All you need to know before you travel to Niseko Ski Resort in Hokkaido
We wake up early in our bed in Niseko Village and realize we made it, we are finally here. It’s a chilly December morning, our first day in the famed Japanese ski resort, Niseko. We had been waiting to make it here for eight long agonizing months away from the mountains and snow.
From our hotel window, we see nothing but white fluffy powdery snow. It’s 7 a.m., it’s been dumping all night with no signs of stopping over the next few days.
We didn’t know it yet, but we’d soon come to realize that for any ski or snowboard enthusiast, skiing in Niseko ski resort is a dream come true. It only took one day to realize that and next week of riding was the stuff of legend.
We’re already planning our return back next season, so if you decide to join us in Niseko here are some things you should know about skiing at the famed ski resort.
25 Tips Before You Visit Niseko Ski Resort
There Are Six Resorts and One Mountain
Niseko often refers to Niseko United which is a collection of four ski resorts that connected on the same mountain. They are Grand Hirafu, Niseko Annupuri, Niseko Hanazono, and Niseko Village.
Each resort is individually owned, but they have all come together to create Niseko United on one mountain, Niseko Annupuri. To make it even more confusing there are two more resorts not a part of the collective on the same mountain, Niseko Weiss and Moiwa.
Most visitors pick up the Niseko United All Mountain lift pass which provides you access to all four of the Niseko United resorts lifts and services. A one day All Mountain lift pass is ¥7400 per day. If you only want to ride one area of the mountain for the day it’s possible to purchase an individual lift pass at each resort for about ¥2000 cheaper.
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. Although, this could all change as they plan to open a massive Park Hyatt at the base for the 2019/2020 season.
Annupuri is the only resort we did not make it to when we were at Niseko, simply because we were there too early in the season and the lifts over from Niseko Village were not running leaving a shuttle bus as the only way to get there. Annupuri is known for being a quiet family friendly resort with mellow runs. *Update: We made it over in 2020 and it is indeed mellow and easy runs, but great glades that would be the perfect place on a powder day.
It’s particularly popular with Japanese visitors. On a busy weekend day this is definitely where I would want to go.
Niseko Ski Resort is Not Huge
Although there are four resorts bundled into one here at Niseko the whole resort area itself is not that big by international standards. Niseko Annupuri is 1,308 meters above sea level and 2,191 acres of skiable terrain. Compared to other famous resorts like Whistler Blackcomb (It claims a skiable area of 8,171 acres), Lake Louise ( 4,200 acres), and Zermatt (2337 elevation, 322 km of piste) Niseko is quite small. This means it gets tracked out very quickly.
Niseko is the largest ski resort in Hokkaido, and quite large compared to many other Japanese ski resorts. There are still 48 kilometers of groomed slopes, 11 gates to the backcountry, 70 runs, and 29 lifts to keep any ski lover occupied for weeks, if not months if there’s fresh snow.
Niseko is the Powder Capital of the World
What Niseko lacks in size it makes up for in the powder. Think of it as “Deep Not Steep.” It’s true that Niseko is not world renowned for its crazy terrain or scale, but it is internationally known for the epic snow dumps it receives from December to April.
Because of its northern location, Niseko is slammed with weather fronts that come over from the Siberia. The result is ridiculous amounts of fluffy goodness almost every day. This isn’t just regular powder either, it’s JAPOW! Or in other words very light dry fluffy snow that is perfect for riding.
Seriously, the quality of this snow is unlike any we’ve ever seen before. It’s hard to make is a snowball sometimes because it just doesn’t stick.
Niseko receives an average of 15-18 meters of snowfall a season making it one of the snowiest ski resorts in the world.
Don’t believe me? Take a trip out for yourself!
*Update 2020: While we had an amazing pow time here in 2018/2019 we returned for a visit in 2020 and the snow was…some of the worst we’ve ever seen anywhere in the world.
Of course, this can happen at any ski resort at any time and it’s hard to predict the weather. But when there’s no snow at Niseko things can get ugly. Massive crowds and no snow making abilities are a recipe for an underwhelming time.
