Travel

A Skier's Guide to Niseko, Japan

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.

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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.

Niseko Resources

PowderHounds

SkiJapan

List of Niseko Onsens

Other Niseko Questions?

Leave a comment and I'll reply with an answer. Or if you have resources to share, let me know and I'll add them.

 

 

Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim [trip report]

A few months ago, Mike and I started planning this year's brutal wilderness adventure to follow on last year's Point Reyes to San Francisco 50+ mile single-push hike. Early on, we landed on doing Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon in under 24 hours. Quick Google searches revealed that this was indeed possible, and that there was a small fraternity of ultra runners and regular crazies like ourselves who had done this before. We put out the message and over 60 of our friends expressed interest in a trip of this variety. For the final count of 38 attendees doing a mix of 24-hour, 2-day, and one-way Rim to Rim [to Rim] trips, we rented 3 black E-350 vans from Bandago and headed out on the morning of May 24th.

On the road

On the road

We headed out from the South Rim campgrounds at about 4:40 AM on the 25th. Temps were cold but manageable, and we didn't need insulating layers except long sleeves and a hat. We blew the parking beta and parked at the Visitor's Center about 2 miles from the South Kaibab trailhead. We quickly made our way along the paved path to the trailhead and started heading down.

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2014-05-26 14.25.54

The South Kaibab trail is steep and switchbacked, and I was glad to have a pair of trekking poles along to ease the stress on my knees. The sun was already lighting up the sky and as it crested the horizon, we stripped off layers as the temperature began rising. The miles passed quickly, and we made good time getting down to the Colorado River.

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I guess it takes a certain type of person to think that hiking/running 45+ miles with 11,000+ feet of elevation gain in a single under-24 hour push is a good idea.

Anyway, before it felt like we had really even gotten started, we were into the flats and making good time across the bottom of the canyon. Sometime after we passed through Phantom Ranch, we met up with my mom, who was on her return leg of a 2-day R2R2R trip of her own. I hope I'm badass enough to be doing that when I'm her age.

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2014-05-25 10.00.45

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Our morning timing worked as planned and kept us out of the heat of the day, for the most part. We had maybe 5-7 miles of walking in direct sunlight, and we were all pretty happy to have brought along our dork hats to keep the sun off. At each water stop, many of the group drenched their hats.

After our stretch in the sun, we started up the biggest climb of the day to gain the north rim of the canyon. The climb is unrelenting and felt steeper than the south rim, but all things considered, the grade isn't that bad and the trail quality is good except for the occasional lake of donkey piss. Side note: people ride donkeys down to the bottom, and you have to get out of the way when they pass, which slows the pace considerably. Also, the donkeys smell exactly how you think donkeys will smell.

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At the top of the north rim, we stopped and ate lunch, drank lots of water, and elevated our legs. Temps were quite cool, which felt nice after a long and taxing climb. Our total rest time on the north rim was about an hour and a half - longer than we had planned by about half an hour.

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While our moving pace had been good during the first half of the day, we knew the second half was really our chance to make good time. Using our poles to mind the footing and leap over the aforementioned lakes of donkey piss, we jogged and ran at a good pace to the bottom of the canyon, then adopted a walk/jog pace through the bottom of the canyon and through the slot canyon, arriving at Phantom Ranch quite tired but making solid time.

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Phantom Ranch was a much-needed water fill-up and bathroom break. It also marked the end our our running. We clicked on our headlamps shortly after Phantom Ranch, and paused for a minute to turn them off and admire the stars as we crossed the bridge spanning the Colorado River and marking the beginning of our climb out of the canyon along Bright Angel trail.

That's when shit started to get weird. We walked as a group, making good time up the mild but sustained climb. Along the way, a few people bonked to varying degrees and required either rest and nutrition or a helping hand to make sure they didn't pitch off the edge in their stumbly state.

