Niseko, located on the island of Hokkaido, is without a doubt one of the best places in the world to ski if you like deep powder and dislike crowds. It is also not a terribly easy place to figure out in terms of travel, logistics, and such. This guide should help you to circumvent our approach of figuring things out as we went along, usually the hard way.
How to get to Niseko
By far the easiest way to get to Niseko is by air. If you’re traveling from outside the country, you’ll most likely find the cheapest flights into Tokyo Narita airport, though Haneda might work too. In either case - and this is super important - you’ll need a domestic flight from Tokyo to Sapporo (New Chitose) airport. While it is *possible* to take trains from Tokyo to Sapporo, my research indicated this took 12+ hours of straight travel and multiple transfers AND is more expensive than flying.
You might be able to do this all on the same itinerary - Japan Airlines (JAL) is a OneWorld airline and can therefore be booked on a single itinerary with airlines like American Airlines. Japan Airlines is considered a premium airline within Japan, however, and their prices are often more expensive than some of Japan’s cheaper discount airlines.
For discount tickets (which carry the typical harsh cancellation/missed flight policies, fees for baggage, etc) you’ll want to check out Vanilla Airlines and Jetstar Airlines. Those were the two we found to have the best flight times and good flight frequency. Others can be found at google.com/flights, but be aware that some of these websites are only in Japanese and don’t have an English option.
Now that you know that, you can start to look for flights. My advice is to bias heavily toward flights that get you into Tokyo as early in the day as possible, preferably by 2:00 or 3:00 PM. Schedule your domestic flight *at least* 3 hours after your international flight arrives. I’d go for 4+ hours if I were taking a budget airline.
Here’s why: you’ll have to clear customs, change terminals, and re-check your bag(s) in Tokyo, and the bag check-in deadline (strictly enforced) is at least 30 minutes before departure time. Even if you don’t check a bag, I would abide by this scheduling rule. Having some extra time to get cash from the ATM (the 7-11 ATMs were reliable for American debit cards) and a bite to eat is not a bad thing.
If all goes according to plan, this will put you into Sapporo (New Chitose Airport) sometime around 8 or 9pm.
Your next step is to take a shuttle/bus to Hirafu or whichever town you're staying in (more on that in a second). This takes about 2 hours, sometimes longer if the weather is poor. Importantly, you cannot get a spot on the bus just by walking up to the counter at the airport. You have to reserve it ahead of time. The only bus we found with online reservations is here, but it doesn’t run late enough to get you from the airport to Niseko. If you are planning at least a few weeks ahead of time, you should contact the good folks at SkiJapan or PowderHounds to help you out with the reservation, or if you have a contact from your accommodation booking, they can probably help you out. See below for some helpful links.
Where to stay in Niseko
The ideal way to get a place to stay in Niseko is to contact rental homes/apartments in the late summer (August or September) before you want to go. Christmas through the week of New Years is by far the busiest time, and accommodations fill up fast. In fact, I would suggest booking your accommodation before committing to travel dates and plane flights. This is backwards of how I normally plan trips, and it nearly killed our whole trip when basically every nook and cranny was reserved - and we only found this out once we had booked flights.
I’m normally super averse to booking things through a travel agency because I just assume they’re taking a big cut and I could do it cheaper myself. Niseko is one area where, when (not if) I go back, I will strongly consider using a service as an intermediary. A lot of the accommodations don’t seem to be available for booking online, implying that you need feet on the ground or a Japanese speaker at the very least to make it happen. This is just a consequence of the fact that Niseko is still pretty under-developed as a ski area. Don’t worry - you’ll reap the benefits with short lift lines and fresh tracks once you’re there.
In terms of price, expect to pay at least $30 per day for a single bed in a hostel, $50-75 for a private room, and on up into the stratosphere from there. The hotels like The Vale Niseko go for pretty astronomical prices, but seem to mostly live up to the prices (at least as far as I could see). They’re very, very nice. There's a great way to get the best parts without paying a ton of cash though, and I'll get to that in a minute.
Outside of that advice, you can just do what we did - google the utter shit out of "where to stay in Niseko" or "Niseko accommodations" and try to get Airbnbs. This approach was stressful but (mostly) worked out in the end.
Niseko Geography & Skiing
Niseko is actually 4 different ski areas on the same mountain:
- An'nupuri - furthest looker's left. I had a friend who stayed in An'nupuri and liked it. It's sleepier than Hirafu to be sure, but has good restaurants and enough accommodation.
- Niseko Village - second from the looker's left. We spent basically no time here as it's centered around the big Hilton hotel and there didn't appear to be a whole lot else.
- Hirafu - third from the looker's left, and split into Upper Hirafu and Lower Hirafu. Upper Hirafu refers to the area closer to the ski resort. Lower Hirafu refers to the area
- Hanazono - furthest looker's right with relatively few accommodations, restaurants, etc. Very good skiing in this area.
