With a high average snowfall and clean, dry air which prevents the soft powder from clumping and becoming icy, and hundreds of hectares of backcountry ski routes, Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, is renowned as being one of the best destinations for thrill-seeking skiers looking for unbeatable snow conditions.
We’ve written about Hokkaido before, focusing on the range of outdoor adventures in and around the capital city of Sapporo. Today, we’re shifting our focus even further west to Hokkaido’s premier spot for all things powder: Niseko. This name can be confusing, as it can refer to many things. The Niseko region is home to both the town of Niseko and Mount Niseko-Annupuri, the 1,308m high peak with a varied terrain and stunning winter woodlands. While the region is also home to the iconic Mount Yotei, the smaller Mount Iwaonupuri, world-class restaurants and a range of natural hot springs, it is the vast Mount Niseko-Annupuri which is the star of the show. The sprawling mountain is home to four ski resorts, each of which offers their own unique pistes and back-country gates, as well as leading down to the foothill restaurants and hotels.
Of course no trip to Niseko is complete if you only explore one resort, and thanks to the creation of Niseko United, skiers can obtain an integrated lift pass and ride anywhere on the mountain.
How To Access Niseko’s Resorts
Japan is preparing to reopen to the world, flights direct to New Chitose Airport resume in July, 2022. Before, heading to Hokkaido required a full day of travel, including a twelve+ hour flight to Tokyo and then a two-hour flight to New Chitose. Fortunately, Finnair’s direct route from Helsinki cuts the air travel down to a mere 9 hours.
Once you arrive in New Chitose Airport, a two-hour drive, bus ride, or train journey will shoot you into the heart of this prestigious ski spot. Where to stay and ski on Mt. Niseko is your choice – here’s our roundup:
The Four Resorts of Mt. Niseko Annupuri
We’ll begin with the resort that’s best suited to serious ski purists. That’s Annupuri Ski Resort, where there’s access to some of the best side-country terrain in all of Niseko. Being a quieter spot allows skiers to focus on their own experience and take lines through totally untouched powder. This is especially true for those determined enough to hike up to the famous back bowls – natural half pipes.
Choose the right line down from the summit and you could find yourself arriving in Moiwa Ski Resort, a lesser known (therefore less crowded) resort which sits close to the Konbu Onsen area. Here, you can finish off a long day by skiing directly into a natural hot spring. Just make sure to unclip from your skis or snowboard before diving in.
Again, this is the best resort if you’re focused on getting the most out of the slopes. The village of An’nupuri is authentic, reminiscent of the old-school, quiet, traditional Niseko. The side of Japan one always pictures growing up. This village is great for most budgets, as dining options range from casual, familiar eateries all the way to high-end gourmet restaurants. Stay close to the resort at the luxury Kamui Niseko for a cozy lodge vibe or choose from a range of peaceful cabins and onsen hotels in town.
With less side-country access but 30 pistes catering for all different abilities, the Niseko Village Ski Resort is our pick for less experienced riders or a diverse family holiday. While there are certainly some exciting, advanced trails at the top of the mountain, the lower half is generously populated with accessible routes which allow novices and learners to enjoy their time on the slopes without feeling pressure to match the faster paces found elsewhere in Niseko. Skiers and snowboarders are also able to take group lessons with an English-speaking instructor, and even first-time riders are likely to advance to the point of taking on the extra-long green run which stretches from almost the very top of the resort.
It’s a tricky run, especially in the wind, but a route like this may serve as your first real taste of high-octane riding and get you hooked for life.
For families looking to dodge the crowds and bring their dog(s), there’s SnowDog Village. This accommodating apartment space is less than 2km from the Niseko Village ski lifts and is ideal for large groups. Those seeking the very height of luxury may consider staying at the Hilton. Along with ski school, winding racetracks, and a range of on-piste activities for kids, families will also enjoy Niseko Village for its proximity to Kobo, Takahashi Farm. This charming spot teaches its visitors about the immense care and love put into dairy farming. Meet the cows, sample fresh milk, cream, and cheese, and even have a go at making your own ice cream! For a more grown up equivalent, head down to the Niseko Distillery to see elegant machinery and sample the Ohoro Gin at the adjoining night bar.
Now we arrive at the beating heart of Niseko. The Grand Hirafu resort and Hirafu village beneath it are the largest and most populated of the group – both on and off the mountain. This may be seen as a pro or a con, but if you enjoy ski trips for the atmosphere and nightlife as well as the powder chasing in the day, then Hirafu is sure to impress. With 22 courses and 11 lifts this spacious resort is varied enough to accommodate everyone. You’ll never be short of tree paths just off piste, and they’re certainly worth exploring as the pistes themselves can become congested at peak seasons. Luckily, the range of modern facilities includes babysitting services and kids play areas, along with multiple on-slope dining options, all of which serve to keep the main slopes moving briskly.