The island of Hokkaido is Japan’s winter playground, much loved by skiers and snowboarders for its legendary powder, which it receives in buckets from November to May. Thanks to its unique geography, this region is blessed with some of the lightest, driest snow in the world.
Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital, serves as a gateway to some of the best skiing in the country, with big-name resorts like Niseko, Rusutsu and Furano all within easy reach. The city’s very own Sapporo Teine ski resort famously hosted the alpine skiing events at the 1972 Winter Olympics.
Naturally, every resort offers something a bit different, with quirks and characteristics that will appeal to certain visitors. Part of the fun of a Hokkaido ski holiday is discovering some of these yourself; however, in an effort to cut to the chase, we’ve turned to a group of trusted Hokkaido residents to give us the low-down on their favourite “local secrets” in each resort.
While only a fraction the size of Tokyo, Sapporo is by all measures a fun and vibrant city, offering plenty in the way of food, culture and nightlife. It is particularly renowned for its annual beer and snow festivals, which attract a combined 3 million visitors each year. The Sapporo Snow Festival has drawn worldwide acclaim for its exquisite snow and ice creations that feature in its annual sculpture contest.
As is the case almost anywhere in Japan, it’s not hard to find excellent food in Sapporo. Hokkaido’s lively capital is famous for its seafood, ramen, soup curry, grilled lamb (“Jingisukan”) and namesake beer.
Susukino, Sapporo’s entertainment district, enjoys the highest concentration of restaurants and bars, not to mention karaoke parlours. A short walk north of the station is Tanukikoji Shopping Street, a 1 km-long pedestrian walkway lined with endless food, drink and fashion outlets.
Sapporo’s iconic Odori Park, one stop away, is another busy area around which to eat, drink and wander.
Only slightly further afield, the Sapporo Beer Museum (and adjacent beer garden) is a great option for beer and history lovers alike, while those looking for a taste of tradition should visit Hokkaido Shrine, built in 1869.
Where to stay
The bulk of Sapporo’s hotels are found on the stretch between Sapporo Station and Nakajima Park, which encompasses both Odori Park and Susukino. The JR Tower Hotel and the long-standing Sapporo Grand Hotel are two of the city’s larger scale hotels, but, as with any city in Japan, Sapporo is also home to countless “business hotels”, which are characterised by modest prices and basic facilities. These include JR Inn Sapporo and Toyoko Inn among many others.
The city’s best ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) are found further afield in Jozankei Onsen, one hour from central Sapporo. These include the very luxurious Jozankei Daiichi Hotel Suizantei, known for its postcard-worthy hot spring baths.
Hokkaido’s best ski resorts
Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort
Distance from central Sapporo: 46km
Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort, one of several ski resorts within an hour’s drive of Sapporo, encompasses 7 marked trails spanning 3.6 km in total. The resort, while small, benefits from massive amounts of snowfall per year.
Kokusai is easy to navigate as all runs funnel down to the same point. Beginners will enjoy the resort’s comfortably wide greens, while more experienced skiers will enjoy the quality (and quantity) of powder that Kokusai is famous for.
To do: While Kokusai lacks a ski village of its own, visitors will benefit from its proximity to Jozankei Onsen, a renowned hot spring resort. Skiers looking to nurse sore limbs can visit Jozan Gensen Park, famous for its foot and hand baths, all free to use.
Local secret: “If you’re looking to escape the crowds at Sapporo Kokusai, head to the backside of the mountain. This area is accessed via the main gondola and offers some vast off-piste runs often overlooked by visitors. However, it’s important to note that these runs are not patrolled or maintained, so please make sure you have the proper equipment and knowledge before venturing into the backcountry.” – Miha Grilj, Owner and Ski Coach, Hokkaido Ski Club
Note: Ski Asia always recommends skiing with a certified guide who has a knowledge of the area.
Distance from central Sapporo: 21km
Just a 40-minute bus trip from the city centre, Sapporo Teine is another option for day trippers. With 15 trails, 10 lifts and a modest 683 m vertical drop, the former Olympic venue is considered a mid-sized resort by Hokkaido standards but, despite this, offers an impressive variety of terrain for all skill levels.
The mountain is divided into two zones, the lower of which, ‘Olympia zone’, is suitably mellow for beginners and families. The ‘Highland zone’, accessed via the high-speed Summit Express quad chairlift, provides more challenging terrain, particularly the ‘Kitakabe’ trail on Teine’s north face, which is genuinely steep.
