Niseko Winter Sports, Pictures Guide

Hokkaido, Japan

Niseko ski resorts map, japan

OK it’s not pretty but it is a clear and informative map of the three biggest resorts on Mt Niseko An’nupuri, the best winter sports slopes in Hokkaido and one of the three best winter sports areas in Japan, along with Hakuba and Zaō on Honshu (that’s the big island to the south that contains Tokyo). On the far right there is a small resort called Hanazono.

Niseko Winter Sports: Choosing your slopes

Hirafu trees beside king bell hut, Niseko Japan

Checking out the panoramic view over to Mt Yotei (aka Little Fuji) from near the top of Mt Niseko Annupuri (1,308m high), Hokkaido.

Being in a far north latitude Hokkaido snow is very dry and falls in small soft flakes that create a  brilliant powder- and  lot of it, averaging  15 metres a year, more than most of the world’s top ski resorts.

Due to the northerly location the snow season starts early and finishes late:

• Most Niseko resorts open towards the end of November thru to the first week of December but snow cover could be a little thin at the start of the season and some lifts/restaurants may not yet be open, though room prices will be low.

• The peak price and powder season runs December 21 – February 20, a busy time with crowded restaurants, high prices, snowfall instead of sunshine.

• The shoulder season from February 21 – March 20 offers excellent snow conditions, less crowds and more sunny days.

• Springtime (aka the end of days) March 21 – May 6, a good cheap time with a fair amount of sunshine but possibility of rain and services closure towards the end.

The beauty of Niseko – which won the title of ‘Japan’s Best Ski Resort’ at the World Ski Awards 2015 –  is that all four resorts work together. Buy a pricey United lift pass anywhere, use it almost everywhere and change slopes as you wish. Or do one resort pass per day for a lower price. Many other options are available.

We sent Ikuko – our tame downhill racer – off to spend one very full day testing various lifts and slopes and let us know her favourites. Actually the number one choice became immediately apparent…

#1 Grand Hirafu

grand hirafu's upper slopes, niseko, hokkaido, japan

Grand Hirafu’s upper slopes, Niseko.

Grand Hirafu's Welcome Center Car Park, Niseko, Hokkaido, Japan

Grand Hirafu’s Welcome Center Car Park, Niseko, Hokkaido, Japan

 

I said ‘immediately apparent’ because not only do the other resorts have small to medium size car parks – Niseko Village’s Hilton was the biggest of the three at perhaps 200 cars – but Grand Hirafu had three or four car parks and space for several hundred in one alone (picture above), and while other resort parkings  were not full on a busy holiday weekend Hirafu was packed and needed staff to point out free spaces. Conclusion: everyone wanted to start at Grand Hirafu.

Grand Hirafu Village main street, Niseko, Hokkaido, Japan

Grand Hirafu Village main street, Niseko, running right up to the ski slopes/gondolas/lifts with attractive little shops and eateries along the way.

The photo is a little deceptive since the hill up to the slopes/car parks is quite steep and steeper still if you are dressed to kill snow. Also accommodation on or very near the street is limited and expensive. That being said there’re more places to stay near Grand Hirafu than anywhere in Niseko and probably more than other resorts in Japan.
Niseko Alpen resort is the best bet for convenience this year (three more well-located hotels are under construction) if the budget is  generous.

Note that The Hilton Niseko Village has won Japan’s Best Ski Hotel  (World Ski Awards) for several years running, if you have deep pockets.

Hirafu trees beside king bell hut, Niseko Japan

Grand Hirafu trees beside King Bell hut,  about halfway up Mt Niseko Annupuri, Hokkaido. Not many Japanese slopes offer so many trees to dodge around and this was enjoyed by Ikuko, along with the outstanding views over to Mt Yotei.

Grand Hirafu low down at Base1, Niseko, Hokkaido, Japan

Grand Hirafu low down at Base1, Niseko.

Another pozz about Grand Hirafu is that both the friendly and informative Welcome Center and the Base1 building – from which that photo was taken – provide free, fast wifi, unlike our budget hotel which was an epic fail in that department.

#2 Niseko Annupuri

Niseko Annupuri, 2 slopes, Hokkaido, Japan

Niseko Annupuri’s two slopes, wide, smooth, pretty and uncrowded.

Niseko Annupuri accommodation, Hokkaido, Japan

Niseko Annupuri is both the name of the mountain and also of this diminutive village, a good example of interesting wooden architecture found here but nowhere else in Hokkaido where grey cubes rule the construction industry. This little cluster are less than 200m from a gondola or ski lift.

#3 Niseko Village

The Green Leaf Resort in Niseko Village, Hokkaido, Japan

The Green Leaf Resort in Niseko Village, which is not at all a village, it’s an area with scattered houses, apartment blocks and two resorts, Green Leaf and the Hilton.

Green Leaf condos in Niseko Village, Hokkaido, Japan

Condos/apartments in Niseko Village, with the inappropriate glass tower of the Hilton visible on the right. Both of these resorts offer comfortable lodgings and immediate access to gondolas/lifts. In fact the Hilton Niseko Village has regularly won ‘Japan’s Best Ski Hotel’ award.

The Hilton lift about halfway up the mountain side. Note the ski/board tracks in and around the trees.

Ikuko thought that the main slope above the Hilton, a Black Diamond, was too narrow and bumpy to be enjoyed by most skiers/boarders.

# Hanazono back-country skiing

Hanazono is a small resort but does offer a couple of specialities. Kids are catered for in Hanazono Adventure Park with varied activities including snow tubing and sledding, while a snowmobile park does the business for non-skiing adults.

For skiers and boarders there are a couple of good runs fed by quad lifts but  Hanazono’s main claim to fame is superb back-country skiing through a large forest.

Onsen/Rotenburo

An outdoor onsen (natural hot spring water) known as a rotenburo. Usually onsen are indoors but much of Hokkaido and especially Niseko offer rotenburo as well as indoor onsen. Rotenburo may be male or female only, where naked is good, or mixed such as the one above where loose bathing wear is provided by the onsen/hotel to preserve modesty. Rotenburo are an especial pleasure when the water temperature  is 40C, the air temperature below zero and the  snow is falling. How to use Onsen

Drink-Driving

 One thing you should be aware of if you’re planning to drive hereabouts –  Japan has draconian penalties for drink-driving, practically zero-tolerance. In fact 0.03 blood alcohol is the maximum permitted, meaning one beer will take you over the limit. If you are well above that you could be looking at five years in the slammer as well as a huge fine. And your passengers can also be busted for allowing you to drive drunk!

So, either go drinking with a designated non-drinking driver, take a bus or taxi, bring booze back to your apartment or live within walking distance of bars and restaurants. Cheers!

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