Japan is one of my favorite countries in Asia. I have been to Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya which are relatively more popular but, I wasn’t sure if I will enjoy Hokkaido (Niseko) as much, especially since it’s winter. I have a love and hate relationship with winter but I am definitely interested in skiing. I’ve tried skiing twice before, first in South Korea and second in France but never really took it seriously until this trip to Niseko, Hokkaido.
Before you read further, just to be clear, this article is all about skiing in Niseko, Japan with a few tips on how to go there, where to stay, what to do, eat, and drink. It will be long but I assure you, there’s less of my face and emotions in the article and more on useful information!
Located in the Shiribeshi Subprefecture, Hokkaido, Japan, Niseko is known for its mountain range encompassing Mount Yotei and Annupuri, and a municipal area. For tourists, especially avid skiers, it is more known for its quality powder snow, traditional onsens, and local food (they also have lots of food trucks!).
Are you an avid skier or do you want to be one? If yes, continue reading!
Skiing in Niseko
Niseko has 6 ski areas, 4 of which are the main locations interconnected by one ski pass. The main four areas are Niseko Hirafu, Niseko Village (aka Higashiyama), Niseko Annupuri, and Niseko Hanazono while the other two remaining areas are Niseko Moiwa and Niseko Weiss. I skied in Niseko Annupuri where our hotel was.
Why is Niseko known for its quality powder snow?
This is mainly because of the northwest to southeast Siberian winds in winter resulting to light and dry powder snow with high volume of snowfall making it more attractive for professional skiers.
How to get to Niseko from the airport and back?
You can fly in New Chitose Airport in Sapporo which is 2-3 hours away from Niseko by car or by bus. I used the Niseko Village Airport Express (click this link) to go to the hotel. They offer private or bus. You just need to book and confirm your reservation via the website. In the airport arrival area, you will find on the right different stalls offering wifi, ski lessons, tours, and transportation. Near the smoking area and toilet, you will see NVAE desk. The driver picked me up there.
You can book your return trip in the same website. But if your flight is either too late or too early, it might not fit the available schedule service of NVAE. In my case, my flight the next day was at 9:20 am but I didn’t want to stay in Sapporo for the night cause I’m going to lose almost 1 ski day in Niseko. I hired a private taxi transfer from the hotel to the airport through VIATOR. It picked me up at 4am and got to the airport by 6am so it is reliable. The driver was already in the hotel around 2am. My guess is, it’s either the Viator supplier for this specific service was really efficient or well I was in Japan, everything and everyone is just efficient there.
Important note, the New Chitose Airport only opens at 6:20am so don’t bother going there early unless you are prepared to wait outside the airport in freezing temperature.
Additional Note: Viator is an online platform by TripAdvisor that offer tours, transportation and other travel services for independent travelers.
Where to take the Ski lessons in Niseko?
There are a few ski schools in Niseko. If you are after convenience, it will be best to enroll in the nearest ski school from your hotel. I enrolled in Niseko Village Snow School which is just located in Green Leaf Niseko Hotel. In my first day, I enrolled in a full day group lesson for level 2 while in my second day, I took the morning private lesson. The lessons are quite expensive I have to admit, but it was worth it especially if you are keen on skiing in the future. As expected, private lessons are more expensive than group lessons. They also have night ski lessons for more advanced skiers.
Full Day Group Lesson, Level 2
- Almost 5 hours; from 10:00am to 3:00pm with a lunch break
- Lift pass included
- You still have to rent your ski clothes and equipment which is not included in the payment for the lesson. You can get it in the same place where you can find the ski school. Rent it a day before your lesson.
- Rent Ski Clothes – Jacket, Pants, Cap, Goggles, Gloves. If you have your own, then you don’t need this. Also, a scarf to cover your face or mouth is a must, especially when it gets windy.
- Rent Poles and Boots- they will assist you on this.
- I was the only level 2 student so even if I paid for a group lesson it turned out as a private lesson. If you want to choose an instructor, get Mr. Okuno. He was really patient with me and was strict in terms of making sure I get the basics right before I learn the other tricks.
Morning Private Lesson, Level 2
- Almost 2.5 hours; from 9:45am to 12:15pm
- Buy your own lift pass. Do this before the start of your lesson.
- You still have to rent your ski clothes and equipment. Better to rent them for the number of days that you plan to ski so you don’t have to repeat the whole renting process.
- I requested for the same instructor I got during the group lesson to ensure that he already knows what else I need to improve on and what new skills he can teach me. To request for your preferred coach, you just need to add 1000 Yen.
What I know before the Ski Lessons?
- How to put on the ski gears and equipment
- A little bit of plowing. I didn’t know how important it was to know how to properly plow.
What I know after the Ski Lessons?
- How to put on the ski gears and equipment, safely and faster
- I was more comfortable in riding the lifts. I was afraid it will drag me when I try to get on and off it.
- My plowing skills are so much better and I am able to stop when needed.
- I know how to turn. My left turns are good, I have to practice my right turns. Or is it the other way around?
- I was able to try a steeper slope but obviously I still have to work on controlling my speed and my turns. I fell twice.
Here is a short video while I was practicing my turns:
Overall, skiing reminds me of surfing. It has the same adrenaline when you’re going fast down the slope. I will definitely try to train more so I can do steeper slopes.
