Skiing and snowboarding in the
Niseko region of Hokkaido has
become very popular.
I’m happy to see that nobody seems annoyed by the unathletic people
trying to snowboard and trying the patience of their snowboarding
instructors. Make that one unathletic person. Make that me.
Here we are me, my boyfriend Brian and our friend Kate enjoying
winter on the northern island of Hokkaido, in northern Japan,
around 60 miles west of Sapporo. We are in the Niseko region, a
mountainous area of Hokkaido.
Niseko is famous for its deep powder. It has three main resorts
Grand Hirafu, Higashiyama and Annapuri that share one lift pass.
(You can take a series of lifts to the top of the mountain where
the three resorts connect.)
There are almost 60 runs in the area, ranging from bunny hills
to moguls to highly advanced unmarked tree-filled backcountry.
Niseko has become a popular resort for Japanese and Australian
skiers and snowboarders, and Americans are just starting to make
their way to the land of the falling snow.
Brian, an American and avid snowboarder, has been wanting to
come to this area for years. The combination of excellent
snowboarding and Japan is irresistible including the draw of a
whole day spent on powdery runs, followed by hearty bowls of hot
noodles. Brian rents his gear from a little shop in Hirafu and buys
his inexpensive lift ticket (an all-mountain pass is around $40 per
day), and away he goes, morning until night. And after dark,
there’s night snowboarding here too.
Kate’s a skier. On her high-performance skis, she also swooshes
down the mountain morning until night (but she stops after
There are three ski areas in Niseko
joined by a series of lifts.
And then there’s me. No one has ever accused me of being athletic,
but still, I’m game. I rent my snowboard, find an Australian
snowboard instructor at the bottom of the slope and commence
spending an awful lot of time on my rear end. After lunch it’s off
to the bunny slopes for some more falling.
Luckily, Niseko has delightful distractions for the
non-skier/snowboarder, including excellent, eclectic restaurants
and bars. We enjoy a hidden bar with a secret door where mulled
wine is available in front of an open fire. There’s also an ice bar
an igloo with drinks created by an artist named Hirohiko Takenaka.
Down the street we eat in a Mongolian yurt/restaurant. We also eat
a bounty of noodles; traditional Japanese food in a restaurant in a
building shaped like a ship; some astonishingly good pizza; and a
lot of camembert. (The Hokkaido region is known for its dairy
Outdoor activities also abound in Niseko: snow rafting (like
whitewater rafting, but on snow), snowmobiling, cross-country
skiing, horseback riding, ice climbing and the activity I choose
Mieko Shiraki is the founder of Discovery U, an outdoor
recreation school in Niseko. Discovery U focuses on activities that
will have little impact on the environment; Mieko introduced “leave
no trace” outdoorsmanship to Japan and she is an environmentalist
as well as an adventurer. Her snowshoes are traditional Hokkaido
snowshoes a few bent pieces of wood with some heavy string holding
them onto our boots.
Mieko takes me to the base of Mount Yotei, said to be a dead
ringer for the more famous Mount Fuji, where we strap on our
snowshoes and walk through the woods over the thick powder snow,
looking for birds and foxes. We sit for tea beside a beautiful
And no matter what daytime activity we choose, at night the
onsen a traditional, public, single-sex bath calls to us. It’s
perfect for a snowboarder’s (or a snowshoer’s) weary muscles.
Niseko has a bounty of hot springs that feed into onsen all around
the area; there are buses that will take you from one to the next.
Our onsen, right across from our pension in Hirafu town, has an
outdoor hot pool. Every night we go to the onsen, sit on the pool’s
smooth stones in the steaming water amidst other bathers and tall
banks of snow and watch more snow falling in the black night.
The three main snowboarding and skiing areas in Niseko all have
accommodations, from luxury resorts to condominiums to pensions
with shared bathrooms. Most hotels in Niseko are within walking
distance of the slopes; those that aren’t will be serviced by one
of the slope’s shuttles.
The Hotel Niseko Annapuri is a luxurious hotel
with a Japanese atmosphere at the foot of Mount Niseko
The Niseko Company offers luxury accommodations
in several properties in the Niseko area.
The Niseko Higashiyama Prince Hotel is a resort
in the Higashiyama area with a Japanese atmosphere.
The Pension Grandpapa is a moderately priced
Japanese-owned pension in Hirafu town, and has English-speaking
staff. Rooms have Western-style beds, and bathrooms are shared.
Snowgum Lodge , in the town of Hirafu, has both
Western- and Japanese-style rooms (Japanese-style rooms have tatami
mats and futons rather than beds) and is run by Australians.
There are a lot of English-speaking snowboard and ski
instructors. Among them are Niseko Base Sunsports
and SAS Snowsports . SAS Snowsports arranges other
outdoors activities in Niseko as well.