You May Never See the Sun at Niseko Ski Resort
Well, you didn’t think the snow fell from the sun, did you? Yep, with all this snow means lots of cloudy days.
We rarely saw sunshine during our time in Niseko and when we did it was very brief. So when the glorious sun does make an appearance get your camera out and start snapping away.
Get Up Early for Mt. Yotei views
Mt. Yotei is an active stratovolcano and referred to as Mt. Fuji of Hokkaido. We only got a good glimpse of Mt. Yotei twice while visiting and it was only for a few brief minutes when the clouds cleared around sunset. For the best-uninterrupted views wake up early for sunrise.
Lift Tickets Are Reasonably Priced at Niseko Ski Resort
A one day all mountain pass at Niseko United will only run you ¥7,400 ($67). Compared to resorts like Lake Louise in Canada ($86), Aspen in Colorado ($159), or Big Sky in Montana ($140) we find this to be a pretty good deal.
The more days you buy the more of a discount you get. If you’re staying for an extended amount of time but not the whole season Niseko United also sells the 50-hour pass for ¥64,000, which is good for 50 hours spent on the lifts.
But the Rest of Niseko Ski Resort is Not
While the lift tickets are a good value just about everything else is not. I found almost everything from accommodation to food to be extremely expensive, even for Japanese standards. In the high season, a hostel bed can run you as much as ¥6000/night. Basic hotel rooms that would cost you $200 USD in the rest of the world go for $700-$800. It’s ski town robbery at it’s finest here folks.
If you want to eat out at a Japanese restaurant you can expect to drop at least ¥2000 per person on the low end. We went into the board shop to look at buying a new snowboard and the retail price was 30% more than what we would pay back home in the US or Canada.
I could go on and on, but the fact of the matter is if you want the powder you gotta pay the price. Niseko is greedy foreign run ski resort pricing to the max, think Colorado or Whistler prices, but a tad bit wose. Save up some money for this trip because it is not going to be a cheap one.
There Are Ways to Save at Niseko Ski Resort
That being said we did find a few grocery stores around Niseko to get cheaper food here. The best one with a good selection and reasonably priced is Hirafu 188, located just a few steps away from the Hirafu Gondola.
There are also a couple of convenience stores like 7-11 and Seicomart in town where you can find pre-packaged meals and frozen food to make back at your hotel.
In addition in Niseko Hirafu there is also a food truck corner where you can find Indian curry, pizza, and wraps going for ¥1000-2000.
If you want to find the best prices on accommodation it’s best to book as early as possible when you still have options.
There is Better Value in Kutchan
The town of Kutchan is a short drive away from Niseko and is a working Japanese town as opposed to a resort town. For better value and more options on everything, this is where you’ll want to head.
There is a full-service grocery store, plenty of restaurants, and more accommodation options. Yes, you’ll be further away from the ski hill but Kutchan is accessible by road and there are public buses that will take you in/out to the resort every day.
Book Early for the Best Deals
The early bird gets the worm when it comes to booking a Niseko ski vacation. The earlier you plan and book your holiday the more options there will be and therefore more competitive pricing options.
We had originally planned on living in Niseko for the season, but then came to the realization that it was simply too expensive (and moved to Canada instead). Since we made a last minute change of plan we were presented with very few accommodation options, even early in the season.
My advice is to book as soon as soon as you know that you want to go to Niseko and have dates in mind. We are already trying to sort out next years ski plans to Japan almost a full year in advance.
Grand Hirafu is the Main Town Center
When people talk about the town of Niseko they are really referring to Grand Hirafu. Hirafu is a walkable town that has everything you need to make a ski holiday complete. Delicious Japanese restaurants, beautiful hotels, ski and board shops, and a few boutique artisan stores. It’s walkable and just a five minute walk away from the Hirafu Gondola.
Hirafu is also where the apres ski party happens every night. Or really where you can find half the world’s Australians aged between 18-30 as they drink the night away. Yes, there is quite a big international nightlife scene in Grand Hirafu.
There is a Free Shuttle to Get Around
There are numerous free ski resort shuttles that float around the town of Niseko every day taking skiers and snowboarders to the lift. This is handy as most visitors to Japan don’t have their own car and rely on this transport.
