The Ultimate Guide to Niseko, Japan
Written by Jack Lee • Last updated Aug 16, 2017
Japow! Welcome to one of the snowiest ski resorts on the planet and the most popular powder haven in the Land of the Rising Sun. If you absolutely, positively, have to get up to your eyeballs in the white stuff, there are few others places that give you better odds than Niseko. Japan's premier winter wonderland has quite rightly earned a reputation as an essential destination for any self-respecting powder hound, with an average annual snowfall of over 80 days and record snow depths of more than 13 feet!
Before we start singing its praises too much, if steep chutes and hundreds of miles of groomed runs are what you crave, Niseko won't deliver. It has just over 3,400 feet of vertical distance and 29 miles of marked piste, with the steepest slope coming in at 35 degrees. However, the vast off-piste opportunities are phenomenal, and if you want to feel like you're riding on clouds, cutting fresh tracks in fluffy powder while turning between ghost-like trees, the slopes of Mount Niseko-Annupuri are second to none. The scenery is spectacular too, with the picture-perfect Mount Yōtei framing the backdrop.
It's hard to believe, but Niseko was once a quiet resort that struggled to pull in skiers and snowboarders from around the world. Now the secret is most certainly out, but the crowds don't always reach the lift-queue-inducing numbers common in popular North American and European ski resorts. Avoid major holidays and it's truly surprising just how quiet the slopes can be sometimes, especially away from Hirafu, and particularly at Moiwa. Off the mountain there's a whole other dimension to a ski holiday in Japan, from soothing aching muscles in mineral-rich thermal spring water at a traditional onsen, to tasting authentic sushi washed down with local Sapporo beer.
Mount Niseko-Annupuri may only reach 4,291 feet into the sky, but no other ski resort on the island of Hokkaido compares to Niseko United by size, connected runs, variety of terrain, or accessibility. All the ski areas offer something different, but it's Hirafu (ヒラフ) that is undoubtedly the most popular. Even though it has the most runs, it's also the most crowded, so if it's quieter slopes you want Annupuri (アンヌプリ) will provide. Wedged in-between these two ski areas is Niseko Village (ニセコ村), which really comes into its own when the wind blows up and its lower lifts stay running. To the left of Hirafu we have Hanazono (花園), with the smallest number of runs but home to the legendary Strawberry Fields sidecountry.
There's also a fifth much-overlooked ski area called Moiwa (モイワ), which is connected by an unmarked route but it's a hidden gem. After a big dump, fresh powder can last for days there, and it still doesn't get crowded. Well worth a trip once the backcountry gets lumpy in the four main ski areas. While we're on the subject of backcountry, if you really want to make the most of a short time in Niseko, take advantage of the fine service provided by local guides, it'll be the best money you spend on your trip.
There's a number of choices when it comes to the type of lift ticket you can buy, but by far the most common is a Niseko United All Mountain Pass. That said, you can buy cheaper lift tickets for individual areas of the mountain, Annupuri, Niseko Village, plus Hanazono & Hirafu (there's no individual lift ticket for Hanazono, just one for the two areas combined). To try the slopes at Moiwa you'll need a separate lift pass as it's not covered by the All Mountain Pass.
If you're feeling thrifty you might want to go for an 8-hour lift pass (or 1-day pass if you plan on night skiing). Why? Lifts often close during windy weather in Niseko, so that All Mountain Pass will go to waste if there are no lifts running to connect you to the rest of the mountain. There's a strict no refund policy too, so it's no use kicking up a fuss at the ticket office. You have been warned!
There's also a slightly more unfamiliar point system lift pass, which works on the basis that for each lift you take a number of points are used up, a cost-effective option if you're just doing a few runs each day. All the latest prices and different ticket iterations can be found through Niseko United and at the Moiwa Ski Resort website.
When to Go
The first lifts turn on as early as the end of November and the last one doesn't shut off until the beginning of May, but Niseko's peak season sits firmly between late December to mid-February. If you're here then, expect three or four powder days a week! There is a slight downside to all that snow, namely being that visibility can be particularly poor, but we're happy with the compromise. If you'd prefer a few bluebird days then visiting at the start of March is a good call and a good time to pickup a great deal. If there is any time to avoid going to Niseko, it's around Christmas and Chinese New Year, prices are hiked up and the slopes get packed.