Niseko, Hokkaido - Japan
When you tell your mates that you’re heading to Japan this winter for the snow you might hear a shocked reply “you can ski in Japan?!”. What many people don’t know (but are soon discovering in greater numbers each year) is that Niseko is the unofficial powder capital of the world. Cold winds blowing over from Siberia unceremoniously dump an average of 15m of the lightest, driest and fluffiest powder snow onto Mt. Annupuri each year, making Niseko the second-snowiest resort in the world.
Located in the shadow of the near perfect volcano Mt. Yotei (often called Little Fuji for its similarity to Japan’s iconic symbol), with a summit 1308m above sea level Mt. Annupuri may be small for a resort but what it lacks in height it more than makes up for in tumbling pillow lines, weaving tree runs, and the sheer volume of snow.
The mountain itself is split up into four main areas each with their own unique qualities – Grand Hirafu, Hanazono, Niseko Village and Annupuri – all of which are accessible with one all mountain pass. Hirafu is the largest and most popular area, both for skiing and for nightlife. There is a wide range of groomed runs to suit all levels but what people come to Niseko for is the powder.
Niseko has a remarkably laid back stance towards off-piste skiing – as long as you don’t enter the strictly off limits areas clearly marked you are generally ok – if there are no ropes, there’s no problem. Be warned, however, while it is ok to leave the limits of the resort you do so at your own risk and could face a hefty charge should you need to get rescued by patrol.
You can have hours of fun exploring as there are plenty of fun tree runs, pillows, natural half-pipes and gullies to discover. Alternatively, find someone to point you in the direction of some local favourite spots: Rob Roy’s, Jacksons, Super Ridge or Strawberries... you won’t find these marked on any piste map. Some areas can get annoyingly flat though at times, so be careful not to get stuck unless you fancy a slog back to the groomers through waist deep snow – not so fun in all your thermals.
For the experienced skier/boarder you can exit the resort through any of nine gates to access the famous backcountry. Avalanches are very rare in Niseko and patrol will only open these gates if deemed safe enough but this is no reason to be complacent – you should only exit through the gates if you have the skills, knowledge and experience. Always read the daily avalanche reports and avalanche/backcountry gear is recommended. If you have all of the above, after a large dump (of snow) get up early, shake off last night’s hangover, hike up to the summit and enjoy the sublime fresh tracks to the bottom.
Niseko has excellent night skiing with large areas of the mountain (mainly in Hirafu) staying open until 8.30pm. You’ll find many of the locals come out at night after a hard day’s work to enjoy the mountain nearly all to themselves. Floating silently through the floodlit trees with hardly a soul in sight is an eerie but beautiful experience.
After a long cold day’s shredding there is nothing better to soothe your aching muscles and drive the chill from your body than a trip to an onsen (natural hot spring). You’ll need to leave your belongings in the changing room, strip naked (make sure you’re in the right gender changing room!) and armed only with a small modesty towel enter the steamy onsen.
It can be quite daunting at first but you’ll soon get used to it when you realise that no one else really cares. Wash yourself thoroughly in the stalls and showers provided before entering the bath, place your towel on your head like a pro and relax. Many places will also have a rotenburo, an outdoor bath set amongst snowy boulders and trees. Try Yukoro Onsen in lower Hirafu for an easy budget option or head to the Hilton Green Leaf Hotel in Niseko Village for a beautifully tranquil rotenburo.
For such a small area Niseko has a huge number and variety of food options, mainly in Hirafu. If you fancy some good cheap Japanese food head to an izakaya (a sort of pub/restaurant). You’ll find lots of small dishes on offer, great for sharing over a few beers.
If you want to get away from the hordes of gaijin (non-Japanese) catch the bus to the nearby town for a more authentic Japanese experience. Mount Ramen on the main road into Kutchan does the most incredible ramen (noodle soup). Try the ‘Habanero’, if you can hack it, and a side order of gyoza is a must. If you’re feeling peckish late into the night head to Yosaku for some great yakitori (skewers) or failing that, follow the crowds stumbling to the 24hr Lawson’s for some of their legendary fried chicken and a couple of extra beers.
Niseko has a varied but thriving nightlife, with an eccentric mix of western bars and small Japanese oddities. The largest parties kick off at Wild Bill’s with DJs brought in from the city smashing out the latest electronic music on the dance floor. Live music can often be found at Tamashii’s which also hosts weekly darts tournaments and regular giveaways. BloBlo is as curious as the name suggests; a tiny little bar with a great atmosphere, it comes complete with a strip pole, pornographic wallpaper and a real ice bar outside (depending when you go). DJs are squeezed in weekly with no real rules regarding nights, genres or volume. Duck through the low door into the smoky Bar Barunba and ask the Japanese bartenders for their signature cocktails – Bruce Willis or Jet Li. Don’t bother asking what’s in them – they won’t tell you – but rest assured a couple of these will set you up for an interesting night. The party more often than not reaches its climax at Bigfoot Lodge, which gets wilder and stays later as the bartenders keep drinking – think rum laybacks through traffic cones and jugs of their very own ‘red cup’ punch.
For those seeking a more sophisticated night out, the roaring open fire at the Maki Lounge is the perfect place to put your feet up with a warm cup of saké (though many connoisseurs will argue fine saké should be enjoyed cold) or ume-shu (plum wine).
Gyu bar (or as it’s known – fridge door bar) is often overlooked and the subject of many a fruitless search as its entrance is literally an old Coca Cola fridge door tucked into a huge mound of snow at the roadside. You wouldn’t be the first to assume it’s an old out of use vending machine, however inside you’ll find a superb selection of whiskies, including the acclaimed rare Ichiro’s Malt Card series.
As with all rapidly expanding resorts, accommodation can be pricey with luxury hotels springing up at an alarming rate. However there are still budget options available, especially if you’re willing to stay outside the village. Niseko Holiday in lower Hirafu offer simple apartments in a great location for an affordable price and because you’re in Japan, you can expect top-notch cleanliness and service as a given.
The season is relatively short (December – mid April) and the best time to go would be January or February where snow (and plenty of it) is guaranteed, however it can get very busy, especially with Chinese New Year falling sometime within these months each year. Niseko is 3 hours away by coach from New Chitose Airport served by a growing number of budget airlines and online early bird bargains.
If you’re looking for a piece of true Japan, this is definitely not it. But if you are looking for a good time and a seemingly endless supply of snow, go to Niseko.
Author: Hugo Siddle
Habanero ramen from Mount Ramen
Saki or ume-shu (plum wine)
Niseko Holiday in lower Hirafu
The fridge door bar
Snowboard! (or ski)
COST OF A BEER in a bar:
£2.90 / 500 Yen