It’s no surprise that Niseko in Hokkaido, Japan is regarded as one of the world’s best skiing slash snowboarding destinations. Famous for its powdery dry snow, and with an annual average snowfall of 12 meters from November to April, Niseko has attracted plenty of foreign investment and transformed into an international winter sports resort. It’s tourist-friendly too, so you don’t need to worry too much about things getting lost in translation. Here are some ideas for your next winter expedition. (Tip: Niseko’s ski season is typically from late November to early May).
The Big Four
There are four main ski areas in Niseko: Hirafu, Hanazono, Niseko Village and Annupuri. A single ski pass gives you access to all of the mountains. Hirafu is the busiest of them all, with more slope variety and a nice view of Mount Yotei, an active volcano (aka Hokkaido’s Mount Fuji). It’s also the most convenient area, with many shopping and food options nearby.
Annapuri is preferred by the locals, and is not as crowded as Hirafu or Hanazono. The ski runs are wide and perfect for training and practice. As you get more advanced, you can progress to the upper mountain for more challenges.
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced skier who wants to improve your skills, remember to make a reservation for group or private lessons at one of the ski schools. There are many ski schools in Niseko with experienced English speaking instructors, such as the Niseko Village Snow School, Hokkaido Core and Niseko Academy.
For ski gear, there are many rental shops across town. Rhythm in Hirafu offers a wide range of equipment both for rental and sale. If you are looking to purchase your own ski or snowboard boots, Boot Solutions in Hirafu is known to be the best in town for custom-fitted boots. The experts there patiently understand your skiing needs and leg conditions. Ski boot fitting takes about 2 hours if you opt for made-to-order footbeds that are moulded according to your own feet.
Foodies won’t be disappointed with Niseko’s collection of eateries – from casual local dining to Michelin-starred restaurants. Try your luck at the Sobadokoro Rakuichi (そば処楽一) that only serves 20 people each day. Customers start queuing up as early as an hour before the restaurant opens. It’s a family-run restaurant and the menu is simple : think handmade soba (buckwheat noodles), thinly cut and served cold or hot with tempura or duck. The establishment’s lifelong dedication to one single specialty is much appreciated here.
431 Niseko, Abuta District, Hokkaido Prefecture 048-1511, +81 136-58-3170.
About a 15-minute drive from Hirafu towards Mount Yotei is the popular Udon Café Houduki (おうどんCafé 寶月), where the most delicious udon (in our humble opinion) is served without soup and mixed with raw eggs and chives.
340-5 Hirafu, Kutchan, Abuta District, Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan Tel: +81 136-21-7711.
Torimatsu Yakitori is a local yakitori (skewers) restaurant that is located in the town of Kutchan, about 15 minutes from Hirafu. Enjoy your après ski with some Sapporo draft beer and Japanese sake while savoring the charcoal-grilled yakitori cooked right in front of you.
044-0053, Kutchan 1 Chome Kita 3 Jo Nishi, Abuta District, Hokkaido, +81 136-23-2893.
Meanwhile, Del Sole is a small pizza restaurant near Annupuri and offers more than 20 choices on the menu: each one is unique in taste and ingredients. The crispy crust pizzas are perfectly baked in the wood-fire oven built by the owner himself. A must-try is the Annupuri pizza with whipping cream base that smells and tastes absolutely heavenly.
483-1 Niseko, Abuta District, Hokkaido 048-1511, +81 136-58-3535.
For a more fancy meal, try Michelin-starred French restaurant Kamimura in Hirafu. The six-course early bird dinner is value-for-money — or check out the Chef menu to for an enlightening experience with Hokkaido’s fresh ingredients.
1/F, Shiki Niseko, 190-4 Yamada, Kutchan-cho, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido Prefecture 044-0014, +81 136-21-2288.
Take a break at Cafe If (167-22 Yamada, Kutchan-chō, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido Prefecture 044-0081, +81 136-22-4770), and enjoy some homemade cakes and a cup of café au lait in this cozy and quiet coffee shop owned by an old Japanese couple in the heart of Hirafu. Another option is Seed Bagel & Coffee Company (5,61, Arishima, Niseko-cho, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido 048-1531, +81 136-55-5331) near the Niseko train station. Have a lazy afternoon lounging around in this wooden lodge, with the best smoked salmon cream cheese bagel and latte ever.
There is no lack of choice when it comes to accommodations in Niseko. Apartment-style lodgings like the One Niseko Resort Tower (Aza Niseko 455-3, Niseko-Town Abuta-Gun, Hokkaido, +81 136-50-2111) is better-suited for bigger groups and families.
Hotels provide well-rounded services and facilities to take care of guests’ needs, including ski equipment rental and storage service. Hilton Hotel (Niseko Village, Abuta District, Hokkaido Prefecture 048-1592, +81 136-44-1111) has ski-in/ski-out quick access to the slopes and will save you some walking in ski boots and carrying your skis and boards around. The breakfast buffet is plentiful, serving both Japanese and western food to fuel your day ahead. The hotel shuttle bus also has a frequent schedule that conveniently takes you to Hirafu and Kutchan free of charge.
For a more luxury Japanese-style stay, book a night or two at the tastefully designed Japanese ryokan Moku no Sho. The price of a single night of accommodation includes a full Kaiseki dinner and Japanese breakfast. The relaxing ambience at the lobby lounge is state-of-the-art — unwind yourself by the fireplace while soaking in the beautiful tunes. Soaking in the outdoor onsen (hot spring) when it’s snowing outside is the best pampering you can give to your mind and body.
393 Niseko, Niseko-cho, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido Prefecture 048-1511, +81 136-59-2323.
Chitose Airport has the largest airport shopping arcade in Japan – need we say more? Schedule some time in before your flight to browse for some of Hokkaido’s best produce and goods. Not-to-be-missed is a visit to noodle hall Ramen Dojo for a steaming bowl of Sapporo ramen. Shirakaba-Sansou and Ebisoba Ichigen are two of the most popular restaurants there, so be prepared to queue.
Chitose Airport Domestic Terminal, 3/F.
How to get there
Niseko is about 3 hours away from the Sapporo Chitose Airport. There are a few bus companies running shuttle buses that take you directly from the airport to Niseko, with more frequent services during winter season. Alternatively, you can take the JR train Otaru Line from the airport, and transfer at Otaru station towards Kutchan. Within Niseko, the area is well-connected by local buses and hotel shuttles.