Niseko and beyond, a guide to the powder ski capitals of Hokkaido

niseko

Picture this. The international borders are open, you’ve got limited time and you want the best powder experience money can buy.

You’ve come to the right place. The northern island of Japan, Hokkaido. Home to the powder capital of Niseko, the hidden gem of Kiroro ski resort, the quirky fun of Rusutsu and the bright lights of Sapporo. You’ll be safe knowing that all Hokkaido resorts are operating with COVID-19 Safe Operating Plans in place, and resort towns offer appropriate social distancing.

Now throw in a ton of onsens, cool cocktail bars and Japan whisky, Hokkaido’s famous milk puff and cheese tarts, sake and so much more, and you’ve got a truly unique ski and snowboard destination that hits the mark every time.

But first, the grand dame of Japan powder, Niseko.

Niseko

Niseko is the unofficial capital of powder-filled Japan: it boasts big snowfalls over 16 metres a season (thanks to Siberian weather systems across the Japan Sea), a huge range of delicious, modern restaurants and bars ranging from quirky to heritage or contemporary plus plenty of on and off-piste adventures. Trust us, you’ll be hooked.

Fly into Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport and rent a car or get one of the many transport options direct to Niseko by train, coach or private transfer. The resort is just a two hour drive from Sapporo.

Then get ready to explore four integrated Niseko United resorts – Hirafu, Niseko Village, Annupuri and Hanazono. There are endless spots to discover on the mountain, with plenty of powder to go around.

Your lift pass will also allow you to explore all interconnected ski areas, with enough terrain here to keep your whole crew smiling in powder-filled white rooms for days.

Those seeking the pow will be thrilled with the off-piste ski area of Mizuno no Sawa, one of Niseko’s best top-to-bottom runs for serious powder hounds. Keep an eye out for the famous ‘Strawberry Fields’ run, or ask someone on the chair lift to point you in the right direction.

Looking for more gentle groomed slopes with wider runs? Head to Niseko Annupuri, the perfect spot for beginners and intermediates to improve their skills, with some off piste terrain to keep the advanced in your group happy. On a clear day you can enjoy pristine ski runs with a view of the famous Mt Yotei volcano that dominates the Niseko skyline.

Off-snow, you’ll find most of the après action in Grand Hirafu, along with a huge range of accommodation offerings and restaurants – everything from traditional izakayas tucked into side streets to world-class dining.

If a quieter vibe is more your scene, it’s not a bad idea to settle yourself over the mountain in the Niseko Village, home to four ski-in, ski-out hotels offering a variety of accommodation offerings from budget to luxe with onsens and roof top bars. You can play where you stay or venture 15 minutes away for more action.

The base of Niseko Village resort is centred around Hilton Niseko Hotel, a carefully curated shopping and dining hub offering traditional Japanese cuisine, izakayas, teppanyaki, premium sports products, local artisans’ goods and more. Bed down in a Kasara Niseko Village townhouse, wake to views of Mount Yotei from your exclusive apartment in Hinode Hills Niseko Village, or check in to the contemporary The Green Leaf Hotel Niseko Village.

Feeling fancy? The newest accommodation offering is the seriously high end Higashiyama Reserve, a Ritz Carlton Reserve hotel, the first of its kind in Japan.

When the chairlifts close take a stroll to Takahashi Farm or “Niseko Milk Kobo” and thank us later. This diary farm produces the finest Hokkaido milk and the island’s most famous cheese tarts and cream puffs. One will never be enough. Never.

When it’s time for a drink, you can also take yourself to the Niseko Sake Brewery in nearby Kutchan. This small local brewery is blessed with seriously high-quality water, and their team of just 10 brewers work tirelessly to produce pure and unblended sake. Delicious and well-earned after all those turns on the slopes.

Local après tip:

Stop by Hirafu’s hidden gem Toshiro’s Bar to wind down. Tucked away in the Hirafutei hotel on the ground floor overlooking the ski slopes, pick a whisky from some of Japan’s rarest bottles while you overlook the ski slopes lit up like a fairly tale for night skiing; or sample the Tingling Penicillin, a smoked whisky drink spiced with Sichuan pepper.

