Hirafu, Niseko was the destination of my first group snow trip. It is located on the Hokkaido island, which is north of Japan’s mainland. On the way to Niseko, we stayed a couple of nights in Tokyo (a couple is all you will need) before flying domestically (approximately 2 hours) to Sapporo on Hokkaido island. I do believe there is a bullet train as well, but I haven’t delved any further. Once you arrive in Sapporo, you catch a bus (approx 3-4 hours depending on the weather) to Niseko. It is a scenic route as the roads slowly get snowier, the bus window gets colder and the tree branches begin to fill with snow. At the 30 minute stopover, was the first time I got to really witness snow falling and snowflakes and play in the huge mounds of it that get pushed to the side of the road. I was like a child again, giddy with a new experience and uncontainable excitement. The snow in Japan is so light and fluffy, it really is like powder and it is magical. It is one of my best memories.
The slopes of Niseko access a variety of mountains with a a range of difficulty levels and off piste areas. Japan’s slopes do have tress but they are fairly small and easy to manoeuvre around and can actually be quite fun to go through with the fresh powder settling waiting for you to hurtle through it. I would recommend a helmet though, just in case you can’t stop in time. Maps of the slopes can be found online here and the mountain passes can be bought for one or multiple mountains depending on how far you want to explore each day. We organised an 8/10 day ski pass before we arrived (trust me you will need a couple of days to rest your legs when skiing for that long) to save on money and then just purchased our last few days as we went. Hanazono had a great park for those who are interested in that sort of thing. Over the two weeks we were in Niseko, we explored all three mountains and were still finding new runs and sections. I highly recommend getting up early for first tracks at least one of the days, and Niseko has some excellent night skiing as well. It is best if the snow has been falling consistently all day and you haven’t quite had enough. It is cold, but can be worth it as the crowds thin out.
The Niseko village is small, but quite touristy and well established. Most people speak English well, but learning a little Japanese goes a long way. In peak season, I would advise booking accommodation as soon as you have your plane ticket, as it does get very busy and fills up quickly.
There are a range of places to eat that cater to all tastes and cultural appetites. It can be done cheaply if you stick to the Japanese restaurants as the western food tends to be more pricey. If you want to eat out in large groups (more than 4) I would encourage you to book ahead during the day so you do not get turned away, as most of the boutique restaurants won’t be able to fit large groups on a whim. We found if we ate a little later than usual, they could squeeze us in, but sometimes we were waved away as the venues aren’t very big. To eat on the mountain, you will pay a premium price so we found we could eat really cheap by making a rendezvous time at Seico Mart (the small convenience shop in the middle of the village, just down from the bottom ski lift. You can’t miss it) and we would get sushi, rice dishes, dumplings or noodles and have a bit of a picnic out the front instead. Trying to figure out the hot chocolates and coffees from the vending machines is still a bit of a novelty. It was also pretty fun trying the Japanese snack food and chips, choosing only by the pictures that don’t always relate to what is actually inside.
My partner and I stayed in a place called the Grandpapa Lodge Pension, which is a large Japanese house run by a local family. The house boasts many rooms (twin or double) with shared bathroom facilities and a communal kitchen. The accommodation is quite modest, but comfortable enough if you aren’t too fussy. There are a range of accommodation options that can suit any budget, just make sure you book well in advance. Our room had twin beds, a table, heater and we used the shared bathroom. It also included breakfast which was a always an interesting talking point to start the morning on as we tried to guess what was in our meals. The family who ran it were lovely and tried to meet any needs we had. It was small, but warm and we didn’t have many issues with the bathroom after the initial shock of no locks and multiple showers in one room (after you have been to an onsen it all makes perfect sense- a post on onsen etiquette is coming soon). Our modest accommodation came in at AU$60 per night with breakfast included and you can’t really beat that. My only complaint was the many stairs we had to walk up and down to get to our room which was on the second level. Usually it would be no problem, but after 3 days learning to snowboard I could hardly lift my legs, let alone walk up stairs.
Part 2 to follow with recommendations, onsen etiquette, snowboard lessons and… Disneyland!