I’ve had the pleasure of skiing in the alps for close to 20 years and over that period of time, I’ve come to know what to expect. From the overpriced food, epically steep terrain, and often close-to-zero queue etiquette.

Now that I live in Japan and have had the opportunity to ski in Niseko, I thought it would be a great idea to talk about my first-time impressions to hopefully give you an idea of what to expect if you’re planning a trip out here.

1. The snow

Every time I’ve booked a ski trip in Europe, I’ve anxiously checked the snow report every day a few weeks before the flight. In Niseko, I had absolutely no reason to do so. During the month run-up to my trip, practically every news channel was reporting on the huge amount of snow that was getting dumped on Niseko every day. When we finally arrived, it had 167 inches at the lowest station and it continued to snow until the day we left.

While it’s obviously not always this way, with an average snowfall of 15 meters every year you’d be hard-pushed to come to this resort and leave disappointed.

Niseko snow

Niseko snow

2. The beginner-friendly terrain

All four resorts (Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu, Hanazono) in Niseko are incredibly beginner friendly. Each one of these areas has a number of slopes for those of you who are less confident or simply learning how to ski. Unlike many of the resorts in Europe which may only have one or two runs (depending on where you are), the vast majority of places in Niseko are honestly quite accessible to everyone.

Beginner friendly terrain in Niseko

Beginner friendly terrain in Niseko

The fairly consistent snow conditions absolutely make a difference here. Skiing a steeper incline on ice is completely different from doing it in even just a few inches of fresh snow, and that’s the case with many of the runs. For instance, even the tougher runs like ‘Snorkel’ were completely achievable for intermediate skiers in the right conditions. Sure, you might not get down it gracefully or fast, but it’s not out of your reach. Though I must admit ‘Fukayuki-rinkan’ in Annupuri was a little challenging because of the absolutely huge moguls that popped up over there.

The great thing about skiing in Niseko is that once you’ve conquered a few of those beginner slopes, the difficulty curve is gradual and there’ll always be something to challenge you without knocking your confidence completely.

3. The off-piste opportunities

If you’ve ever read anything about Niseko, you’ve likely heard about the absolutely insane off-piste. While a lot of this popularity comes from the often immense amount of annual snowfall, the terrain itself is a back and side-country skiers’ haven. The possibilities are practically endless and you’ll spend a lot of time pointing from the chairlift about possible routes you can attack next, with another cooler option seemingly appearing out of nowhere.

How to ski Niseko on a budget

Niseko backcountry

While you need some amount of experience to tackle any off-piste safely, Niseko has options for almost any ability. While flying down Strawberry Fields might be out of reach for some people, a few hundred metres down the track on the right-hand side you’ll find ‘Kamp Kitsune’, a mini off-piste trail that runs alongside the ‘Silver Dream’ run and is perfect for those who don’t have as many hours on the mountain. I don’t think I’ve ever known a resort to cater so widely for beginners to experts in terms of off-piste, but Niseko does it wonderfully.

4. The one-seater chairlifts

If it’s your first time to Niseko like it was for me, you’ll likely have a few words to say about these one-seater chairlifts. I’m used to chairlifts at least having a bar, but this one didn’t have that or a ski rest, and as such seemed a little daunting.

Niseko's iconic "pizza box" single chair

Niseko’s iconic “pizza box” single chair

I rode the one and two-seater chairs, both of which don’t have a bar, and my experience was a fairly pleasant one. Neither is too high off the ground, and I actually felt safer than I have done on many others. The only annoying thing about the two-seater (Ace Pair Lift #4) is that it spits you out rather abruptly at the top. Still, if it makes for a shorter queue (and it does), then I’m all for it!

5. The number of people

I’ve heard talk that Niseko can get relatively busy, especially during peak times, but I simply didn’t find that to be the case. During our trip in February, I think we waited in one lift line for about 10 minutes maximum. That was on the Hanazono Hooded Lift #1 just after lunch, but for the rest of the trip, it was plain sailing.

