If you are a hardened skier or snowboarder, then you will know of the legendary status that Niseko holds worldwide for its epic powder snow and consistently heavy snowfall. If you are a beginner or first-time skier or snowboarder, Niseko’s famously fluffy powder snow makes life much easier (and less painful) for you or your family. If you are intermediate or experienced on the piste, then the opportunity for off-piste tree runs through knee to waist-deep powder for the first time is something special.
For those considering a trip to the “Aspen of the East” our Niseko self-guided tour video will help to get you excited!
Below are some of our top tips for first time (or repeat) Niseko visitors!
Niseko’s Ski Resorts
Niseko United is composed of 4 independently owned and operated ski resorts, four of which are connected at the top of a common mountain.The Niseko “all-mountain lift pass” covers for all four resorts (though slightly cheaper passes are available if you are going to remain in one area only. A free shuttle bus transports skiers between the four resorts for those wishing to experience another resort but not keen to ride the red and black runs at the top to get from one side to another. In times of high wind, the top lifts may close which may make it impossible to ski back. The buses go regularly and are approximately a 15-minute drive from one base to another.
Niseko United Resort is well serviced with 5 high-speed gondolas, 7 covered chair lifts (including a 6 person and several 4 person lifts) and 18 further chair lifts. The white gondolas on the bottom left lead directly from the Niseko Hilton hotel at Higashiyama and the iconic red gondolas run almost to the top of Niseko Grand Hirafu.
Worlds finest powder snow!
The word “powder snow” is often reported by resorts around the world, making bold claims to entice visitors. Some of these resorts do indeed get a day or two each season of powder snow skiing after the perfect storm. But there is no question that Niseko is the undisputed King of Powder Snow resorts. If you have skiied in Europe and think you have experienced good snow, you need to think again and check out the below video to see what you are missing out on in Japan.
As can be seen in the above clip, powder skiing or snowboarding is quite a different experience and unlike anything else in the world. Advanced skiers or snowboarders who have only ever ridden groomed pistes, icy pistes or through a couple of inches of snow at the edge of the pistes need to learn a different technique for how to ride through bottomless fluffy powder snow. Wider “powder skis” or longer fish-tailed snowboard with a set-up favouring weight on the back foot can be rented in Niseko for those bumper powder days when even the centre of the busy pistes offers knee to waist-deep powder runs.
Wider “powder skis” or longer fish-tailed snowboard with a set-up favouring weight on the back foot can be rented in Niseko for those bumper powder days when even the centre of the busy pistes offers knee to waist-deep powder runs. If you need to stop quickly, simply throwing yourself to the ground is a perfectly safe and effective tactic (and a lot of fun making a giant powder splash), but be warned that skier may lose a ski if it gets buried in the snow. Some have had to look for hours to find and dig out an missing ski after a tumble.
There are 18 ungroomed “powder runs” in Niseko and if for whatever reason powder skiing is not your thing, there are over 50 ski runs that are serviced several times daily by groomers for those seeking the speed or control that comes with carving an edge into corduroy groomed snow. There are several large moguls fields also for those skiers looking to work on their slalom technique.
7 Snow Sports Schools & 4 dedicated kids areas on piste
Thanks to an influx of Australian and New Zealand based ski instructors & ski rental and equipment maintenance experts seeking a second winter season in a different hemisphere, the is an abundance of highly experienced English speaking ski industry professionals working each winter in Niseko. There are 7 ski schools offering private and group instruction (& many times more private mountain guides). Most if not all of which offer native English speaking or highly fluent English speaking instructors. The Niseko International Sports School (NISS) offer world class ski instruction for children as young as 3 years old.
Furthermore, Niseko boasts five walk-on walk-off “magic carpet” travelator lifts which are located in the kids ski school. These make it easy for 3-year-olds and 30-year-olds alike on their first day on the slopes.
3 Extra Niseko Ski Resorts (usually kept as a local secret)
Three less commonly visited (and massively unrated/under reported) resorts are Niseko Moiwa Ski Resort, Niseko Weiss and Chisenupuri. Moiwa is a favourite with locals as despite being a much smaller ski hill with only two chairlifts, due to lack of crowds even during peak season, it is often possible to ski fresh “virgin” powder tracks all day long. Niseko Wiess and Chisenupuri are open for Cat skiing only, with different operators offering access by Caterpiller to steep “powder stashes” for advanced riders or more gentle slopes.
There are 12 backcountry guiding companies that will check the weather on the morning of a group tour and decide on the resort to drive to based on the specific snowfall experienced the night before and their near real-time knowledge of the snow conditions of many different resorts within an hour or two’s drive. Niseko Photography offers a half day package for a professional photographer/videographer to accompany your/your group on the mountain to capture some memorable moments. They are a great source of information on where the best “hidden stashes” of powder are located. If Cat Skiing if not enough, Heli Skiing is also available on a nearby mountain with pickup and drop off to Niseko.
Niseko Photography offers a half day package for a professional photographer/videographer to accompany your/your group on the mountain to capture some memorable moments. They are a great source of information on where the best “hidden stashes” of powder are located.
Night Skiing in Niseko
Besides the abundant powder snow, the next most distinguishing fact about Niseko is the size of its night skiing area. With one of the largest night skiing areas in the world, Niseko offers visitors a truly unique holiday experience on a number of fronts. Firstly, with lifts open from 8.30 to 8.30pm, Niseko offers incredible value allowing visitors to ride a ski day on the mountain, come down to the village to eat, drink and rest before going back up for another hour to two on the slopes that same evening.