Shuttles run approximately every 15 minutes from 8 am to 6 pm, and then every 30 minutes until 8:30 pm. If you plan on being out late at the bars or at a restaurant you may want to plan to either walk home or grab a taxi.
You Can Go Night Skiing Every Night at Niseko Ski Resort
Niseko Village and Niseko Hirafu offer extensive night skiing. Unlike other resorts, it’s not just one beginner run open to night skiers, but there’s actually a pretty good selection for everyone to enjoy.
It’s perfect for those that want to avoid the day time crowds, try a new experience, or want to save some money on a reduced nighttime lift pass.
You’ll Need to Get Altitude to Avoid the Crowds
We visited Niseko Ski Resort in mid-December, which is typically a quiet time in terms of ski life. However, we were a bit shocked to see how crowded and busy Niseko Hirafu was during this period.
Like other resorts around the world you’ll need to get off the beginner runs and do a little exploring of your own to find the quiet and less tracked parts of the mountain – I promise you they are there so don’t let the base deter you!
*Update 2020: The crowds only got worse upon our return in mid February 2020. Pistes are crazy crowded and get skied our fast. You’ll need to get creative to find the pow pow in the resort. Advanced riders should consider crossing the gates into backcountry territory for fresh(er) tracks.
Earn Your Turns
Like most ski resorts the best snow is typically found at the top where others have not tracked it out. In bound freshies here don’t last long, and you’ll need to be an early riser to ride powder on the piste. The good thing is you won’t have to wait long for another bug dump in Niseko.
Off-piste, backcountry, and out of bounds riding is allowed in Niseko, which is unusual for traditional Japanese ski resorts. You’ll have to cross through the back gates which typically don’t open up until after the holiday season.
It’s also possible to go cat skiing and heli-skiing in Niseko!
Niseko Ski Resort Isn’t Very Japanese
If I had one complaint about visiting Niseko in the winter it would be that it is not the Japan I know. Quiet? Reserved? Culturally unique? Nope, nope, and not exactly. Over the last 10 years, Niseko has seen a huge boom in tourism, particularly in the Australian market. Australians escaping their hot summers and in need of a good winter holiday head here to enjoy the pow-pow and work the lifts.
Many have even settled in the area and opened businesses. While there are definitely Japanese restaurants I found the town to have much more of an international flair going on and few Japanese owned establishments. Many young Australians have also come over on a working holiday visa to enjoy an epic ski season of a lifetime – and who can blame them? The snow is incredible.
It’s not just the Australians though. Niseko has gained worldwide fame over the years and has frequently been named one of the best ski resorts in the world. The result is an explosion of international tourism. A growing Asian market is now seeking snowy vacations close to home and more North American’s are making their way over the Pacific.
This isn’t a bad thing, and don’t think that I hate Australians. The international market in Niseko means that more accommodation, restaurants, and services have opened up. It makes life easy for English speakers to vacation. BUT it is worth noting that those after an authentic Japanese experience won’t get it in Niseko. I like to say this is an international ski resort located in Japan, not a Japanese ski resort in Japan.
Obviously you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Those after a more authentic Japanese ski hill should check out Furano, and the many other small Japanese ski resorts. It’s not a full-on resort with amenities like Niseko, but the powder is world class and you’ll be skiing among more Japanese people.
Cash is King in Japan
First-time visitors to Japan may be surprised to learn that Japan is a predominantly cash society and this is true for Niseko. While more and more businesses are accepting international credit cards with the rise in tourism I still can’t stress the importance of having a little cash on you enough while here. If it’s your first time abroad check out our tips to travel banking.
You Must Onsen While at Niseko Ski Resort
One of the greatest things to do in Japan 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.
There are a few sublime onsens in Niseko. We frequented the onsen at Niseko Green Leaf as 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.
This should go without saying, but remember to dress for the occasion on your ski holiday. I would recommend bringing all the winter gear you think you will need with you as you will pay a premium for winter gear in Hokkaido. (Take it from two people who bought Sorel boots in Hokkaid0).
