Nestled in the shadow of Mt. Yotei – Hokkaido’s answer to Mt. Fuji – lies a sleepy town called Niseko. Despite a modest population of 5,000, when winter hits, this unassuming agricultural paradise bursts into life, with ski and snowboard enthusiasts descending upon the shimmering landscape from all around the globe.
Austria recently hosted the third World Ski Awards, where Niseko Village won every single award in the Japan category (for the third year running), including World’s Best Ski Boutique Hotel. This continued praise marks well-deserved growing international recognition.
As I look out over Niseko Annupuri, the mountain range adorned with ski lifts snaking their way to the summit, I could see the queues forming earlier today. They call it a “bluebird” day – a clear, sunny day following an overnight snowstorm; the perfect day to ski. Having been in the area for a while now, I fully appreciate how rare these days are. Niseko is the epitome of a winter wonderland. The landscape is a pure white canvas from December to March. The sky mirrors the slopes as a near unending veil of snow falls upon the pines. It is Niseko’s world-famous powder snow.
While you come for the powder, you stay for the skiing opportunity of a lifetime. Niseko Annupuri boasts some of the most accessible and rewarding off-piste skiing in the world. A word of warning, however, as you will need to take skis or a snowboard designed for powder snow. Between the trees, the mountain is noticeably ungroomed and you will definitely sink without the appropriate equipment.
Another advantage of choosing Japan as your skiing destination, Niseko offers unforgettable night skiing. Don’t be so hasty and head to the local bar as soon as the sun has set. Stick around for a few more hours and enjoy a quieter, more magical experience on the mountain. The floodlights flicker to life and create a surreal yellow glow across the vista. While many other weary travellers are already hanging up their poles for the day, I highly recommend experiencing a peaceful nighttime run. If you’re lucky and the sky is clear, you’ll be rewarded with a spectacular view of Mt. Yotei silhouetted in the moonlight, and the twinkling lights of the many bars and restaurants below.
By now, your bones will be aching after a long day on the slopes; Niseko has some of the best natural hot springs in Hokkaido. Known as “onsen” to the natives, sinking into the warm mineral water and relaxing in the natural surroundings is one of the absolute best ways to après-ski. Onsen isn’t necessarily for the prude, however, as many do have a strict dress code – nothing at all. If you aren’t shy, the surrounding resorts offer beautifully maintained facilities, including all-natural, sulfuric-smelling bathing for the strong-nosed. Let the mineral-rich baths rejuvenate you for tomorrow’s next adventure.
That adventure does not necessarily have to be another day on the mountain. Niseko caters to visitors of all shapes, sizes and ages! Jump on a sled and let a friendly reindeer whisk you away on a tour of the area, or do so yourself on a snowmobile. If, like me, you’re all about the experience, then do not miss the park near the Niseko Village shopping district. Among the trees, you will find a popular high rope attraction, including exhilarating zip lines over a snowy abyss. These unique alternatives to skiing offer long-lasting getaway memories.
I’m thirsty. Luckily, as I massage my calves looking for a place to replenish my energy, there are plenty of places to eat and drink. Niseko has, for a Japanese town, an uncharacteristically large variety of places to spend the evening. Depending on personal tastes, you should be able to find something to satisfy your growling stomach.
If you’re looking for the perfect Japanese experience, make your way to one of the many izakayas in the area. An izakaya is basically a fusion of a bar and a restaurant, serving tapa-style Japanese food, to be washed down with ample amounts of beer and sake. Readily available are other local classics including sushi, soba, and soup curry. If you’ve never had soup curry, it is an incredibly satisfying dish that is suited perfectly to Niseko’s sub-zero temperatures. Choose a different spice ranking from 0 – 22 depending on how brave you’re feeling!
Missing your local delicacies? Due to the increasing international community, Niseko has just as many western style restaurants serving food that feels like home. A particular favourite of mine is Bigfoot Bar, serving up a mountain of poutine, mac ‘n’ cheese, and gravy mash. This staunch food is an ironic comparison to their fancy cocktails which are actually quite difficult to find in Japan.
By now, I’m in dire need of a nightcap, so I head to one of my favourite places… Bar Gyu+. If you’re wondering what makes this bar so special, you need only walk through the entrance for the answer. Seemingly built into the side of a rock, the entrance to this quirky drinking hole is an actual fridge door. Blink and you will miss it, a single light is the only indication that something more-than-meets-the-eye is waiting to be discovered through the unusual entrance.
Niseko is just that, a veritable smorgasbord of discovery. Marvel at the ever changing views from the top of the mountain, or relax in a rapidly developing community at the bottom. With increasing global recognition, the area is one of the hottest spots for new businesses desperate for a slice of the action. One thing is for sure, if you’re an avid fan of winter sports and you’ve never considered Japan as a place to go, I urge you to book the next available flight to the Land of the Rising Sun – just don’t expect to see that sun for very long.
Please make sure to make reservations in advance, as many of the bars and restaurants do fill up in the evening.
- Here is a map of the ski field including an extensive list of times and prices for the ski lifts throughout the resort.
- Here is real-time weather, webcams, and schedules for the area, including information on local hotels, snow schools and surrounding facilities. Discover more about the restaurants, bars, onsen, shops and the culture which Niseko has to offer.
- Check out information on how to get to Niseko, including alternative activities as well as what’s available in the summer months.
- Also, check out tours and tickets on Voyagin.