So you’ve heard of the legendary powder that descends on Japan every winter, you’ve booked your trip, you’ve arrived in Hokkaido, and now you’re wondering what to do in Niseko?
We just finished a second year enjoying the legendary town of Niseko and while our first trip there was all about snowboarding at the resort, this past trip we ventured out a bit more. Here are some of the best things to do in Niseko this winter – and yes it involves other Niseko activities besides skiing or snowboarding!
The Best Things to do in Niseko!
One of the main reasons you likely came to Niseko in the winter is to ski or snowboard in the legendary JAPOW powder. Even if you are not an avid skier or snowboarder no trip to Niseko is complete without taking at least a few turns on one of the four ski resorts here. Read on for more information about each.
If the mountain had a “main” area it would be Niseko Hirafu. Hirafu is where most of the action takes place off the ski hill. It has a bus station, information center, bars, hotels, hostels, restaurants, coffees shops, and ski shops. All of this is within walking distance of the gondola. When someone refers to the town of Niseko they’re referring to Hirafu.
The Hirafu ski area is the largest of the four resorts and is of course supplied with amazing powder and terrain. You’ll find night skiing every night in Hirafu, meaning you can do a few laps before heading into town for some sake.
However, all of this action means that Grand Hirafu is the busiest and most popular of all the mountains. Since it’s the most accessible you’ll find crowds at the base, lift lines for the gondola, and plenty of ski schools. To break away from the crowds keep going higher, into the trees, or to one of the other resort areas.
At the base of Niseko Village are Niseko Green Leaf and Hilton Niseko, all owned by YTL Resorts. We stayed at the amazing Niseko Green Leaf hotel and spent many days hanging out on this side of the mountain. Niseko Village is serviced by a long gondola and provides visitors leg burning long runs down to the bottom or access to the neighboring resorts.
Niseko Village has incredible off-piste powder and some epic black runs. It’s a short hike up past the ski patrol building and old gondola station to access one of our favorite areas.
The Niseko Green Leaf has a ski school in the hotel and a fantastic learners area. Like Hirafu, Niseko Village offers night skiing on the lower half of the mountain.
Next door to the Hilton Niseko is a small shopping and dining area in traditional Japanese architecture. We enjoyed a few good meals at Yang Shu Ten for lunch.
Niseko Hanazono has a variety of terrain for everyone. There are great beginner and intermediate runs, but also fabulous tree runs for when the powder hits. Hanazono also has a terrain park for park riders.
It’s also home to one of the most famed powder areas in Niseko Strawberry Fields. It’s not so much a field, but a run through some epic trees that hold plenty of the snow.
When Hirafu felt crowded we found ourselves exploring the off-piste offerings of Hanazono for a much quieter experience.
Annupuri is known for being a quiet family-friendly resort with mellow runs. They have great tree runs that are super fun on a powder day! The only issue with Annupuri is it’s a bit disconnected from the other three resorts. So when the top lifts are closed the only way to access Annupuri is with the shuttle bus which can take a long time and is often overcrowded.
Have a Bowl of Ramen
There’s nothing better than a piping hot bowl of ramen after a day out on the slopes in Japan. Ramen is one of the best Japanese foods you could possibly have, and we found Niseko Ramen to offer great value in Hirafu.
Niseko Ramen is a good lunch and dinner spot for those on a budget. For ¥1000 hungry skiers and snowboarders can get themselves a delicious bowl of their famous “Niseko Ramen.”
What is Niseko Ramen you ask? It’s a potato cream vichyssoise topped over traditional and hearty miso. Niseko is known for its potatoes so the chef here wanted to create ramen unique to the area. It’s absolutely delicious – but you’ll likely have to queue as the restaurant is small!
NAC Adventure Park
A fun thing to do in Niseko for families is the NAC Adventure Park! It’s here you can get your adrenaline pumping on more than two acres of beautiful land.
Adventure Park as multiple courses with varying degrees of difficulty up to 13 meters up in the air. Swing from tree to tree from the safety of your harness leash and enjoy the scenic snowy view!
Tea Ceremony at Somoza
Somoza is a one of a kind art gallery deep in the Hokkaido forest. The concept here is a combination of Japanese craftsmanship, history, and scenery all housed in a beautiful old Japanese farmhouse in the woods.
Somoza has its own upstairs tea room where tea ceremony rituals are performed. Attending a Japanese tea ceremony is a once in a lifetime experience where you can see the traditional way of preparing and drinking green tea on a tatami floor. It’s here you can enjoy the atmosphere and hospitality of the host. Reservations for this activity should be booked in advance.
