first turns, Niseko is a hit.
- The abundance of light, dry powder.
- The night skiing – Niseko is one of the world’s best locations for it.
- How easy it is to get around. It’s especially easy for families.
- You can ski 4 different resorts that are all interconnected and on the one Niseko United pass. This makes it Japan's biggest ski area.
- There are some great backcountry opportunities, including sidecountry access via boundary gates.
- The endless and exceptional selection of restaurants and bars.
- Niseko can be very cold – with whiteout conditions. In January it rarely sees the sun. But these factors are what makes the snow so good.
- During peak Australian school holidays (January) and Chinese New Year the resort can be extremely busy. Expect lift lines and get ready to make restaurant reservations ahead of time.
- Niseko is well and truly Westernized. Most of the visitors and many of the staff are not from Japan.
- Niseko has a vibrant nightlife. This can create late night noise and disturbances.
- In bad weather it is often not possible to use the lifts to connect between the resorts – you may have to use a shuttle bus.
Niseko is Japan’s most popular ski resort, and it has an excellent international reputation for one main reason in particular – powder, powder, powder! Depending on who you talk to, Niseko receives between 12-18 meters of snow each year and it’s some of the driest, fluffiest powder on this earth. If you stay here for a week, you’re almost guaranteed to get a powder day (if not seven of them), and a good one at that.
But beyond the snow, there are plenty of other reasons why people flock to Niseko. By Japanese standards the ski area is very big. Five resorts situated on the one mountain make up the skiable area and four are easily connected and skiable on the one ski pass (Moiwa is connected by a trail but isn't on the same pass). Additionally, out of all the major ski destinations in Japan, this would have to be the easiest to get to. After flying to Sapporo, it’s only a 2-3 hour bus ride (depending on conditions) through small Japanese villages. And thanks to its popularity, it’s also incredibly easy to get around the resort itself. However during peak hours the shuttles from lower Hirafu can fill up quickly.
Once you get off the bus you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve accidentally ended up in Australia (apart from all the snow of course). Niseko, particularly the Hirafu area, has undergone a substantial amount of development over the past two decades. High-rise buildings containing luxurious Western-style apartments have cropped up everywhere and the supermarket stocks everything from Anzac biscuits to Vegemite. Australians were the first Westerners to flock here but in recent years the resort has seen increased populartity among skiers from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and most recently from USA and Europe. It has become a wonderful melting pot of many nationalities.
This development and popularity is also what makes it all so easy. You won’t struggle with language since most people speak English (either as their first or fluent second language). Food is tailored to international taste buds and there are a ton of Western restaurants mixed in with the Westernized Japanese restaurants. Of course this westernised development does turn some people off as it's certainly not the most authentic Japanese ski experience you can have. If that is what you are after you may want to consider other resorts.
Niseko is a great resort for families. There are many ski schools with English speaking instructors and the signs around the resort and village are all in English. In contrast to the family scene, Niseko previously a reputation as a popular destination for young travellers (mainly Aussies) who come here to drink hard, be loud and play up. Fortunately this problem seems to be fading - most likely because of the rising prices of accommodation and more upscale environment.
Niseko is huge compared with other Japanese resorts. It’s actually made up of four resorts that are spread across the ridges of Mt An’nupuri (altitude 1308m). An’nupuri, Niseko Village (formerly Higashiyama), Hirafu and Hanazono ski resorts are all connected by shuttle buses at the bottom or by lifts at the top, and can all be skied on one ticket – called Niseko United. Moiwa is the fifth small resort that's not included on the pass, but still worth a day or two (partiuclarly if you want to ski the side country).
There is so much varied terrain that it’s impossible to get bored, even if you’re an advanced skier. While there isn’t a lot of steep skiing like many of the European or American resorts, there’s still a lot to keep you challenged – including tree skiing – which is allowed in most areas. We’re confident that expert skiers won’t complain after they’ve had a go skiing Jap-Pow through the Beech trees – it’s real hero skiing and an experience like nothing else. There are some steep pitches, though most of them will require a traverse out along a path or cat track to get back to the lift.
Meanwhile, there’s an abundance of intermediate skiing and good areas for beginners, with lots of easy slopes and lifts and a few kids’ snow parks. Beginners will have to use shuttle buses (rather than the lifts) if they want to move between the resorts.
Hanazono has most of the area’s freestyle terrain parks (that cater to all levels, including kids), and (usually) there’s also a half-pipe.
