They call it the “Niseko Express”: the phenomenon that delivers vast amounts of powder snow to Hokkaido every year. The result, as LINDSAY SHERMAN reveals, is out-of-this-world skiing.
Niseko United ski zone sits in the bottom left-hand corner of Hokkaido. It’s so close to the coast that clear days provide a view from the piste to the Sea of Japan. Icy Siberian winds that pass over these warm waters collect essential moisture; this turns to snow when it hits the mountains of western Hokkaido. Prevailing throughout winter, this weather system dumps fresh snow almost daily. It’s not unusual to wake up to fresh snow every day for weeks on end.
The temperature around Niseko averages minus seven degrees centigrade, which is perfect for creating super-light, dry snow. The snow in Western Hokkaido has been measured to consist of 92 to 96 percent air, resulting in fluffy, fat snowflakes and deep powder dumps. Annually, Niseko receives between 10 to 15 metres of snow, averaging around 70 to 100 days of snowfall. The depth varies day to day, from a couple of centimetres to more than 30. And the snowfall normally continues through the day, delivering a regular top-up to the piste.
Maximising Your Skiing
One of the drawbacks of this weather system is high winds that roll in with each new front. Wind can impact lift operations. At best, the highest lifts close, limiting access to the back-country and making it hard to access all four valleys on the Niseko United pass. At worst, only the lowest lifts open. This restricts skiing to the bunny slopes, hardly worth the cost of the pass. While mandatory rest days are annoying, the bonus is epic powder when the lifts reopen, with loads of accumulated snow ready to be explored. Maybe book a couple of extra days on your trip to compensate for windy, ski-less days; or hire a snowmobile or book a cross-country tour for that day.
Unsurprisingly, these amazing conditions are no longer a secret – every year sees more skiers hit the slopes. And, with constant development delivering ever larger and more luxurious accommodation to the area, this isn’t likely to stop. Having said that, lift queues are still relatively short compared to Europe and North America. The key lifts experience peaks at opening time on powder days, and mid-morning can be busy. But it’s easy to ski around the congestion by using the less popular lifts and choosing the quieter times of the day.
In addition to Niseko United, Rusutsu and Kiroro ski fields sit in this same snowy sweet-spot. Both are worth exploring. Rusutsu is only 30 minutes from Niseko United and is great for intermediate skiers, with plenty of wide groomed red runs snaking around Mount Isola and East Mountain. It’s not uncommon to have these runs to yourself. While the volume of day-trippers to Rusutsu is on the rise, it’s rare to queue for a lift there. The main point of congestion can be the morning lift ticket queue.
Once you have a Rusutsu lift card, you can recharge it online (hokkaido-rusutsu.com/en-gb/mountains/lift), which will save you time in the morning. If you don’t have a car, there’s a daily bus from the Hirafu Welcome Centre to Rusutsu. And the ski guiding companies offer full-service day-trips complete with transport and guide. (A guide comes in handy if you plan to explore the extensive Rusutsu back-country.)
A guide is also good for exploring Kiroro, which has a limited number of groomed slopes and plenty of off-piste. Kiroro gets even more snow than Niseko United and is famous for very deep, untracked powder. It has limited accommodation and so there is little competition for fresh tracks. If you join the Kiroro Mountain Club (kiroro.co.jp/mountain_club/), you can ski the members’ exclusive area with even less skier competition.
There’s a proliferation of ski tuition and guiding companies in Niseko, and the instructors vary in their level of experience. We have used Bryan Cleaver from Next Stage Sports (nextstagesnowsports.com). He has 27 seasons as an instructor and trains many of the new instructors for the local ski schools; he also has an uncanny ability to spot a little technique that can make a big difference to how you ski. His extensive back-country knowledge covers all three resorts, so he can help you find endless untracked snow.
Accommodation, Eats & More
One of the advantages of Niseko United for foreigners is the availability of great quality Western-style accommodation. Many of the properties are self-catering apartments with kitchens and laundry facilities. Most other Japanese resorts (like Rusutsu and Kiroro) mainly offer hotel style accommodation, with far fewer restaurant choices. The majority of accommodation in the Niseko area is in Hirafu village. We’ve stayed at Hyatt House, which benefits from a central location. I’ve also heard good reports about Skye Niseko and The Maples, both of which are ski-in, ski-out. There are two main supermarkets in Hirafu: Sapporo Drug and Seicomart. They offer a fairly limited range of food, but plenty of booze. Larger supermarkets are located in the nearby town of Kutchan, which can be reached by taxi or on the Niseko local bus. The Co-op is located at the Niseko train station, also where the bus stops. It’s worth shopping in Kutchan for both the range and the lower prices.
Hirafu village has plenty of restaurants and bars. They’re small, and they fill up quickly. One of the best is Izakaya Bang Bang (nisekobangbang.com/en/), whose extensive menu includes Hokkaido seafood and yakitori – book well in advance. Another spot is Raku, which doesn’t take bookings. It opens at 6pm and fills quickly, then turns over tables at about 7.30. Get there at those two times for the best chance of getting a table. A more formal option is Locanda, just outside Hirafu village, offering a set menu combining classic Italian flavours together with the attention to detail of Japanese kaiseki cuisine.
After a hard day on the slopes, Powder Yoga, located inside the AYA Niseko hotel, is a good place to stretch out. There are also many places offering massages, and several public onsen (Japanese hot springs), essential for tired legs.
Niseko makes skiing in Japan easy for foreigners, as English is more common than Japanese. Still, everything from the food and polite service to the onsen will remind you that you’re still in Japan – as will the view from your hotel window every morning. Watching those fat light snowflakes pile up, the only question will be: “How much fresh snow did the Niseko Express deliver last night?
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