One of the best things to do in Niseko for families of all shapes in sizes is go for a snowshoe walk in the beautiful forest! Snowshoe tours are run by NAC and start at the foot of Mt. Yotei. When guided with NAC you’ll head out for the most beautiful river in Niseko “Hangetsu-ko” or the “Shiribetsu-gawa” and end your hike at the frozen Half Moon Lake. It’s here you can appreciate the beauty of the Japanese forest.
One of the greatest things to do in Niseko is to soak in an onsen – especially in the winter – and especially after a day on the mountain. Visiting a Japanese Onsen while in Japan should be at the top of your things to do in Japan list!
An onsen is a Japanese hot spring where visitors are typically separated by sex and can soak naked in the warm geothermal water, usually outside. It’s so relaxing especially during the winter months and a unique cultural experience. You’ll find onsens all over Japan as it is a volcanically active country and there are thousands scattered throughout Hokkaido and Honshu.
Don’t be shy! Everyone in an onsen is naked and no one cares. You may not wear a bathing suit in an onsen and some traditional onsens even ban tattoos, due to Yakuza, so check accordingly if you have tattoos. Onsens are separated by sex and you are required to wash your body before entering. Watch some YouTube videos before visiting if you are concerned, or check our my detailed how-to guide.
There are a few sublime onsens in Niseko. We frequented the onsen at Niseko Green Leaf when we were staying there and it is free to hotel guests. Other great onsens in town include Niseko Prince Hotel Hirafutei Onsen, Hilton Niseko Village Onsen, and Ikoi-no-mura.
Day Trip to Otaru
One of the main complaints I find that I hear about Niseko is that it isn’t very Japanese. Niseko is an international ski resort, and with that comes international hotel chains, restaurants, bars, and everything in between. While it makes traveling in Japan a bit easier for first-time guests I actually find that it’s the only place I’ve ever been in Japan that doesn’t feel like Japan.
To get back into real Japan in under an hour I highly recommend heading to the seaside town of Otaru. Otaru is a port city in Hokkaido, world-renowned for its fresh seafood and Japanese desserts. It’s worth a day trip here just to check out the beautiful canal, and then I guarantee you’ll end up staying even longer walking around eating all the delicious (and budget friendly compared to Niseko) Japanese food you can.
Otaru is easily reached via train from the JR Kutchan station (just 10 minutes outside of Niseko Hirafu).
Day Trip to Yoichi
Another easily accessible town just 45 minutes from Niseko and Kutchan is Yoichi. Most visitors will skip over Yoichi on their way to Niseko, Otaru, or Sapporo but it’s definitely worth a few hours stop!
Yoichi is a coastal town, with a few nice beaches to enjoy in the summer. In the winter it’s best to get off the train and head straight to the Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery, the birthplace of Japanese whisky. It’s free to enter and explore the distillery grounds and they also offer free Nikka whisky tastings!
Day Trip to Rusutsu
Rusutsu is another great Hokkaido ski resort that gets more and more well known each year. It’s only a 30-minute drive away from Niseko base area and is a good place to head when you feel like you’ve skied a majority of Niseko. Rusutsu gets similar snowfall to Niseko, but being that it’s not as internationally known it sees far fewer visitors.
This doesn’t mean that it’s an unheard-of Japan pow town, it’s got quite a few visitors kicking around. But it’s a fun place to head for a few days if you’re seeking some fresh lines.
This festival only comes around once a year, but if you happen to be in Niseko during this time you should definitely make the journey to Kutchan for Yukitopia.
This is a beloved winter festival in Kutchan, the town only 10 minutes drive away from Niseko. It’s at this festival you can enjoy a very local atmosphere with fun games, delicious Japanese food, and events for all children to enjoy!
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Plan and Pack for Niseko
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I ALWAYS have a down jacket with me when I’m traveling in the winter, fall, or even spring, even in Japan. They aren’t just good for hikes, but doing anything outside. Mine came in particularly useful in the Dolomites.
Down jackets pack up light and small so there is no reason NOT to have one in your bag. Seriously it could save your life in a bad situation. We wrote a whole post on our favorites (hint –Feathered Friends, Arc’Teryx Cerium LT Hooded Jacket, Patagonia Down Sweater, REI Coop Down Jacket)
I love real books, but for traveling it can be easier to carry a lighter and more compact item like a Kindle. Plus, then you can download new books on the go!
Please consider purchasing a travel water bottle before your trip! We hate to see one time use plastic bottles ending up in the ocean. The tap water is so good here – seriously please don’t be one of those tourist that buys plastic water bottles in Japan. It’s a waste of money and plastic!
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