All 4 "resorts" are linked at the very top of the mountain by chairlifts that allow you to traverse to the other resorts, and at the bottom by a shuttle bus. The Japanese resort operators seem to be pretty cautions about opening the top of the mountain, so on some days it's not really possible to get from one area to the others. The traverses are pretty easy, but be careful because the whole resort is a lot smaller than an American ski area like Vail, Squaw, or Breckenridge, and you can easily over-shoot. One day, we overshot by two resorts by accident.
Ski passes can be purchased at the base of the mountain, and we weren't able to find any discounts by going to local shops, looking online, etc. Your mileage may vary, so definitely give it a try. In any case, the tickets are quite cheap - much cheaper than US resorts.
IMPORTANT: Buy the pass for the whole mountain. Don't debate, just do it. It's trivially more expensive and gives you the ability to explore each of the 4 ski areas. It's a real bummer to accidentally traverse too far and have to take the bus back to your home mountain.
The real rewards of skiing in Niseko come from exiting the official skied areas and entering the side country. The resorts open gates to these areas when they deem conditions appropriate. That is to say - when it's pretty much 0% chance of avalanche. However, advanced skiers are, ahem, known to sneak off and get the goods early. If you do this, it's definitely best to carry avalanche gear and know your way around avalanche terrain. Most of it is less steep than super dangerous avalanche terrain, but there is *a lot* of snow, so unstable layers will definitely be magnified andheavily loaded. Be smart, people.
There is also definitely a lot of backcountry skiing to be done in and around Niseko. Unless you are lucky enough to know a local who can take you out, it seems best to use a guide service to drive you around and bring you to the deepest powder available. We didn't have time to try it on this trip, but it will definitely be on the agenda next time around. I'd suggest bringing your own touring setup if you intend to ski the backcountry.
PRO TIP: The vending machines near most of the on-mountain restaurants serve hot coffee in a 12oz can. You can choose between black coffee and coffee with cream and sugar. This may be the greatest invention in the history of man.
Rental gear in Niseko
Rather than carry our gear all the way to Japan, we opted to rent skis and poles in Hirafu. I walked around to a few of the shops and was able to find one that had demo gear for ~$40 USD per day. This turned out to be a great way to go because I was able to get a fatter ski that was more appropriate for the ridiculous Niseko powder. I'm 5'11" and went with a 186cm ski with 115cm under foot. 100cm under foot would be the minimum I'd recommend for just about anyone.
One thing that will be fairly obvious to you once you arrive but wouldn't necessarily be obvious beforehand is that there isn't that strong of a "base village" concept at Niseko. If you're expecting a lot of facilities like rental shops, restaurants, porches with beer drinking, etc. at the base of any of the lifts, you'll be disappointed. Most of them have a restaurant, but that's about it. Rent gear in town instead.
What to do in Niseko
The attraction of Niseko is powder, obviously, and it's a place you would not likely end up if not for the unbridled pursuit of pow. So it should go without saying that you should spend 8:30am when lifts open until your legs give out (or the upper lifts close) shredding the gnar. That much is obvious.
What is less obvious is that there are essentially 3 other things to do in Niseko
Onsen - There are dozens of Onsen (Onsens?) in Hirafu, and I'm sure there are some in other areas as well. We went 3 of the 4 nights we were in Niseko, and our only regret was not going every single night. For (at most) $10 per person, you get unlimited time soaking in piping hot, naturally fed but not overly sulfur-y hot springs with really nice facilities built around them.
Many of the nicer Onsen have saunas and cold pools as well. Bathing is nude and gender separated. There is a whole procedure for how to properly go to an Onsen, which you can read about here. However, don't get too caught up with procedure - we observed Japanese folks breaking these "rules" as often as they followed them. Basically, do what others are doing and don't be obnoxious.
PRO TIP: The Onsen at most/all of the fanciest hotels are open to the public at totally reasonable rates - pretty much the same as the standalone Onsens. The Vale in Upper Hirafu had a super nice one, if kind of small. This is a great way to get a bit of the luxury without paying much for it.
Eat all the food - Japan has incredible food, and you can find a great sampling of most types in Niseko. I can only speak for Hirafu, but we found most restaurants to have relatively short waits if any at all - contrary to what we read beforehand indicating that reservations are necessary weeks or months in advance. Most meals were $10-$30 per person, depending on how nice the place was.
PRO TIP: Try the cheese tarts on the road that leads directly to the Hirafu base lift. They're in a small cart on the left hand side of the street as you're walking uphill. They were ridiculous. I would almost go back just for the cheese tart, and that's not a joke.
Party / drink beer - If you are looking for a party, you can definitely find it in Hirafu. There are quite a few bars that stay out late and cater to the party crowd - mostly Australians and some Americans. Ask around to find out where the cool places are and where to go out.