This is the Niseko Trail Map:
I did the following trails:
- Beginner (Green): Final Fling, Shaky Knees, Next Stage, Cruiser, Pure Magic, Banzai
- More Advanced (Red): Koguma. I did this once with the instructor and fell down twice so I decided I’m not ready for it yet.
Where to stay in Niseko?
There are a lot of hostels and lodges around the area but again, if you are looking for convenience a ski-in ski-out hotel will be best. The hotels in Niseko Village have direct access to the ski areas.
Here are some accommodations I considered before choosing Green Leaf:
- Ki Niseko
- Ramat Niseko Lodge
- M Hotel
- My Ecolodge
- Hirafutei Niseko Prince Hotel
- The Barn
- Blackdiamond Lodge
I cannot vouch for any of the above, but it’s worth checking if you’re looking for other options.
I stayed in Green Leaf Niseko Village hotel to enjoy the following services:
- Shuttle service around Niseko (Niseko Village, Milk Kobo, Restaurants, Municipal Area etc(
- Ski-in Ski out access
- Direct Access to the Ski school
- Traditional Onsen – they allowed me to use the onsen even if I have a tattoo, as long as the tattoo is not too big or covers a whole area of your body. They also have separate Onsen for females and males, just in case you prefer that. Green Leaf has an indoor and outdoor onsen. I had the best time in the outdoor onsen. I was the only one there and I was soaked in warm water while there was so much snow falling on my face. It was the most relaxing. If you want to know more about Japanese Onsen, you can read a few basic information below. Hotel guests have unlimited access to this. Perfect to end a day of skiing!
- Thermal Pool – they have their own thermal outdoor pool, if you are keen on doing laps. The water here comes from the same Onsen water source.
- In house bar and restaurant
- They have a money exchange machine
What to do in Niseko?
Try the Traditional Onsen
Public and private traditional onsens are available in the area. It is a perfect place to cool down after a whole day of skiing. The hot water source comes from a 100% natural mineral spring that is believed to have natural healing powers because of its mineral content.
Things to remember when trying an onsen:
- Still in some areas, tattoo is taboo. There are onsens that allow people with small to medium sized tattoos, you just have to ask prior to entering the onsen.
- You are required to be naked when entering the onsen.
- Make sure to take a shower first before going to the pool.
- For girls with long hair, it is preferred that you tie your hair up and don’t let it soak in the water.
- Do not wash your towel in the pool.
- Staring is rude.
- Do not take photos.
Desserts and Dairy Products in Milk Kobo
Hokkaido in general is known for its dairy products; in fact, this area had the first farms that produced milk in Japan. You have to try the cheese cake, cheese tart and the milk and chocolate ice cream! If you have time you can visit the farm right beside the store.
Have dinner and drinks in an Izakaya
Izakaya is an informal Japanese pub where people go to after work. Go to Momiji-zaka Street and look for Kougetsu. There are also other restaurants in that street if you don’t like this one. If you take the Niseko Village Shuttle, it will drop you off beside a waiting shed where you will also see some food trucks. Across the street, you will find the Momiji-zaka road.
Kougetsu is a family run Japanese Izakaya and Bar. It is quite popular so better get a reservation to be sure. I definitely recommend the beer paired with sushi and Zangi chicken.
Food trucks are also along the main road. Some offers western snacks, the others are Indian dishes. I tried the butter naan after a drinking session; consequently, it was the best naan ever.
“Zangi” is Hokkaido’s version of chicken Karaage. Simply put, it is a fried chicken only with a stronger flavor deep fried in batter. Soy sauce, garlic and ginger are often used to season it. I have no photos though.
But here is a photo of my Yotei Ramen and Sapporo Beer!
Visit Niseko Village
Niseko Village is more of a tourist spot where you can find the more expensive restaurants like Two sticks Izakaya and Crab Shack and some souvenir shops. It is located just beside the Hilton Hotel. The stalls have a traditional Japanese architecture, perfect for photos.
From Niseko Village Website
Hokkaido is known for the Asahikawa-style ramen which is a soy-sauce version of Sapporo’s miso-flavored ramen. While trying to search for a Niseko souvenir, I stumbled upon Tozanken Ramen, located at the ground floor of a big souvenir shop in Hirafu-Zaka street. There was a long line of people waiting to be seated. That means, the food is that good so I decided to have dinner there. They say, the place is only open during winter and is very popular because it serves 100% Hokkaido wheat noodles and the famous Asahikawa style ramen. I ordered ramen with gyoza dumplings and of course, Sapporo beer. I highly recommend this place.
Drink in Bar Gyu
Bar Gyu is known for its vintage fridge door in lower Hirafu. It is further down the street that’s near Niseko Pizza. It serves beer, whiskey, and good cocktails. I had the whisky tasting, beer, and an apple tart. It is small but very cozy, with good music, ambiance, and you get to see the snow falling by the window pane.
This is the vibe inside Bar Gyu when we went.
Niseko feels a bit small compared to Tokyo or Nagoya but it definitely has its own charm. If skiing is what you are looking for, this is the perfect place and the perfect vibe. I will definitely can go back here and ski some more!
That’s it for my Chinese New Year escapade. Follow me in instagram @travelanyway for some random trips and daily musings. Ciao!