Fall is upon us, the leaves are changing, and ski season is right around the corner! Where are you headed this year? You’ve skied the European Alps, the western US, Canada, and New England. So you’ve done it all, right? The answer is NO!! If you’re an avid skier, and no matter where you’ve been already, skiing in Japan needs to be on your bucket list.
But why do people travel so far to go skiing in Japan? This question has come up a lot recently…
The simple answer is obvious. It’s for the SNOW! On the northern island of Hokkaido, where the Niseko United ski resort resides and where the snow is super light, ridiculously dry, and extremely consistent, over 500 inches of the fluffy stuff falls each season.
The multi-fold answer is what has contributed to putting skiing in Japan, specifically at Niseko, high on the destination list for ski vacationers worldwide over the past four or five years. Beyond the snow, it’s the off-piste and backcountry terrain, the ski-in/ski-out accommodations, the onsens, and the exceptional, Michelin level food. When comparing the hundreds of other resorts Japan has to offer, Niseko truly has it all.
Why is the snow SO good?
Ok, so 500-plus inches of blower snow a year, on average…what gives? Without getting too deep in the weeds, it’s all about the geography of the region. You have the Japanese Alps on one side, acting as the region’s backbone on Japan’s main island of Honshu. And then you have bitterly cold westerly winds (originating from the west and blowing east) coming off the continent of Asia or down from Siberia. Combine these with super moisture-laden clouds and you get waist deep and extraordinarily dry powder for days.
Yes, the hype for skiing in Japan is real… And, of course, this is what causes hashtags like #Japow, #Japanuary, and #Japowder to be all the craze in the skiing world.
How is the skiing?
Skiing in Japan caters to a wide range of ability levels. While Niseko has great beginner and intermediate terrain on-resort, it is also a mecca for expert skiers looking to find those highly sought after powder stashes. Comprised of four different skiing areas, Niseko has plenty of beginner and intermediate trails. For the advanced skier looking for something more, there are amazing opportunities for off-piste tree skiing, sidecountry, and guided backcountry skiing.
If you’re looking to for a guided backcountry trip or just want someone who knows the mountain to show you around, where to find the good snow, and how to avoid the crowds, Journey Bound has formed strategic relationships with local partners to help set you up with the right people. The guides are well-vetted, English speaking, and super knowledgeable of all things mountain related.
If you’re staying for upwards of a week or more, Niseko is also a solid base for day trips to a couple of the nearby ski areas like Rusutsu (about a 45 minute drive) and Kiroro (about a 1 hour drive). Both of these are much less developed from an infrastructure perspective in terms of accommodations and dining, but they offer great skiing and lesser crowds.
Where should we stay?
Out of all of the ski resorts in Japan, Niseko has made it a point to invest money in their resort infrastructure. This starts with the accommodations, for which there are a number of options ranging from higher end, ski-in/ski-out properties that cater really well to the skiing crowd, to ryokan style accommodations that focus more on the traditional Japanese style experience.
And I would like to quickly set your expectations. Niseko’s highest end accommodation options aren’t quite at the true 5-star caliber you might be used to in North America. With new additions opening in the not too distant future like Park Hyatt and Ritz Carlton, Niseko is making their best effort to get there…
Ski-in/ski-out in the center of it all
If you are looking for ski-in/ski-out and you want to be in the middle of it all, stay in the Grand Hirafu village. This is where most of the best dining, drinking, and shopping is. When you are not skiing, you will have plenty to keep you entertained. Two of the higher-end 4-star, ski-in/ski-out properties I recommend are Skye Niseko and Ki Niseko, for these reasons:
- Both properties cater well to the skiing crowd with all of the skier friendly amenities you might expect.
- They are both newer, modernized properties with large windows and a simple but bright, zen decor.
- Skye is one of the newest properties at Niseko, opening in December 2018; Ki is also relatively new and opened in December 2014.
- We can’t forget about the onsens, one of the top selling points for the Japan après ski scene! Both properties have onsite onsens, with public and reserved private options depending on your preference.