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2014-05-25 13.26.41

But that's relatively normal - what was weird were the other people we encountered along the way. First, we passed a family of 3 or 4 with enormous backpacks and cheap sandals for footwear. One of them had a vintage steel Coleman lantern lashed to the outside of his backpack. Their shuffling, delirious pace *might* have gotten them to the top by sunrise. It couldn't have been more than 1 mile per hour, and that's being generous. After assuring us that they were fine, we had no real option but to continue on our way. As Phantom Ranch was only a couple miles back, and they would have descended Bright Angel to reach wherever they had been camping, it's hard to imagine how they ended up in that predicament.

That wasn't even the weirdest. That prize goes to the 65+ year old father and 30+ year old daughter pair whom we met with a few miles to go. The father was struggling seriously, and we were worried whether he'd be able to finish at all. His daughter insisted they were fine, and they would rest as needed but continue plodding toward the top. Again, lacking any real recourse to help them in a meaningful way, we continued to the top. Mike led the group and I took the rear to make sure we were all together and keep an eye on everyone

As he retrieved the van from the campsite, the last of our core group topped out, and I ran into the daughter of the struggling senior citizen as she topped out - without her dad. Concerned, I asked her where he was, and she indicated that he was seeking shelter from the dropping temperatures in a tiny emergency shed we had passed alongside the trail, and that he would top out by himself in the morning.

What?? How is that even remotely acceptable behavior for not just an adventure partner, but someone's own daughter? I was floored and tried to convince her to go back down to be with him, and nearly went myself. It was really only when she told me that they had been in touch with NPS rangers that I let her find her way back to her hotel room.

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After a needless-to-say-great night's sleep, we returned to welcome our 2-day R2R2R hikers up the Bright Angel trail. They had an arguably harder hike, since they had to hike the whole climb in the 90+ degree heat and full sun exposure. All around, it as an awesome trip.

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For those planning their own R2R2R

Here are a few stream-of-consciousness tips from our experience:

  • Make sure you go after they turn the North Rim water pump on, usually around the weekend before we went. It's the last water fill-up before the north rim climb, and it's pretty critical to doing a single day R2R2R.
  • Hiking poles really help take stress off the knees during the long downhills, and they speed your pace on the uphill. Not a must-have, but we were really happy to have them. Anecdotally, they seem to have reduced next-day soreness quite a bit.
  • Hiking boots are definitely not required. You'll move much faster in trail runners. Wear an ankle brace if you have bad ankles.
  • Headlamps are a must-carry item.
  • No need for any water purification - there are plenty of fill-up points along the way.
  • You can park right at the South Kaibab trailhead - don't do what we did and park at the visitor's center then walk an extra ~2 miles.
  • An early start really helps. Getting on the trail by 4:30 or 5:00 AM would be ideal
  • Big, dorky hats are great. Wear one and love it.
  • Probably you won't need any warm gear beyond a thin long-sleeve shirt like a Patagonia Capilene 1. As long as you're moving, temps didn't get cold for any of us to want more than that. Of course, weather varies every year, so make prudent decisions for your forecast.
  • Campground reservations at the canyon fill up fast, so get them early. There are also some doable options outside the park by a few miles.
  • The drive from San Francisco is doable, but definitely not the most scenic. If you're crunched for time, consider flying to Vegas and driving from there.
  • It should go without saying, but carry very little. Nobody in our group had a pack larger than about 16L, and most people carried 2-3L of water at a time.

Venice Carnevale

Venice waterfront at sunsetIt's been some time since I traveled solely for the purpose of seeing a new place. Over the past few years, nearly all of my non-work trips have been to play in ultimate frisbee tournaments in admittedly spectacular places like Waimanalo, Sarasota, Washington, D.C., and Seattle.

My trip to Venice was something else entirely - travel for the sake of having the privilege of simply being in a new place for a while and seeing the best it has to offer. I wasn't supposed to spend a whole 11 days there, but sometimes you book your return flight for the wrong Monday and find yourself scrambling to find accommodation just a week before departure. Luckily, my college roommate Chris was on spring break the same week and decided to join me.