Kiroro powder secret

Kiroro’s famous powder. Photo credit: Mint Tours

Kiroro Resort, in Akaigawa, is about an hour and 15 minutes from Sapporo. And coming from Niseko, it only takes about an hour to get there. Despite being so close, you won’t find any crowds hunting the snow in Kiroro; in fact, the powder’s in pristine quality and your legs will be burning from maximum time shredding, minimum time standing in lift lines.

The entire resort is nestled in a beautiful valley surrounded by forests and pristine nature. The resort’s lift system serves two peaks, also providing access to  groomed terrain for all levels of skiers. But we know you’re here for the pow – and the backcountry access from the resort is world-class, managed by a system designed to encourage safe backcountry skiing for all advanced riders.

Night life’s a little quieter in these parts, but that’s not to say there’s nothing to do once the lifts stop spinning. The three hotels in Kiroro (The Sheraton, the Tribute Portfolio Hotel and Yu Kiroro) are closely connected and each have extensive dining, shopping and onsen options. So you can ski and board hard by day, eat, onsen and recover by night.

Rusutsu, a powderhound playground

Rusutsu. Photo credit: Narongsak Nagadhana/shutterstock

The first thing you’ll notice at Rusutsu (located about one and half hours from Sapporo) is the amusement park rollercoaster that forms a backdrop to this rocking resort big on powder and fun. Add a singing tree (no word of a lie) and games arcades, onsen, dining and shopping and you’ve got yourself a holiday to remember.

You’ll find Rusutsu about half an hour from Niseko, with the same bucket loads of snow, so you can take a day trip or settle into the resort hotels for days on end. Rusutsu boasts 4 gondolas, 14 lifts and 3 peaks with uber groomers and off piste deep powder forests and gullies.

Seriously, some of the best tree skiing around.

Hidden gems of Sapporo

Sapporo Japan
Sapporo. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Once you’ve finished up in Rusutsu, it’s just 90 minutes to return to the city of Sapporo, where you can do some exploring (and shopping) before heading back home. Many people skip out on Sapporo, their attention focused on the bright lights and big city of Tokyo; but Sapporo is deeply authentic in its cultural offerings and still has so much to see.

The Prince Hotel has the best location near Odori Park where the Sapporo Snow Festival is held every February. Stay at The Prince and you’ll be walking distance to all the fun (and shopping) Sapporo has on offer.

Wander the streets of Sapporo to find unique shops with kimono stores, electrical stores and designer fashion stores sit side by side. Explore the Japanese game arcades where locals line up to play the country’s famous dance games.

Check out Daimaru, one of Japan’s largest shopping centres, with souvenirs to take home, including Hokkaido sake, whisky and wine. Then, come night fall, head to Tanuki Koji, the oldest shopping street in Sapporo. The street was founded in 1873 and offers seven blocks with over 200 shops from souvenir stores to ramen restaurants, fun chaotic bars and more.

It’s worth stopping by the Nijo fish market, which dates back over 100 years and is hands-down the best place to experience the freshest seafood in Hokkaido. Here you’ll be able to sample and see a variety of Hokkaido seafood specialties – none more famous than the Hokkaido king crab, prepared right in front of you for you to enjoy at the markets.

Day tripping for powder and onsens

When you’re ready to day trip, your first stop can be nearby Sapporo Kokusai resort, just one hour from Sapporo city. The resort can be easily reached by car or bus from mid-November to early May.

While it’s smaller in comparison to some of the more famous international resorts, the snow quality is pure Japowder, and there’s a modern lift system to hunt down all that powder faster. There’s also a ski school for those wanting lessons and a handful of eateries when hunger strikes.

Jozankei Onsen

Soothe those weary ski-resort muscles at your second day trip, Jozankei Onsen, located inside Shikotsu-Toya National Park between the high cliffs of the Toyohira River. The onsen waters of Jozankei were discovered in 1866 and the town now has dozens of ryokan, restaurants and shops catering to hot spring lovers. Free foot baths can also be found around town so roll up those cuffs.

Then it’s an easy skip, hop and jump back to the airport to go home and make all your friends jealous of your adventures.

Find out more about skiing in Hokkaido here and follow the powder island of Hokkaido on their Instagram. 

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