Besides the extra hours of operation gifted to visitors, helping them get the most out of their trip, the experience of skiing or snowboarding at night is something quite special. Whilst it may seem daunting before hand, once you try night-skiing, you quickly realise the advantage of having so many direct sources of light hitting the snow. The shadows from the floodlights, coming from all directions, gives great contrast and makes reading the surface of the mountain even easier than during normal daylight. Also, the views down from the top of the floodlight mountain are nothing short of spectacular.
The below video gives just a taste of what you may expect!
Snow Parks in Niseko
Whether you want to get your adrenaline pumping, or perhaps you just want to watch some professionals impress with their tricks and flips, Niseko’s 4 snow parks are a great source of entertainment. With a full sized half-pipe, many rails, kickers, boxes (including the roof of an actual bus mostly buried in snow), Niseko has everything an advanced rider/skier needs to keep them happy. The snow park at Niseko Grand Hirafu offers the best photo opportunities with the neighbouring volcano Mt Yotei in the background, whereas the snow park in Hanazono is the most comprehensive and has the largest jumps.
For those wishing to challenge themselves to something they would never have dreamed of, Hanazono also offers a “bag-jump” that all-but-guarantees a soft landing. Perfect for first timers to ski jumps who want to experience some “big air” and equally perfect for trying out that 360 or back flip that takes courage to try or a normal jump for the first time. Rather than having to ride the lifts and down to the jump again, it is possible to unclip skis/snowboard bindings and simply walk back up to the jump start-point, again and again, to really start improving your skills in a relatively short time.
Non-Ski Activities in Niseko
Traveling with someone who is not so keen on skiing or snowboarding? Perhaps you’re traveling with a partner who is at a very different level of ability and you want to do something fun together? Pulled a muscle and need a break from the slopes for a couple of days? Or perhaps you want to keep the younger members of the family entertained?
Niseko offers a wide range of guided, non-ski winter activities (with English language instruction available) to complement the ski facilities.
Like Cat skiing, there are several snow mobile operators that offer an experience snowmobiling through open fields for those looking for something that caters to all levels. Getting up to speeds of 60km/h, it is a thrilling experience on snow, even on flat ground.
But there are several backcountry guiding companies that offer a more hardcore, deep powder snowmobile experience on the backside of the mountain, far away from any skiers or lifts. Word of caution though, only the physically fit should consider that option as you will likely have to dig your 300+kg snow mobile out of the snow when you get stuck (again and again) until you master the technique of riding in powder.
Niseko Accommodation & Après-Ski
Japan has over 700 ski resorts, and Niseko is one of the largest in terms of what it offers international visitors. Hirafu has a year round population of just 800 people but explodes during the winter season with seasonal staff and visitors alike. Last year over a record 811,000 visitors stayed overnight in Niseko.
In terms of bars, restaurants, accommodation and après-ski life each of the 4 Niseko resorts each has its own unique qualities, but without question, Hirafu village (seen below from the slopes) is the heart of it all and visitors can “ski-in ski-out” to many cafes and bars some several hotels, self-catered condominiums. It’s worth noting that the cost of accommodation varies significantly based on location and quite a steep price may be charged for true Ski-in ski-out accommodation during peak season such as the week of the Chinese New Year with comparable options just a 2-minute walk away near half the price.
Niseko United has 7 cafes or restaurants up on the mountain itself for a hot chocolate, beer or bit of lunch. This may not seem like a lot but some of those at the top of Gondolas can cater for hundreds at a time. At the village level, you are literally spoilt for choice as the resort offers world class luxury accommodation and multiple Michelin Star award winning restaurants. For those on more of a budget, there are ample street vans and vendors offering both Japanese and international cuisine throughout the resort.
One of our favourite bars is the Ice Bar. This is constructed by erecting a basic metal frame with some mesh wire panels and running a water hosepipe from the top down onto the structure. The water keeps running all season the ice continually changes shape and grows larger with time. Cocktails drank out of cups carved from ice complete the unforgettable experience.
Onsen (Volcanic Hot Spring Spa)
There is no better way to recover from a full day on the mountain and prepare the muscles for another session the following day than to soak in a mineral rich volcanic hot spring bath. There are 13 of these “onsen” located in or close to Niseko, some with different mineral content in the water as they draw water from different thermally heated sources of water deep underground. Locals will be able to tell you which water is better for the skin, for muscle recovery or for a host of other ailments. But whatever the water type, a visit to the onsen is perhaps the quintessential Japanese experience and adds yet another factor to make Japan a unique choice for your winter break.
The below onsen is in The Vale Niseko, at the base of Hirafu’s “family run” ski slope. The Vale has won the title of World’s Best Ski Boutique Hotel at the world ski awards (the Oscars of the Ski Industry) for the last three years in a row.
Talk to us to plan your perfect alpine holiday experience!
Unique Japan Tours have staff who have spent several years living and working in Niseko, so we know every inch of the resort. Our self-guided “See and Ski Japan Tour, featuring Niseko” is increasing in popularity as the world slowly learns about the advantages of skiing in Japan over Europe and North America.
Contact us today to make an enquiry or seek further information on what we offer you to make your winter dream holiday a reality!