The night skiing at Niseko is excellent. An’nupuri, Niseko Village and Hirafu all offer night skiing, and the lights are so great it’s possible to even ski the trees (though only recommended for very advanced skiers).
The facilities on the mountain are good with heaps of lifts, including several gondolas and covered express chairlifts. In recent years there have been serveral new lifts, though most of them service beginner terrain. There are still many old, slow lifts including some classic ancient single chairlifts (commonly referred to as a pizza box) at the top of the mountain that are often closed in bad weather. You won’t go hungry on the mountain either, as there are plenty of great restaurants serving up great Japanese and Western dishes – albeit some of them very expensive for what they are.
Another good thing: the terrain doesn’t end in resort boundaries. Niseko has set the standard in Japan for opening up the boundaries to more advanced skiers and boarders looking for fresh tracks and tree skiing. At the top of the mountain there are gates that are often open to allow skiers to exit the resort into the side country. Of course, if you go through the gates you do so at your own risk as it is not controlled or patrolled. If you want to try this, make sure you’re experienced in backcountry skiing and have suitable safety equipment. The best way to experience backcountry skiing is definitely with a guide not only to help you naviagte the area but also for satefy and peace-of-mind. Scout can book a ski guide as part of your Niseko Ski Package.
There’s a huge variety of tickets to buy – you can even ski by the hour or buy points (e.g. a Gondola Ride is four points). Packages that include lift tickets can be booked via Scout. Mountain Collective passholders can get 2 days and Ikon pass holders can also ski 5-7 days depending on which pass you have.
Niseko For Families
Niseko is a great choice for families. Not only do kids under seven ski free, but it’s easy to get around and there are plenty of English speaking services as well as countless rental shops. There’s an abundance of self-catered apartments for rent and plenty of fun restaurants. Plus there are many off-snow activities for kids – just don’t expect to be immersing your kids in a truly authentic Japanese experience. If this is what you’re after, you might be better avoiding the Hirafu area and staying in a classic pension in An’nupuri.
More details for families such as ski schools, babysitting and activities, including contact details and prices, can be found in our Niseko Scout Field Guide. Scout can book all extra activities as part of a Niseko Ski Package.
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So much accommodation has been built in Niseko in the last decade – it’s hard to believe that still more are popping up. On the plus side, there’s a huge variety to choose from. From classic family-run Japanese pensions to luxury apartments to rowdy budget hostels, you’ll be able to find what you’re looking for in Niseko. In recent years the price of accommodation has seen a steady increase and peak periods (Xmas - mid January and Chinese New Year) get booked out earlier and earlier each year. There are still some places that are for budget-minded travellers but usually these won't be situated in central Hirafu. In order to get the best deals and most options we recommend booking by June (though the best deals often need to be booked as early as April 30). Contact us to get the run down on the best deals.
Hirafu is the main village for international guests, though it’s not limited to this. The village extends from the various Hirafu ski lift bases to the main road (upper Hirafu) and well beyond (lower Hirafu). If you do want to dine-out, bar hop a lot and enjoy a more vibrant scene we definiltey reccomend staying in Hirafu.
The larger, fancier hotels and apartment buildings are located in the upper Hirafu area and some enjoy a ski-in ski-out position (or are just a short walk to the slopes). In general there is not a lot of ski-in ski-out accommodation in Hirafu and it's mostly restricted to higher-end luxury properties. Those staying closer to the Hirafu gondola station will be in a great position for skiing, but will be a little separate from the main village action. Lower Hirafu has a mix of great value apartments, pensions and houses, and has many of the area’s bars and restaurants. The bottom part of Lower Hirafu is a relatively peaceful area (and better value) yet it is still a walk to the bars and restaurants and to the ski lifts via a regular shuttle.
If you are staying in Niseko Village or An’nupuri you will feel a bit separated from the action – most of which is centered around Hirafu (which is either a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it). Most of their accommodation options are much closer to the slopes and An'nupuri has some wonderful traditional Japanese pensions.Search Hotels and Deals
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Given its popularity with international visitors, there are well and truly more activities in Niseko than you will be able to fit into one week. And that’s if you aren’t skiing!
There are heaps of ‘cultural’ activities for tourists, from karaoke to sushi making to tea ceremonies and more. You can definitely get a taste of Japan here. Another very Japanese activity is soaking in an onsen (a natural hot spring). Although it’s not as prevalent as in places like Nozawa Onsen or Hakuba, some hotels have their own onsen and there are other public onsen to be found. If you have access to a car or have a few of you to share the taxi fare, it's worth exploring some of the onsen near Annupuri, Moiwa and Konbu Onsen.