It gets pretty chilly on the mountain, especially at the summit. February is the coldest month with an average daytime mountain temperature – 10°C while night skiing can get down to – 20°C.
Items that should be in your suitcase are:
- Goggles – Smith Optics have interchangeable lenses, though we never used our sunny inserts while in Japan.
- Fleece Jacket or sweatshirt
- Merino Wool socks – Don’t go cheap. Get the merino wool to keep your feet warm.
- Thermal Layers – We wear merino wool thermals as well.
Wear a Helmet
I hate to sound like a mom, but wear a helmet when you ski and snowboard kids! There’s no telling what could ever go wrong when you ride and a helmet could save your life. Even if you are an expert rider who never falls someone else could come crashing into you. Plus helmets are good for those times when you get hit in the head from the chairlift bar.
Besides keeping you safe, my helmet also acts as a head and ear warmer. If you have a helmet I would recommend bringing it with you to Japan. We had to buy one in Furano and had trouble finding sizes that weren’t “Asian fit.”
English Is Widely Spoken in Niseko
It’s true that many Japanese people do not speak English, and there is a language barrier when traveling in the country. However, in Niseko, we never had trouble anywhere. First, you have all the international workers who will be able to easily communicate with you. But even most of the Japanese here speak English pretty well.
Hire a Car
If you are comfortable driving in a foreign country then I would strongly recommend hiring a car for your trip to Niseko. This was the greatest mistake we made while touring around Hokkaido as it would have made our trip much easier and cheaper. While Japan has a great public transport infrastructure with Shinkansen trains and buses that always run on time, it is much more limited in Hokkaido.
Once in the smaller towns sometimes the only option to get around is with your own car and having one will make all the difference in your trip. Public transport in Japan is not cheap and if you are traveling with a group you will definitely save money by splitting a rental car. For us not having a car determined everything. We had to stay in central places around Japan, we couldn’t go and leave places as we pleased, and we could not get to some beautiful parts of Hokkaido that we would have liked to visit.
Unfortunately for us, Japan has very strict rules on foreign drivers. All foreign drivers must carry an International Driving Permit (IDP). Note that this is not the same as in International Drivers License that many countries allow for foreigners to rent a car (depending on your license).
As Americans, our American driver’s license is our international driver’s license and we have never had an issue renting a car in of the 40 or so countries we have rented. However, in Japan, it is different as you need this permit. Permits are not issued in Japan and should be obtained in your home country in advance. They are usually issued through your country’s national automobile association for a small fee, if you are an American citizen and have AAA they should be able to complete this for you.
There’s More to Niseko Than Skiing and Snowboarding
Niseko is a great resort town for all to enjoy. If you get tired of skiing or snowboarding, or it’s your first time and you decide it’s not for you rest assured that there is a lot more to do. Snowmobiling, snow tubing, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing are all other popular winter activities.
If you are looking to stay warm there are two yoga studios in town, Zen Yoga and Powder Yoga. Or you can take the gang to try delicious Hokkaido ice cream at Milk Kobo, sing karaoke at Nozomi II, or enjoy the many restaurants and bars in town.
How to Get to Niseko
New Chitose International Airport is the main airport that services Hokkaido. It’s just 36 km outside the capital city of Sapporo.
The airport is located 115 km east of Niseko Resort. If you do not have your own car the easiest way to get to Niseko is via bus transfer. We took the Resort Liner which took about 3 hours. The resort liner buses are nice and comfortable and drop you off right at the Hirafu Welcome Center or Niskeo Village. Tickets start at 4000, and I would recommend booking online in advance as they do fill up quickly.
If you arrive into Hokkaido on a late flight (after 7 pm) your best bet is to stay at a hotel in Chitose and leave the next morning. There is also the option of a private transfer which can leave at any time. General private transfer car prices are 29,000 yen for 1-2 people, 35,000yen for up to 5 people and 45,000yen for up to 9 people one way.
It’s also possible to take the train to Sapporo Main Train Station and transfer to Kutchan or Hirafu. From New Chitose airport a rapid train takes about 35 minutes to Sapporo. Then you must take the train from Sapporo to Otaru, and then another train to Kutchan. From Kutchan you can get off or you can continue on to Niseko station if you are staying there.
