After talking about it for a few years, I finally went skiing in Japan this year with some friends who are expert skiiers. We wanted to make the most of our trip so we decided to go to the two most popular ski areas in Japan. First stop is Niseko (ニセコ), a small town about 120km west of New Chitose Airport (新千歳空港), frequented by Australians and Chinese tourists from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The name Niseko derives from the Ainu language. It means “a cliff jutting over a riverbank deep in the mountains” and it is one of two localities in Japan that doesn’t have a Kanji name. The town has an estimated population of about 5000 but in the winter ski season, the number of visitors exceed 200,000.
The four ski areas (Anupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu and Hanazono) are connected at the top, creating a huge ski area. You can buy a ski pass that includes all ski resorts. Perhaps the most famous run in Niseko is the Strawberry Fields in Hanazono which has great powder snow and great for beginners to intermediate skiers and snowboarders.
For advanced skiers and snowboarders the famed Mizu no Sawa (水の沢) is an extreme terrain area that lies beneath the Niseko Gondola line. Access via Gate 11 is limited and only authorised advanced level riders are permitted to enter under supervision by the ski patrol. The gate is controlled based on the weather conditions, snowfall and snow conditions at all time.
The runs at the top of the mountain are intermediate to advanced. While most ski resorts in North America have replaced single chairlifts with double or quad chairlifts to reduce wait time, at Niseko they are still operating single chairlifts to the top of the mountain. Not only do you have a great view of the surrounding scenary, you also feel like you’re flying up the mountain on skis.
Needless to say the view is breath-taking at the top. You can see nearby Mount Youtei (羊蹄山), which is an active volcano with a classical cone top, and the towns at the base of the mountain.
Niseko is not as well-developed as other ski areas in Japan. Most visitors to Niseko stay at AirBnB or rental properties which are usually quite far away from town centres and ski fields. Unless you stay at the hotels right next to the gondola and chairlift, you will need to rely on shuttle buses to get to the ski fields. I recommend renting a car so you are more mobile and flexible with your schedule. An international driver’s license is required for visitors from most countries. The drive from New Chitose airport takes about 2-3 hours because the speed limit is 50kph and there are potholes on many parts of the road.
It’s often unsafe to ski among trees in North America because alpine trees are typically evergreen and a tree well can form around the base of the tree. In Japan, however, the trees you find in ski resorts are mostly White Birch (白樺) which loses its leaves in winter and no tree well is formed so you can enjoying skiing among wooded areas on the mountain.
Niseko and the rest of Hokkaido is designated Heavy Snowfall Area. The area around Niseko gets over 10m (400 inches) of snow each year and there is no shortage of powder snow.