Of course, there’s plenty of snow related activities too, such as cat skiing, ski touring, snow mobiling and more. Scout can help book these additions to a ski package and we work with local guides to create custom ski guide packages. Contact us for more information.
More activity details, including contact details and prices, are in our Niseko Scout Field Guide.
Getting There and Around
Getting to Niseko is relatively easy. It’s located on the north island of Japan (called Hokkaido) and is situated about 100km or 2.5 hours southwest of Sapporo. Sapporo New Chitose is a major airport about 25 mins by train from Sapporo. It features one of the biggest airport shopping and food malls we’ve ever seen! There are tons of daily flights from major cities in Japan (2 hour flight from Tokyo), as well as direct international flights from Sydney, Hong Kong, Seoul, Taipei and Honolulu. It’s also possible to travel to Hokkaido by train and in May 2016 the Shinkannsen opened making a much faster connection from Hokkaido to the mainland (though it still takes about 8 hours from Tokyo). The Shinkansen stops at Hakkodate in the south of Hokkaido and getting from there to Niseko via local train takes another few hours and several changes.
To get from Sapporo New Chitose to Niseko, by far the easiest way is by bus transfer. There are plenty of departures each day directly from the airport. Most arrive at the Hirafu Welcome Center and from there you should be able to arrange for your accommodation to pick you up. A 2 hour train ride to Kutchan is also an option. Private or shared shuttle transfers can be booked via Scout as part of a package.
Getting around Niseko is easy. The efficient and regular Niseko United shuttle busses link Hirafu with Hanazono, Niseko Village and An’nupuri – and they’re free if you have a Niseko United ticket. (Note: it doesn’t operate after 9.30pm). The morning peak hour shuttles can often fill up quickly.
Within Hirafu, it is easy to walk around, including in the evenings (though you’ll need to rug up and we also recommend investing in spikes to put over your shoes to avoid slipping on the ice - available at most rental stores) and frequent shuttle busses connect all areas with the ski lifts. Taxis are also regularly available.
More details on transport, including contacts and prices are available in our Niseko Scout Field Guide.
When To Go
The best time to go for powder skiing in Niseko is January when it barely stops snowing. It’s also very cold (-10c to -15c) and often windy and is rare to get a sunny day. February is the next most reliable time, when the base has built up and there are still many dumps interspersed with fair weather. Christmas and New Year holidays, January (Australian school holidays) and Chinese New Year are busy times – lift lines can be very long and accommodation can book up quickly.
If you don't have children then the period from the end of Chinese New Year until mid-late February is an excellent time of year to visit; there is great powder, the crowds are dissipating and accommodation prices often drop (a bit). By late February there's good but less frequent snowfall (very occasionally there might be some rain down low), fewer people and lower prices.
Early to mid March can be an excellent time to visit, with occasional dumps of snowfalls (often big), more chances of sunshine, quieter slopes and better prices and availablity on accommodation. However there are also chances of warmer periods and rain (which will often be followed by snow).
Mid-December can also be a good time – it’s quiet and relatively easy to get accommodation. There’s snow, often in big dumps, but powder days can be hit and miss. Early December is a bit risky - usually it starts snowing reliably and frequently around mid-December.
Festival of Japan: Last week of January. Sumo wrestlers, traditional artisans, karate, live performances, arts and crafts.
Sapporo Snow Festival: Early February. Giant snow sculptures, cartoon characters, temples, ice slides and animals.
Kutchan Yukitiopia: Mid February. Yuki (snow) and Utopia = Yukitopia. Kutchan’s celebration of snow with ski competitions, snow slides, snowmobile rides.
Facts & Figures
|Base Elevation||839ft / 256m||Gondolas||4||Beginner||30%|
|Summit Elevation (via gates)||4,291ft / 1308m||Express Quads||9||Intermediates||40%|
|Vertical Drop||3,451ft / 1052m||Six Pack||1||Advanced||30%|
|Skiable Area||2,191ac / 887ha||Double Chairs||13|
|Annual Snowfall||472-590in / 12-15m||Single||3|
|Longest Run||3.4 miles / 5.6km||Surface Lifts||several|
|Operating Hours||8.30am –8.30pm|
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