Venetian sunsetI touched down Euro-less at Venice Marco Polo airport and after wrangling some cash from an ATM that spoke only Italian, made my way to the boat stop. This trudging vessel took its time getting there, but after a little more than an hour, I disembarked at the San Zaccaria stop and attempted to make my way to the hostel where I was staying until Chris arrived. Stepping into a strange place is becoming one of my favorite feelings. It's like taking an evolutionary step backwards, where you run mostly on instincts and senses that modern life too often dulls. This displacement can be mildly terrifying, but it's a jolt we all need more often than we realize.

Venice in the winter is surprisingly cold, and I ended many days with clumsy, numb fingers but plenty of photos of the fantastic costumes and gorgeous city. During my first few days, the Carnevale had not officially started, and although the city was getting its act together for the influx of tourists, the streets were pleasantly empty. After finishing my work for the day, I headed out those nights to wander and discover.

Bridge reflection in a canalTo me, this was the best part of Venice. You might walk through San Marco square or over the Rialto bridge, then minutes later find yourself on an abandoned street lit dimly but for the glow of some charming cafe or pizzeria. Several nights, Chris and I frequented Campo Santa Margherita, where we found a self-styled speakeasy serving classic American cocktails, many with an Italian twist. Despite being the only known place to have a drink after 9:30 PM, Campo Santa Margherita was predominantly Italians, and we found it welcoming and relaxing. Venice is definitely not known for its nightlife.

Per San MarcoThe Carnevale in Venice is less about the till-dawn parties a la Rio de Janeiro as it is about upholding a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. Scores of dedicated participants don elaborate costumes and custom-made masks to roam the streets and pose for photographers and tourists throughout the week and especially on the weekends. I became captivated by the duality of the costume and the person wearing it - with most of the top-notch costumes, the only exposed area to define the creature as human were the eyes. After the streets of London, where passerby do not make eye contact with one another, this was a startling phenomenon.

Carnevale costumesCarnevale costumesCarnevale costumesThe week passed mostly on the inside of cafes or our rented apartment on the far west end of the city. I was working remotely, and Chris was completing work for his master's program and startup. We ventured out some late afternoons or evenings to eat, drink, or take photos, but mostly the weekdays were a chance for immersion in the Venetian culture. The city has a great pride in its history, and just walking around the city, you sense the gravitas of a place that was once the center of the developed world. This sentiment must steel the Venetians and their city against the onslaught of tourists and the accompanying pressures to convert every ground-floor door into a gift shop. For this, I commend the Venetians mightily.

Mosaic on Basilica San MarcoDuring the second weekend, the streets swarmed with a crush of tourists those narrow alleys were clearly were not designed to handle. Moving feet could take minutes at critical choke-points, and if the weather hadn't been pleasantly north of freezing with a crisp, blue sky overhead, I might have abandoned them entirely. I will, however, cop to spending half of Saturday in the original location of Cafe del Dodge, which also happened to be my favorite cafe in downtown Palo Alto while I was at Stanford. A TV in the corner was even showing a homemade documentary about the opening of their shop in Palo Alto.Crowds at Rialto BridgeOn Sunday, Chris left to catch an early flight and I packed my things and found a cheap hotel with a rock-hard bed near the bus station for my last night in town. I then loaded up my small backpack and allowed myself to be swept away with the crowds - there wasn't another option, actually - and drifted from place to place throughout the day snapping photos.

Bridge frames two gondolasOn this final day, I finally bought a mask after making sure that it was made locally, not in China. This is a big deal to Venetians, and rightfully so - the plastic knockoffs have encroached on the craftsmanship of a genuine Venetian Carnevale mask, and they are a cheap imitation at best.

Gondolier at sunsetThe sunset that evening glowed orange and red, and I found a long water taxi dock and photographed a miraculous sunset. It was the perfect way to cap off my first-ever trip to Italy - but you can bet I'll be back just as soon as I can.

For the whole album of photos, click here.