Skiing in Japan is hot right now and Niseko, located on the island of Hokkaido, is one of the most popular ski resort regions in the country. And it’s about to get hotter with a ton of big name hotels including the Park Hyatt, Ritz Carlton Reserve, and an Aman slated to open in the next few years. (The Park Hyatt is almost finished and expected to be up and running by Dec 2019) Famous for its legendary powder, world-class restaurants and stunning views of nearby Mt Yotei, here is why you should consider skiing in Japan next winter.
Tripper Tips:Leave early for your flight -- you'll want some time to wander and eat at the Chitose airport's extensive food court. And it's good if you have some room in your carry on bag, as you'll probably buy something after browsing the sweets and seafood emporiums. We went for a walk at Zaborin and discovered just down the road the most beautiful restaurant and gallery called Somoza. I highly recommend you book a lunch or dinner here at least once during your stay in Niseko. Every detail was absolute esthetic perfection, and we hear the food matches the beauty of the surroundings.
Logistics: It’s an hour-and-a-half flight from Tokyo to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, and then an approximately a two-hour drive to the Niseko United ski area. We flew from the states through Seoul and after a layover caught a direct flight to Sapporo.
Why Go: Skiing in Niseko is awesome; during the peak season of January to mid-February, Niseko has perhaps the best powder in the world, snowing practically every day thanks to a meteorological phenomenon known as “ocean-effect snow”. Most of the skiing on piste is not extreme, which is ideal for intermediates so expert skiers can and should choose to ski off-piste with a guide. (My husband, a die-hard skier, stated that the runs off-piste had a decent pitch but nothing like what he typically skis out west in the states, but again, its all about the powder.)
Highlights: It’s hard to beat the combination of skiing by day, and sake and sushi at night with an afternoon onsen thrown in to soothe ones tired muscles.
Lay of the Land: Niseko is made up of four interlinked ski resorts– Grand Hirafu, Hanazono, Niseko Village, and Annupuri. Grand Hirafu is where most of the action takes place, home to many of the best restaurants and hotels.
Stay: We choose to book Ki Niseko with an ideal location at the base of the mountain and within walking distance to town. The hotel provides a shuttle bus that runs throughout the day, making a few stops at different locations around town. Other plusses include a friendly and helpful staff, a lovely onsen and excellent food at the restaurant where we ate breakfast each morning. For the cons, our room was small, and somewhat spartan and I did wish there was a lively lobby or bar for an afternoon après ski. There is a small spa, really two tiny rooms, but our therapists were excellent. Ki Niseko has a newer sister property, Skye Niseko, a block away that looked very nice, though I didn’t get a chance to go inside. If you can forgo hotel amenities check out Suiboku, offering ten chic loft apartments located right in Grand Hirafu. The new hotel openings will bring more high-end luxury and design to the area, and though the new Park Hyatt looks to be a stunner, its location at the base of Hanazono, a ten minute or so drive from town will be a drawback to some. Walking into town each night for dinner or lunch is a big plus! A comprehensive list of over 200 accommodations in the area ranging from apartments to chalets to hotels to ryokans click here.
Don’t Stay: Our friends were very disappointed during there stay at the Hilton in Niseko village, it’s far from everything, situated at the base of Annupuri Mountain and lacking in charm or authenticity.
Ski Guide: My husband, one who doesn’t lavish accolades lightly, skied with James Winfield and declared him not only a World Class Skier but a world-class guide and person. Get in touch with him at James@transitionski.com and check out his amazing pictures on Instagram at @theJamesWinfield.
Private Chef: If you’re staying in an apartment or house and want to hire a private chef, contact Niseko Gourmet. They also conduct cooking classes, an excellent introduction to Japanese dishes that might be a fun change of pace from hitting the slopes.
Lunch: We loved our sushi lunch at Shokusai Hirafu located right by the Grand Hirafu lifts serving the freshest salmon and tuna. The crab ramen at Hanazono 360 in the base of Hanazono is off the charts. Another day for lunch we slurped delicious Gosetsu Udon at Yuketei, made from 100% local Kutchan potatoes. Lunch at Ki Niseko’s An Dining is another excellent choice.
