The Land of the Rising Sun is a unique country in many varied ways, but its uniqueness starts at a geographical level, even before you reach the customs and the people. The actual island of Japan is extremely long and quite narrow. A trip from coast to coast takes a mere couple of hours via bullet train, but trekking from the northern tip to the most southerly point would take significantly longer; not to mention you’d pass through all four seasons on your way down.
Japan is actually composed of four main islands (not to mention six thousand smaller ones, of which only four hundred and thirty are inhabited), and the native Japanese think of these big four almost as individual countries. Honshu is the largest of the four and is what might be considered the ‘mainland’, containing the major cities Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Shikoku is the smallest and can be found to the south of the country. Next to that is the mountainous, ancient Kyushu, and to the north, the snowy land of Hokkaido.
You wouldn’t necessarily equate Japan with skiing, but the island of Hokkaido is perfect for the sport, and many avid winter sports fans and thrill seekers travel here every year. The island has a relatively cool summer climate and snowy, thick winters, with large parts seeing heavy snowfall, especially Niseko, which is located in the southwest of Hokkaido. To natives, the name Niseko refers to a mountain range and a municipal area, but to those in the know overseas it’s synonymous with the mecca of snow sports in the far East, and it is here where the majority of the island’s ski scene can be found. If you need to confirm this fact, log on to BUCKiTDREAM and check which other travelers have ventured east (then north), and braved the ski slopes of Niseko. After you’ve been undoubtedly convinced, keep that BUCKiTDREAM planner nearby, as we take you through some of the finer points of Niseko’s multiple resort scene.
Niseko is actually composed of six ski areas. In order of size, they are Hirafu, Niseko Village, Annupuri, Hanazono, Moiwa and the very un-Japanese sounding Weiss. The popular Grand Hirafu Resort combines both Hirafu and Hanazono, and the largest four are connected, allowing skiers to tackle them all on one ski pass, via a series of connecting lifts. As well as the official areas, Niseko has a few backcountry ski courses that have become favorites with travelers. There’s Sannozoka, which is, unfortunately, prone to avalanches and lies near Annupuri, and the Lennon-inspired Strawberry Fields, which winds its way through a forest, and despite being an alternative option, is perhaps the most popular course in Niseko. It’s a lot to get your head around at first, but fear not; many of the areas are connected by lifts and cable cars, with the Japanese’s trademark transport efficiency coming into play. Once you’ve been there for a day or two, you’ll have no problem zipping around the various slopes and courses.
The snow in Niseko is near-legendary and highly valued by skiing purists. It’s renowned for its powder-like quality and surefire consistency through the winter months and through Niseko is much preferred by experienced skiers, the varied courses can cater to adventurers of all levels, even neophyte beginners. Don’t worry – the pure white powder snow provides an excellent cushion for the first few falls! In a typical January, Niseko gets pummeled by more snow than any other ski area in the world. Averaging out a cool five-hundred and eighty odd inches a year, Niseko is blanketed by twice as much of the white stuff as most North American resorts. Not that the Japanese flaunt, or even appreciate it all that much; they’re much more preoccupied with dreaming about visiting Whistler or Aspen, somewhat oblivious to the fact that some of the world’s best snow can be found right under their boots.
If you’re planning to visit Niseko but are unnerved by the seemingly huge cultural shift, don’t be. The area is very visitor-friendly, with a large international community, especially Australians, who’ve discovered the joys of Niseko and set up many-a-shop in the resort villages. There are a good few English-speakers hanging ’round the place, and no special cultural rituals or quirks involved in skiing or snowboarding; you just hop on the slopes and get on with it! Japan has a well-earned reputation for being extremely welcoming to foreign visitors, and Niseko is no different. It seems like another world away, but the atmosphere is immediately inviting; you’ll have no problem orientating yourself and getting the local lay of the land.
Speaking of which, the lay of the land in Niseko just happens to be beautiful. Pastoral countryside will be the backdrop for your ski holiday, with rolling hills, rustic farmland and dense forests making up the majority of the surrounding area. This is rural Japan, so traditional hot spring baths (known as onsens) literally spring up every which way you look; make sure to take advantage of them, as they can be just what the doctor ordered after a hard day’s rough and tumble (emphasis on the tumble) on the slopes. While you’re mainly going to be (somewhat obviously) preoccupied with skiing, make sure to take a couple of days off to explore the surrounding area. Rural Japan comes with its own distinctive quiet beauty and unique atmosphere that are certainly worth getting lost in for a while.
For such a rural place, Niseko comes with a lot of accommodation options. There are many hotels, lodges, hostels and self-serving facilities, all of which can be found in and around the main villages and resorts. There are accommodation options to suit every budget, but the best way to experience Niseko must be in a traditional Japanese ryokan inn, where you’ll get a flavor of traditional hospitality amid the slopes. These are few and far between, however; the most practical option is most likely a self-catering apartment, a rarity in Japanese culture that is fortunately well and truly embraced in Niseko. When you’ve hung up your skis for the day and are looking to relax and head out for the night, Hirafu has got you covered for nightlife. Most of the visitors who aren’t turning in early will head here; a late night/early morning in Hirafu is capable of getting surprisingly rowdy.
Ultimately, a visit to the Niseko mountains provides an unrivaled skiing experience, mixing contemporary facilities and atmosphere with best of rural, traditional Japan. You can easily kill two birds with one stone here; spend the majority of your days skiing on some of the best snow any resort in the world has to offer while taking a couple of days off to explore the surrounding areas. Japan has an extremely generous Rail Pass offer for foreign visitors, allowing them to ride on most trains in the country, including bullet trains, for an all-in price that natives could only dream of. It’s easy to take advantage of their excellent train system and expand further into the country from your base in Hokkaido. If you don’t want to do that, though, it’s perfectly understandable; there’s a ton of fun to be had on the Niseko slopes, and it’s all there waiting for you, like a samurai-infused feudal winter wonderland. So what are you waiting for?