- Highest Point: 1200m
- Descent: 940m
- No. lifts: 15
- Lift Pass: 1 Day - ¥7,400 / 6 Days - ¥38,4300
Niseko is no longer the secret it once was and is by far the most well-known place to ride in Japan. It is synonymous with deep, fresh pow, where quality really does meet quantity. As anyone who's watched a few shred movies knows, Niseko's unique weather patterns roll in regularly from Siberia, bringing some seriously large (and consistent) snowfalls that are among the driest and lightest in the world.
Niseko’s one ‘united’ mountain is comprised of four different ski areas, An’nupuri, Niseko Village (previously named Higashiyama) Hanazono and Grand Hirafu. They all link up to the top of the mountain and one lift pass can be bought covering the whole resort. Almost the entire area in Grand Hirafu is floodlit every night until 9 pm – so when it’s snowing in Niseko you can ride pow all morning, take the afternoon off and go back out in the evening to find that all the tracks have been filled in. Even better, there’s hardly anyone else around. Riding the trees at night is a truly surreal experience and something every rider should try at some point in their life.
It's worth mentioning that you should avoid Niseko during Chinese New Years. This is by far the busiest time and the resort is almost 100% booked out - accommodation, restaurants, you name it - with visitors from Hong Kong, China and Singapore. The date for Chinese New Year changes every year so look it up and avoid it at all costs!
The Parks - 2/5
If you're looking to ride park then Niseko probably isn't first on the list of dream destinations, but after a week or two of shredding waist-deep pow it's always fun to mix it up and hit a kicker or two. These days the local parks have been scaled back somewhat as popular demand dictates more freeriding, but there are a couple of pleasant surprises lurking.
"After a week or two of shredding waist-deep pow it's always fun to mix it up and hit a kicker or two"
The first park most riders come across in Niseko is the compact but well-shaped King Park set-up, located near the bottom of the gondola in Hirafu. Here you’ll find a simple but flowing series of features – once you get past the sheep-herding style drop-in that is. The jumps here are true-table style and vary in length from about 15 to 30ft. The jibs range from super-mellow ride-on boxes to round bar down rails.
Over in Hanazono there's a similar set up near the resort base, but this one's a little flatter so make sure you land everything bolts else you'll unstrapping to get top the bottom. The park crew like to get a little creative, so look out for some mellow tranny options around their table top jumps.
The Powder - 5/5
Niseko maintains one of Japan’s most progressive off-piste and backcountry access policies, almost guaranteeing that powder seekers will go home happy. The highest lifts are all within a few hundred metres from the top of the mountain (Mt Annupuri, 1308m) - on a bluebird day the crowds always head straight for the peak. A twenty-minute hike from the top lifts will provide close to 360-degree views from the nearby Mt Yotei volcano to sea. These top lifts, however, are old-school single chairs, and the lines can get frustratingly long on a powder day. It’s worth the wait though, even if you only do it once. Terrain is not as steep as places like Chamonix, but is packed with pillows and well-spaced trees – in a word, fun! The length of your ride is governed by how far you want to hike to get back inbounds.
Make sure you check the conditions before you head out of bounds, but most importantly, you’re only allowed backcountry by going through one of the specified gates. If the gate is closed then you’re strictly not allowed in that area (and you can expect to have your pass taken away if you’re caught). It goes without saying that you should be carrying your backcountry equipment, and there are plenty of companies offering guiding services. Alternatively, there’s oodles of pow shredding to be done within the resort boundary. Check out Strawberry Fields in Hanazono, and Mihirashi or Super Ridge in Hirafu.
As a bonus, riding towards Annupuri a short detour right will see you end up in Moiwa, a much quieter hidden gem. Though it's connected geographically it runs on a different pass, so make sure you only venture here when you mean to, plenty of tourists end up here by accident or because they followed the wrong tracks! Accidents can be happy ones though, there's heaps of fun terrain that hold the snow a little longer than the bigger resorts close by.
The Pistes - 3/5
Niseko’s quality snow allows for some pristine grooming – when it’s not dumping pow that is. There’s a good selection of long wide runs, with the Annupuri area being the pick of the bunch.
The other three areas also have a decent number of groomed trails presenting a mixture of greens, reds and a few pisted blacks. Note that the majority of black trails marked on the map are frequently left un-groomed and are either full of pow or choppy, depending on the conditions.
Whilst you might not be making the pilgrimage to ride groomers, look out for the locals styling out turns cleanly and efficiently - it's unlike anything seen in Western resorts until very recently, and might be enough for you to bust out a positive-positive stance! Bonus points if you try out a Gentem Stick from their recently relocated showroom.
The Parties - 4/5
With an influx of powder hunters – particularly Australians – Niseko has lost some of its Japanese identity, so if you’re looking for the real deal culturally this isn’t the place for you - though Kutchan is a more legitimate option fifteen minutes away on the bus. But if you’re after amazing freeriding and a fun party scene with a difference, this is it: Western party life with Japanese flavours!
"If you’re after amazing freeriding and a fun party scene with a difference, this is it: Western party life with Japanese flavours!"
Hirafu Village boasts the best nightlife in the area. The 5 o’clock après scene doesn’t really happen here; instead, people party later into the night. An evening in Hirafu usually begins with a social eating and drinking combo at one of the many local restaurants – these often last for hours, as it’s tradition in Japan to eat and drink together. Find a ‘Nomihoudai’ (all-you-can-drink) option and take your time. When you’re ready to hit the bars, head to Tamashi, Jam Bar, Paddy McGinty's or Blo Blo for a mix of Japanese and Western drinking. Most of these places close around 1 am but that doesn’t mean your night has to end there. Check out Barunba, Splash or Wild Bill's if you’re looking for an all-nighter; these places are known to stay open as late as 5 am.