To do: The benefit of Teine is that it’s a stone’s throw (16 km) from downtown Sapporo. There’s no need to stay on the mountain, and, in fact, slopeside accommodation is limited. Skiers should instead take advantage of Teine’s proximity to the city and its abundance of shops, hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs to be explored in Sapporo. If visiting in early February, the Sapporo Snow Festival is a must.
Local secret: “Locals know that the best runs at Sapporo Teine are found in the Highland Zone. This area is accessible via the Highland Express lift and offers some of the resort’s steepest and most challenging terrains. This is the place to be if you’re an advanced skier or snowboarder.” – Miha Grilj, Owner and Ski Coach, Hokkaido Ski Club
Distance from central Sapporo: 105km
Arguably Japan’s best and most popular ski resort, Niseko United barely needs introduction. The mega-resort, which comprises four individual ski areas, offers a combined 45 km of marked trails and 940m of vertical. With an even spread of beginner, intermediate and advanced terrain, Niseko is a safe choice for skiers and snowboarders of all levels.
Niseko is well known for its extensive sidecountry and backcountry terrain, with a gate system that allows skiers easy access – weather/conditions permitting. Night skiing is also a widely popular activity, with lifts running on all four mountains until 7 pm (7:30 pm at Niseko Annupuri International Ski Area).
To do: Niseko’s Kutchan Town hosts the annual ‘Yukitopia Festival’ in mid-February each year. This event, which celebrates winter life in Niseko, features plenty of activities for the kids including snow tubing, snowmobile rides, a snow sculpture competition and a much loved pond skim event. It’s one of several local festivals held through the year – all of which are embraced by the local community.
Local secrets: “If you want the true Japanese experience, head to Jirocho in Niseko Town. Hidden away near the post office, the old-school neon sign welcomes you in from the cold to a tiny, smoky room filled with incredible smells and the sound of clinking beer jugs. Seafood, meat on sticks and plenty of other options served by Shimizu-san and his wife, it’s our number one locals’ destination.” – Chris Pickering, Niseko resident and CEO of Uchi Japan
“A lot of eating places in Niseko book out or might not be what you’re looking for (fine dining with finer price tag) – so my biggest tip is for people to spend some time before your trip thinking about where you are going to eat …and book ahead. Otherwise a place like Elements restaurant at Always Niseko is great for drop-ins.” – Blaize Kelly, Photographer & Marketing Specialist, NISADE
Distance from central Sapporo: 60km
Rusutsu, another of Hokkaido’s most popular ski areas, has been named ‘Japan’s Best Ski Resort’ a record four times at the World Ski Awards, most recently in 2021. The resort comprises 42 km of terrain, consisting of 37 runs, 18 lifts and a 594 m vertical drop.
Rusutsu has all the variety of terrain you’d expect from a big-name resort, plus a reputation for some of the best lift-accessed tree skiing in Japan. Additionally, Rusutsu’s lift infrastructure is world class, with 4 gondolas and 6 hooded high-speed quads making up 10 of its 18 lifts.
To do: Rusutsu’s options for outdoor adventure extend beyond the ski slopes. The resort coordinates a number of nature tours including ice fishing, snow rafting, dog sledding and snow shoeing. Ice fishing runs from late December to late March, allowing participants a chance to snag a prized rainbow trout – truly a classic Hokkaido experience.
Local secret: “Most people know Rusutsu’s ‘retro’ main resort and all of the restaurants there – but if you’re okay with a short walk you’ll find some fantastic local watering holes. I can really recommend Youtei. It’s run by Japanese staff (many of whom work the summer as raft guides) and the desserts are amazing. They also have the option to book the covered Yakiniku barbecue shack as a group which is a true Japanese style BBQ experience.” – Amon Bradshaw, Marketing Manager, NISADE
Distance from central Sapporo: 76km
Kiroro Snow World lays claim to some of the best powder conditions in Hokkaido, receiving on average a staggering 21 m of snowfall per year. This mid-sized resort, once considered among Hokkaido’s best kept secrets, is no longer quite so “off the beaten path” but still enjoys lesser crowds than Niseko and Rusutsu, its higher profile neighbours.
Kiroro was recently purchased by the owners of global hotelier Club Med, which saw the opening of Club Med Kiroro Peak in 2022. A stay there is typical of the all-inclusive Club Med style, with access to restaurants, ski lessons and rental, entertainment, swimming and onsen. A more family-oriented Club Med Kiroro Grand will follow in 2023, catering to all ages.
