Super snowy and justly popular, Niseko has the widest appeal of any of the Japanese ski resorts.
Swaddled in the shadow of Mount Yotei and blessed with perpetual snow – dry, deep and glorious – is Niseko. This is Japan's show-stopper; their internationally-celebrated ski Mecca. It should be compulsory for all skiers and boarders to ride here at least once in their life, but very few do. Because if you come one time, we know for a fact you'll be back again. The on- and off-piste bounty demands it.
Skiing on the 'Niseko United' pass covers a vast area. Bustling Hirafu village is at the centre of the action off the slopes with its inviting après-scene of fantastic restaurants and buzzy bars. Because the international ski fraternity discovered Niseko in the 00s you'll benefit from a great selection of accommodation and an accessible, English-speaking culture. However, if skiing late into the evening sounds more your scene, then you'll be pleased to learn that Niseko has the largest night-skiing area in Asia.
Skiing in Niseko
In a nutshell: Niseko's a winner for everyone. Varied terrain incorporates everything from gentle, sweeping runs lined with snow-dusted trees to heart-in-your-mouth off-piste skiing. A 'Niseko United' ski pass provides access to all ski areas, incorporating Annupuri, Niseko Village, Hirafu and Hanazono – all conveniently interconnected.
Up to the tree line, lifts are speedy and reliable; we love the bad-weather hooded chairs – a little respite from the snowfall – and the pleasing absence of surface-tows! Higher up, things are decidedly older, but the affectionately named suicide chairs get you from A to B all the same.
A liberal attitude towards exploration means that most of the land within the resort boundaries is your playground. There's also some seriously challenging backcountry skiing, accessed via gates off the mountain peak. Think huge expanses of powder in back bowls and the chance to escape other people, finding your very own powder stash away from the hordes.
Safety is vital – make a knowledgeable guide, the Niseko Avalanche website and the savvy gate patrollers your best friends. Different Snow can organise excursions, with safety-conscious experienced and qualified guides, to nearby peaks such as Iwaonupurri, Nihonupurri, Chisenupuri and even towering Mount Yotei – surely the ultimate!
There are a handful of more challenging runs from Niseko Village and on the Alpen Super Course – mainly un-groomed runs, kept fairly even by the regular snowfall. If you're looking for an abundance of black runs, you won't find them here – but you will find true satisfaction by heading off-piste for an ultimate powder adventure.
Miharashi and Strawberry Fields are well-known tree runs, but the landscape can also be pretty open, making Niseko a great place to perfect your powder skiing without the worry of too many trees.
Moiwa, an adjacent resort connected by shuttle bus but not part of the Niseko United ski pass, is well worth a day trip – even more so if it's been snowing hard. Steal first tracks on a fresh powder day on the un-groomed Giant Run or Shirakaba Slopes, this being the stuff of dreams.
Niseko is an intermediate's paradise. You can happily cruise away the days perfecting your technique on sweeping pistes ideal for high-speed carvers; and it's a great place to stretch yourself by trying tougher slopes or delving into that delicious powder. Giving skies mean that sometimes the powder can be knee-deep, posing a new challenge if you're used to the hard-packed stuff. If you get a taste for it, head over to Annupuri and Hanazono, which offer groomed runs as well as the chance to dip your skis in and try a little side-country skiing.
This is a great place to make your first forays, with innumerable wide, well-groomed pistes. More snow means less ice, and fewer embarrassing tumbles!
All four of the main ski areas have runs for beginners – you can take your pick, or explore them all by taking a shuttle bus between them. As you improve you'll soon be able connect on the mountain. We think the Niseko Village base area is the best beginner's hangout.
900 metres of vertical means plenty of pistes to keep you occupied, but we recommend heading off-piste to the plethora of side and backcountry terrain. Free-riding in luxuriant powder is the real joy here.
There are opportunities for shredding between the perfectly placed trees, and if you feel like a challenge, Strawberry Fields is a boarder's heaven – a warren of trees, natural obstacles and drops covered in deep powder. There are also half-pipes and terrain parks, providing plenty of variation.
It all begins with a healthy traditional après-ski culture of enjoying drinks at the end of your day on the slopes – to help ease you into your evening. Come sundown, Hirafu village is where it all happens. Dinner can be a different affair every night, from mouth-watering local noodles joints, izakayas offering boozy snacks to the more familiar pizza, curry or Thai options; the vast majority is that of characteristically high standards, even a handful of Michelin stars thrown in to the mix.
As far as drinking holes go, they are uniformly atmospheric but pleasingly varied – rustic and traditional, sleek and sophisticated, or some just downright quirky. Different Snow have done the necessary research and we'll be happy to provide a list of our favourites!
The most family-friendly of Japan's ski resorts, Niseko has lots to offer. Teenagers will love the general liveliness of the place and will revel in the chance to try activities such as snowmobiling and snow-shoeing. Learning is made fun and inclusive for younger children – with plenty of time for play and an obligatory hot chocolate.
There are several companies offering English-speaking ski lessons as well as babysitting, day or night. Ski School runs for six hours a day, with a fun-focused approach aimed at encouraging young ones to enjoy their time in the snow. Kids Garden has a private learning area meaning no daunting lifts and queues of adults – instead their 'Caterpillar' is a fun way of getting to the top. At lunchtime, Jo Jo's Café provides a delicious spread, and there's time for the playground or games in the Kids Village before hitting the slopes again.