The high-end ski-in/ski-out newcomer
If you want high-end, but don’t care to be in the center of the action, consider what will be the newest (and arguably the most luxurious) property to enter the Niseko ski scene in January 2020: Park Hyatt Niseko. While it is ski-in/ski-out, it is located in the lesser developed village of Hanazono. No, there isn’t much in terms of dining, drinking, and shopping in this particular village, but the Park Hyatt will have a whopping 11 restaurants and bars onsite, providing guests plenty of amazing options for food and drink in the hotel. The cherry on top? The Park Hyatt culinary scene will feature two Michelin starred chefs!
If 11 options isn’t enough, or you simply want to explore what else Niseko has to offer, the Park Hyatt will be rolling out its own fleet of limousines as well as a regular shuttle service to and from the Grand Hirafu village available exclusively to hotel guests. And yes, the property has onsens onsite for all your après ski rest and recovery needs.
The traditional Japanese experience
If ski-in/ski-out isn’t your thing and you don’t mind feeling a bit secluded, Zaborin is a beautiful property just outside of the Hanazono village area that will give you an authentically Japanese ryokan experience. Here, the focus is about the service, the cuisine, and the restorative benefits of onsens.
When you stay here, you’ll be eating most of your meals in the only restaurant onsite, kaiseki style. While there is only one restaurant onsite, they put so much focus on the dining experience that your meals are sure to be memorable. This is a good thing, since you’ll feel a bit remote from the rest of Niseko. If you are looking to explore the rest of what the Niseko dining scene has to offer, you have two options for transportation:
- The property can arrange a taxi for you, but this can sometimes be difficult during the winter.
- You can take the on demand shuttle service from Zaborin to the Hanazono village, and from there catch the free Niseko shuttle to Grand Hirafu which runs every 15 minutes most of the day.
When visiting for a ski trip upwards of a week or longer, it is not typical for guests to spend their entire time at this property, nor is it typical for guests visiting Japan to stay at a ryokan for more than a few days. It’s quite different for most western visitors, so if you’re interested in a ryokan experience at Niseko, it might be best to split your time between Zaborin and one of the other properties previously mentioned.
What exactly is an onsen?
Not everyone is familiar with this, and because I’ve mentioned it a few times, let me take a second to explain what an onsen is. Put simply, an onsen is a Japanese hot spring. Because Japan is so volcanically active, there are literally thousands of onsens spread throughout the country, and the health benefits of this mineral-rich water should not be ignored! There are outdoor and indoor options, private and public, and most public onsens these days are gender separated. No matter what way you slice it, onsens provide a soothingly restorative après ski option after a hard day crushing that Japowder!
What’s the best way to get there?
The closest airport to Niseko is New Chitose Airport (CTS) in Sapporo. You can either find the most efficient route there from your origin location, or you can just fly into Tokyo. From Tokyo, you have two nonstop flight options, both under two hours:
- Fly from Narita International Airport (NRT) to New Chitose Airport (CTS)
- Fly from Haneda Airport (HND) to New Chitose Airport (CTS)
From New Chitose, take a private transfer or shuttle to Niseko, which is about a two hour drive.
Anything else I should know?
Consider the timing of your trip relative to the famous Sapporo Snow Festival, which this season is being held from January 30th through February 11th, 2020. Either be aware of how this event might affect crowds at Niseko, or time your trip so you can spend a night or two in Sapporo and see for yourself what makes this festival so magical!
Niseko is on the IKON Pass, which gives pass holders up to 7 days of skiing in Japan at Niseko with no blackout dates. If you are already an avid skier in North America and you’re considering a ski trip to Japan, the IKON Pass is a no brainer!
When all is said and done…
I hope this article has given you a good idea of what a skiing in Japan, and in particular, Niseko, looks like. When considering all the things — the snow, the terrain, the accommodations, the dining, and the après ski options — it’s hard to argue against Niseko.
And, while you’re flying all the way to Japan, adding an extra week-plus to your vacation will give you the opportunity to immerse yourself in the Japanese culture via Tokyo and Kyoto. Think about it…
- Fly into Tokyo
- Explore Tokyo for 3 days
- Fly to Hokkaido and ski Niseko for 6 or 7 days
- Fly to Osaka
- Make your way to Kyoto (just over an hour driving and about two hours via train)
- Spend your last 3 days in Kyoto
This itinerary can be absolutely be adjusted to suit your needs, but I hope it gives you a rough idea of what is possible to make the most out of your trip to Japan!
LET IT SNOW and happy skiing!!!
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