Of course, the slopes back to the respective resorts get a little ‘crowded’ later in the afternoon, but it’s nothing like I’ve experienced in certain European resorts. Of course, this might be completely different on your trip, but if you’re unsure about booking a holiday over here purely based on the speculation that Niseko is a busy resort, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. That said, don’t book it around the New Year because it’s one of Japan’s busiest national holidays!

6. The remoteness of each resort

It’s very important to understand that each of Niseko’s four main resorts is completely separate. I knew this before I booked into Niseko Village, but it’s still something that hit me in the face when I got there. While you can take the shuttle bus, it’s not that frequent and not ideal. If you’re looking for something a little more akin to après ski, go for Hirafu, and if you’d prefer something more self-sufficient and away from the hustle and bustle, any of the other three should do.

While the resorts seem fairly far apart in the valley, it’s relatively easy to traverse to any one of them when you’re on the mountain. Just make sure you’ve got the Niseko United all-mountain pass and you’ll have huge amounts of terrain at your fingertips!

Niseko chairlift

Niseko, Japan

7. The lift operators

I’ve never heard so much as a single word out of any lift operator in all the times I’ve been skiing, but in Niseko, it was completely different. Each time we got on one of the chairlifts, we were wished a safe journey or to enjoy ourselves before we were zipped away. That happened at every chairlift, all the time. I don’t know if that’s a new thing, or if people were just having a great day, but it’s classic Japanese hospitality and I love it.

And as if that wasn’t cool enough, they wiped the seats over with a brush to get all the snow off before we sat down. I feel like I’ve been spoiled, and I never want to sit on a snow-covered chairlift seat again!

8. The price

It was expensive. Granted, all ski resorts are going to be expensive but it’s important to know that Niseko is no different. The accommodation is generally on the higher side, depending on where you stay, and the food and drink on the mountain are as pricey as you’d expect it to be. However, that’s not to say you can’t have an ‘affordable’ holiday in Niseko or at least keep the costs down as much as possible. I’ve recently written an article that explains exactly how to do this!

9. The nightlife

Nightlife in Hirafu is great, but in the rest of the resort it’s practically non-existent. Where we stayed in Niseko Village there was none. Granted, it’s not known for nightlife, but I was unaware there would be basically nothing to do other than get a bus into Hirafu or stay in the hotel. If you’re looking for Japanese après ski culture, head to Hirafu which is widely considered the biggest and best nightlife scene in Japanese ski resorts. Stop by an Izakaya, rent a Karaoke booth, or simply share an Asahi with some fellow skiers.

Wild Bill's, Niseko, Japan

Wild Bill’s – Niseko, Japan. Image: Facebook

10. The bubble

The biggest impression I got from Niseko was that it was stuck in a bubble. I don’t think I’ve ever read about it being great for authentic Japanese culture, but I was still somewhat surprised to see just how far removed I felt from Japan. There were many points throughout my trip where I honestly felt like I could be in another country. There was no need for me to know Japanese either as the resort is heavily catered towards an international crowd. While I’m incredibly excited for my next trip to this resort, the lack of culture is the only thing I wish was a little different. That might not bother some of you, which is fine, but if you’re looking for a slice of the real Japan then perhaps consider another resort.

My impressions of Niseko were overwhelmingly positive, and I cannot wait to head back there again. It’s perhaps the best place in the world for a beginner to learn, and equally has some of the best off-piste powder skiing for experts in the entire world. There are more than enough runs and trails to keep you busy for an extended holiday, and the solid resort infrastructure means you won’t be waiting too long for the next lift or gondola. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime ski destination, and if you have the chance to go, take it!

ENQUIRE NOW

Japan backcountry skiingOrganise your guided backcountry skiing tour in Japan

There are lots of options in Hokkaido and Honshu that can be tailored to the kind of skiing you like and when you plan to come. Answer a few questions and we’ll get back to you with some recommendations.

Enquire Now