To do: Kiroro is an upscale destination resort with a huge range of facilities under one roof. This will suit some – families in particular – but perhaps not those looking for a ski village atmosphere in the evenings. Skiing is naturally the main event at the resort, and if your aim is to level up during your trip, then Kiroro is the right place. The Kiroro Kids Academy is well suited to the little ones, while the International Ski & Snowboard Academy has a dedicated team of English-speaking instructors offering private lessons through the season.
While there are several in-resort dining options, we’d also highly recommend a trip to the nearby harbour city of Otaru, which is home to a gorgeous canal and a wonderful selection of restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops and museums. In February it host the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, a spectacular occasion on which the entire city (including the canal) is illuminated with candles.
Local secret: “Spot X (also known by other names). This steep but elusive slope is visible from most parts of Kiroro resort and will immediately catch your attention… but as you approach through the trees, the terrain rolls away making it difficult to find especially when visibility is poor. If you stay the course, find the ridge and complete a short boot pack, you`ll be rewarded with steep, deep powder turns! *Caution – this slope is avalanche prone and outside of the ski area boundary so must be assessed carefully before dropping in.” – Andrew Spragg, ACMG ski guide (qualified on splitboard),Rising Sun Guides
Note: Ski Asia always recommends skiing with a certified guide who has a knowledge of the area.
Kamui Ski Links
Distance from central Sapporo: 119km
Distance from central Asahikawa: 21km
Kamui Ski Links, located on the outskirts of Asahikawa, is one of Hokkaido’s smaller resorts, featuring 6 lifts that span 601m of vertical. Kamui is often paired with Furano as it’s little more than an hour away by road.
The resort receives 8m of snowfall per season, which is enviable by world standards but on par for Hokkaido. Lift passes are dirt cheap by any measure (¥3,800/day).
To do: Kamui Ski Links is a 30 minute drive from Asahikawa, which presents a great opportunity to try this city’s particular brand of ramen. Asahikawa ramen is a hearty winter dish with thick, chewy noodles that are typically flavoured with pork bones and dried sardines. Ramen House Aoba, now with two locations in Asahikawa, is among the best places to sample this delicacy.
Local secret: “Especially on the slope from the back bowl to the front side, there are countless lines. It’s a very friendly place, although there are a few tight spots here. However, I recommend skiing in the morning because there are many areas where the sun hits. If you are not confident skiing tree runs, we recommend the mellow tree line on the far left. There is the slope and the excellent spacing of the trees. Everywhere is very friendly in this tree area.” – Kei Ishiuchi, Japan Operations Manager, Mint Tours
Distance from central Sapporo: 116km
Distance from central Asahikawa: 63km
Located in the Daisetsu Mountain Range, Prince Hotel’s Furano resort has built a reputation as one of Hokkaido’s best all-round ski destinations. The mid-sized resort, long known for its pristinely kempt groomers, has in recent years opened up its backcountry via a gate system, which has in turn boosted its appeal as a powder destination.
The ski area itself is made up of two separate zones, Furano and Kitanomine, encompassing 28 trails, 9 lifts and 839 m of vertical. The town of Furano, a tourist destination in its own right, is just a few minutes away by shuttle.
To do: Instragrammers should have a field day in and around Furano. Ningle Terrace, a particularly popular spot on the tourist map, is a small cluster of wooden cottages (turned giftshops) that are particularly photogenic when the surrounding forest is blanketed in snow. There are several packaged bus tours that include Ningle Terrace among other Furano/Biei favourites.
Local secret: “I love Furano because it really feels like a true Japanese ski experience – away from the hustle and bustle of the other ski areas. We stayed near Kitanomine Gondola, and in the morning we enjoyed the amazing coffee at Rojo & Ronin Fenix West. However, our true ‘hidden’ recommendation is the nightlife at bar AJITO – it’s a 2 minute walk from Fenix Furano and has a great atmosphere with pool table and fire.” – Sarah Boland, Furano Reservations Team, NISADE
Distance from central Sapporo: 135km
Distance from central Asahikawa: 118km
Distance from central Obihiro: 64km
An hour’s drive southeast of Furano, Tomamu is another mid-sized resort with all-round appeal. Its 29 runs, which span 21.5 km, offer a good mix of beginner, intermediate and advanced terrain.