Get the full schedule on Hyperdia. We did this option on the way from Niseko to Sapporo as it was cheaper and we wanted to see Sapporo, but it was not easy making all the transfers with our luggage and snowboard gear.
Where to stay in Niseko
Niseko Green Leaf
We called the Niseko Green Leaf home for three wonderful days. Niseko Green Leaf is at the base Annupuri in the center of Niseko Village. The hotel is impeccably designed in modern Japanese fashion. Niseko Green Leaf has 200 rooms, a full-service equipment rental section, onsen, restaurant, bar, and a ski school. To top it off it’s one of the few true ski-in-ski-out hotel options in Niseko.
Niseko Green Leaf has a unique international flair going on with all that you need within the premise. Seriously after a day on the mountain, you can ski right into your hotel and never leave.
Niseko Green Leaf has a restaurant and bar on site – both with great views. There’s a spa, gift shop, a heated outdoor pool, and a beautiful onsen. No matter if you are a newcomer to onsens or a regular you must give the Green Leaf onsen a whirl.
My favorite time to go to the onsen is after 11 when most people are in for the night. On all three times I visited at this time there was hardly anyone else there. It made for a relaxing moment before bedtime as there is nothing better than soaking in a Japanese onsen as the snow falls around you.
We had one of the corner suites at the Niseko Green Leaf and it was the largest room we’ve ever had in Japan. With two bathrooms, a small kitchen area, a separate living room, and a comfortable king sized bed we were stoked.
The rooms all have large open windows with fabulous views. Each room has it’s own WiFi – yes each room! So, we never stood a chance of getting disconnected. What I loved most was the traditional yukata provided which you could wear everywhere in the hotel, except the restaurant and bar.
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Final Thoughts on Snowboarding Trip to Niseko
We had heard the legends of Niseko, seen the powder face shots, and watched the epic videos. However, this could have been all talk, a good photographer or videographer and great marketing.
But what I realized is that unlike us North Americans or Europeans who live in big-time mountain towns the Japanese do not flaunt what they have. Like most aspects of their culture, they are quiet and reserved about their snow and mountains. Niseko is becoming more and more world renowned, but it’s still relatively unknown to many of us in the Western world.
Between our time at Furano Ski Resort and Niseko we rode our hearts out in knee deep powder for 13 days straight. My legs were killing me, but our whole time in Hokkaido was epic. Now that we are back in the Canadian Rockies and not riding powder I honestly can’t wait to get back to Japan.
Every day on the mountain I remind myself that I have to book next years snowboarding trip to Niseko and the rest of Hokkaido. Seriously the powder is that good it is worth all the money and the long haul flight one must endure.
And I never need an excuse to return back to Japan. We’ll see you soon Niseko!
What to pack for JAPOW
Thermal underwear is essential to remain warm and dry. Your base layer is the first key to wicking away moisture and keeping your body heat from escaping. When we’re active in cold temperatures like hiking, snowboarding, scrambling, or camping we always wear quality base layers.
For base layer we recommend they fit snug are made from a non cotton material like nylon or wool. We both wear wool based layers from Helly Hansen, Smartwool, Black Diamond, and Kora.
Shell Ski Jacket
Waterproofing is important with all of this powder we both ride with Helly Hansen jackets. I’m a big fan of the shell system as it keeps me from getting too hot while I remain bone dry inside which is the real key to staying warm. If you’re wet you’re going to be cold as the water evaporates and pulls body heat away, or worse it freezes. I like Helly’s ULLR Freeride series as they have a long cut waist and high neck in order to protect you from snow, perfect for Japan. My personal jacket is the Sogn, but it’s sold out until next season.
You’ll need Goggles during your ski trip in Niseko. My favorites are made by Smith Optics. The Chromapop lens technology is like seeing the world with a fresh set of our eyes. They enhance contrast, reduce glare, and reflection for superb vision while in snowy conditions. They come in a wide range of colors and typically have lens inserts included.