Dinner: It’s hot pot heaven at Sessa, equally delicious and fun, and one of our favorite meals in Niseko. (A bonus is they have a free car service pick up and drop off from your hotel.) For Izakaya, you must book a table at A Bu Cha 2 way in advance, its deservedly one of Hirafu’s most popular spots. One of our best dinners was at tiny Ezo Seafoods, where you select what you want from the fish counter before heading to your table. (Order the scallops, oysters, Hokkaido fish, and hairy crab) For a change from strictly Japanese fare, we enjoyed our meal at The Barn by Odin, a hybrid of French/Japanese fusion serving decadent Waygu in a very cool architecturally exciting space.
More Eats: We ran out of nights and sadly couldn’t try local institution Bang Bang, another izakaya that rivals A Bu Cha. Michelin stared Sushi Shin is meant to be great, but we didn’t want to hassle with the 25-minute drive to Annupuri. Other highly recommended restaurants include Kumo, Akaru, Ryunabae and La Villa Lupicia for Italian. Put gourmets Michelin starred Kamimura on your list.
Best Bar: Bar Gyu, aka the Fridge Bar, is one of the coolest bars I’ve been to in my travels. From the flights of Japanese whiskey to the cozy, quirky and inviting room with a large window framing the snow out back its easy to see why Gyu is one of Hirafu’s most popular spots.
Apres Ski: A soak in an onsen, Japan's natural hot spring baths is an essential cultural experience and a must when visiting Japan. It's also a wonderful way to cap off a day of skiing. Onsens are a far cry from the hot tubs you’re used to at ski mountains back home, especially as there are no bathing suits allowed. (Men and woman have separate onsens) For many Westerners, this can be slightly disconcerting, but I urge you to get over it. The hot onsen water is believed to have healing properties, full of minerals that are good for your skin, circulation, and general well being. There are no drinks allowed, no music, and it forces you to be still, to contemplate, and to meditate while the snow slowly falls outside.
Other Activities: There's a wealth of activities beyond the slopes to keep everyone busy, including snowmobiling, snow biking, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and snow tubing. In recent years, the region is attracting more and more visitors in the summer months thanks to world-class golf, cycling, mountain biking, hiking, river rafting, and fly-fishing.
Snowshoe Tour: For a change of pace from skiing I booked a half-day photo snowshoe tour with Niseko Photography. It’s a great way to see some of the areas local attractions such as Half Moon Lake, the Niseko Brewery, small local temples, and indulge with a matcha ice cream at the local dairy all while getting photography tips and a bit of exercise.
Shopping: I don’t know the name of the souvenir shop in Hirafu where I stocked up on great gifts to bring home, but it’s not hard to find as its right above the uber-popular ramen restaurant Tozanken on the main drag of town.
Day Outing: Otaru is a fun town to visit if you want a break from skiing, located about an hour or so from Hirafu on Hokkaido’s northern coast. Otaru is a historical canal town known for its old stone warehouses and its excellent seafood restaurants and shops. Nearby you can walk along the coast, visit the Nippon Seishu Yoichi Wine Factory or the Nikka Whisky Distillery in Yoichi.
Extend your Stay: We ended our trip with a one night stay at Zaborin, a luxurious and stunning ryokan located about 5 minutes outside of Hanazono. Surrounded by nature with dramatic views of Mount Yōtei and the Hanazono Forest, Zaborin is an exceptional place where relaxing and doing nothing is the whole point. Every room, has two onsen baths, both filled with mineral-rich volcanic water, one inside and one outside built out of wood or stone. We hardly opened our bag as the hotel provides the traditional Japanese garment called a Samue to wear throughout your stay. (Designed just for Zaborin they were so beautiful we had to buy a set for home) Pajamas and slippers are also provided. Dinner is a multi-course affair incorporating local ingredients; all served exquisitely in a private dining room. Breakfast is another Japanese feast though you can opt for a Western breakfast if a pastry basket is more your speed than tofu and fish in the morning.