The ski area stretches across two peaks – Tower Mountain (970 m), which caters largely to beginners, and Tomamu Mountain (1,239 m), which boasts some excellent off-piste and sidecountry terrain. The quality of powder is as good as anywhere thanks to Tomamu’s Central Hokkaido climate.
The resort’s Unkai Terrace, found at the top of the Unkai Gondola, is a popular spot from which to photograph Hokkaido’s ‘sea of clouds’, a phenomenon also known as a cloud inversion.
To do: Tomamu is a purpose-built resort without much in the way of an actual village. However, the resort boasts some seriously impressive facilities including Japan’s biggest indoor beach, which Tomamu has equipped with a 30 x 80 m wave pool. For a somewhat different experience, there’s also Tomamu’s Ice Village, which features an ice bar, an ice church and an ice rink among other things.
Local secret: “What many people don’t take into account at Tomamu is the abundance of untouched and top tier slack country. Easily accessed by a quick boot pack or sidestep out of the resorts highest gate. One gate gives skiers and split boarders alike an excellent view of the north east ridge line that runs from the peak of Tomamu Dake around the valley to Ochiai Dake. All one needs is a pair of skins and some imagination to truly enjoy the natural beauty and superb fresh turns that Tomamu has to Offer.” – Samuel Morrell, Alpine Backcountry Guides
Distance from central Sapporo: 190km
Distance from central Asahikawa: 45km
Asahidake is a lift-accessed backcountry ski area in Central Hokkaido’s Daisetsuzan National Park. It is serviced by the Daisetsuzan Asahidake Ropeway, which operates throughout the year, whisking hikers, skiers and mountaineers from base (1,100 m) to summit (1,600 m) in just 10 minutes.
The ski area itself encompasses 4 ‘courses’ and is known for providing some of the best conditions for deep powder in Hokkaido. Asahidake, however, is not a typical resort by any means, and the 4 courses are best treated as expert backcountry terrain, with skiers expected to have the appropriate training and experience.
To do: The Japanese ski experience isn’t complete without a visit to an onsen (hot spring bath). Thankfully, Asahidake Onsen, the small hotspring town at the base of Asahidake, has a few to choose from.
Yukomansou is a multi-storey inn with several onsen baths, all of which are fed from one of five different natural sources. “Yukoman water” is rich in minerals and is used by the inn not just to fill its baths but also for cooking and drinking.
Those not staying the night can use Yukomansou’s onsen facilities for ¥1200.
Local secret: “Since you can only really attack Asahidake when the weather is good, it is common to stay in Asahikawa and wait for that day. Asahikawa is a treasure trove of food. Izakaya are plentiful and the ramen [options] are all delicious. “Furari-to” is a small street with many charming little restaurants – many with only about 10 seats that are crowded together. Of course, there is no English menu, and the staff tend not to speak English. However, you’ll have the valuable experience of getting to know Japanese food culture.” – Kei Ishiuchi, Japan Operations Manager, Mint Tours
Distance from central Sapporo: 200km
Distance from central Asahikawa: 65km
Just several kilometres from Asahidake (as the crow flies), Kurodake is another lift-accessed backcountry ski area known for its deep, deep powder.
Kurodake has not one but two lifts – the Kurodake Ropeway (670 – 1,300 m) and a relatively flat double chair lift (1,300 – 1,520 m), plus the option to climb the extra 464 m to the peak on foot.
The terrain beneath the ropeway is steep, challenging and hazardous, while the chairlift up top services a much gentler section of the mountain. The chair is mostly used by skiers looking to push on to the peak. In any case, this is expert terrain that requires serious skill, knowledge and experience.
The Kurodake Ropeway departs from Sounkyo Onsen, another popular hot spring retreat and the largest of its kind in Northern Hokkaido. Kurodake no Yu Onsen is a public facility with both indoor and outdoor baths that can be accessed for around ¥600.
Otherwise, Kurodake is just over an hour’s drive from Asahikawa, Hokkaido’s second largest city, which offers many more options for food, drink and entertainment.
Gate to Hokkaido
For more detailed information on Hokkaido travel, including recommended routes, visit Gate To Hokkaido (gate-to-hokkaido.jp/en/).
March 7, 2023
Well done great article
March 7, 2023
March 8, 2023
Good round up. Should help spread the Niseko-crush a bit! Although I reckon Furano was feeling less and less Japanese in the pre-pandemic years. Loads of Brits and Ozzie’s on long stay trips.