Travel Stories

Going Deep In Japan – Exploring Niseko

People flock there for the powder, but how can Niseko possibly live up to the hype?

Photo: Ben Howells blows up the spot. All photos by Sam McMahon

Much has been said about how social media affects our perception of the world, the way that people amplify their own experience to the point where for some, reality doesn’t compare. Because it can’t, social media isn’t reality – it’s framing.

Snowboard photographers have known and lived off the same trick for decades: even on the barest of mountains there’ll be a patch of snow somewhere for you to muster a cloudburst or nice looking turn.

“Social media isn’t reality – it’s framing”

Given this state of affairs, does #Japow have any chance of living up to the hype? It’s the question that’s weighing on my mind as I drift over Europe, on a flight that I’m all-too-aware I can’t really afford. I’ve seen this place in movies and magazines for years, and these days ‘Japanuary’ feels like it clogs up my feed from December to March. Endless pillows, waist deep powder… It’s the dream destination, but nothing could actually be as good as how people describe Hokkaido in wintertime, right?

It’s what I’ve set off to investigate. My target is Niseko, the apparent epicentre of the West’s slow encroachment onto Japan’s slopes. I’m fairly sure it’s going to be good, but does it have any hope of living up to its FOMO-inducing reputation?

The trip really couldn’t really have got off to a worse start. Before I’d even left, the car had died about an hour away from home and the cat – overfed and fattened by his Christmas caretakers – had spent the 48 hours before my departure on a drip in the local vets. Whilst the journey over had gone smoothly, the very first day of the trip saw my companion break her leg against a tree without a glimpse of this mystical powder anywhere. Hokkaido had been free of fresh snow for two weeks, and now we were in an ambulance anyway.

Hospital, X-ray, home, insurance, hospital again, referral, surgery. Admin nightmare. This was becoming more of Norman Wisdom-esque farce than a powder odyssey. That is, until an old buddy got in touch saying he was in town for the season and to come ride.

“Don’t think I’ll make it today man, heaps of hospital crap to deal with.”

“When’s it done? Come night riding after.”

“Night… riding..?”

In the Land Of The Rising Sun, you’ll be quite happy to see it go down
Ben Howells, working on his night moves

Ohfuckyes. In the initial mayhem I’d forgotten that Niseko stays open from 8.30am to 8.30pm, with the later hours floodlit on the lower slopes. That means you can get some early laps in before the hordes descend, go chill in an onsen or grab a bite, then come back for the free refills in the evening. And as I had run around like a madman for three days, the storm cycle had chugged back into gear and Japan was getting it. Hard. Apologies dear companion, this is the part where I vanish off into the wild. Good job visiting hours are after the lifts shut.

Riding powder under lights is something else. With one sense dampened, your others fire up to meet and fight the cold. You feel your surroundings more keenly, especially in the eerie quiet with only the faintest ‘bing bong’ from the chairlift calling you back to the safety of the base. It’s bucket list shit – chucking up a cloud burst in a patch of light before plunging back into darkness should be on every snowboarder’s to-do-ticket. And for me, this was just the start.

So why does Japan get such insane snow so reliably? After all, it doesn’t have masses of high alpine like the Alps or the Rockies – in fact, their mountains are more like hills apart from the odd volcano. Niseko’s highest point is only a little over 1000m – barely above Europe’s snowline these days. But yet the snow kept coming for the entire two weeks I was there. Deep ‘n’ light – and even with every Aussie seasonaire I met telling me ‘this winter is shiiiit mayte’ – this felt like the movies. This was ‘Japow’.

It’s all thanks to Russia really. After the westerly winds have blown across roughly 8000 km of bone dry, freezing cold tundra, the air that hits the Sea of Japan is as thirsty as a sailor on shore leave. It picks up tons of moisture but doesn’t have enough time to warm up again before it hits the North Island – Hokkaido. In about the best definition of the phrase ‘blowing your load’ that exists, the first thing this front hits is Japan, and they receive an annual average snowfall of fourteen metres in a three month period.

I’ll throw my hat in now with the rest of the snowboard world: it’s like nothing else. For the most part, the terrain is fairly mellow, steep enough to get moving and with plenty of fun stuff to jump off. Without the harsh tectonic muscling you get in higher mountain ranges there are relatively few cliffs and traps to come across, especially as Niseko is essentially one mountain with almost 360° of descent from the peak, most of which has cat track access back into resort.

“With so much snow the area attracts a lot of visitors – everyone from dirtbag Australians to Gore-Tex-clad Skandis – so after an hour or so of morning laps you’ve got to get walking to get the goods”

In actual fact, it’s four areas joined under the Niseko United banner: Niseko Village, Annupuri, Grand Hirafu and Hanazono. Grand Hirafu is the most vibrant of the resorts, though on the hill all the lifts blend seamlessly with one another. If you have the full area pass you can effortlessly navigate your way around, the one exception is when coming back down into Annupuri, some tracks lead over to nearby Moiwa.

Although it’s not part of the same pass, Moiwa is a hidden gem and worthy of at least a day of your time due to its quieter slopes. Local guide Owain Bassett was good enough to show us around its two chairs and acres of untracked terrain, mostly accessible from a snaking cat track with countless departure points, all coming back to the base station. Your hiking muscles get a workout, but after a week or so in Japan you get used to it. With so much snow the area attracts a lot of visitors – everyone from dirtbag Australians to Gore-Tex-clad Skandis – so after an hour or so of morning laps you’ve got to get walking to get the goods.

"Like a finger, pointing awaaaay to the moon. DON'T concentrate on the finger! Or you will miss all the heavenly glory..."
A Welsh boarder. Golly!
Owain hacks his way through the Japanese jungle

I was staying in Grand Hirafu, which was partly the reason I was initially nervous about the trip living up to expectations. Over the years the resort has developed a rep for losing its original soul – indeed one night I heard a passing Aussie proudly tell his mate that ‘It’s basically like cold Bali’. Whilst it definitely is a ski resort and comes with all the trappings of globalisation, there is still something for everyone here, from high-end hotels like the pimped-out Ki Niseko (which I somehow managed to blag my way into), to more familiar seasonaire hovels.

Left: Ki Niseko – room with a view
Right: Seasonairre squalor – party with a crew

And whilst it ain’t Tokyo, there’s still the same madness of juxtaposition everywhere you look. Amongst the luxury bars you can still walk through a random fridge door and find a cheap beer or stumble across the best bowl of ramen you’ve ever had for less than a fiver. Michelin Star sashimi is all well and good, but I’d wager mine was better for the guy dressed as Pikachu repeatedly skiing past the window. The resort has an insane level of service down to guys sweeping your chair for you before you get on the lift, but their mascot is still a skiing potato.

Fine-dining at Ki Niseko
Geishas, I'm a big fan.

Nowhere was this more evident than the geisha ‘experience’ I was lucky enough to be invited to. A short way down the road, Otaru is home to the only North Island geishas in Japan. Nothing will spin you out like watching pissed businessmen being persuaded to play cup and ball by a giggling hostess whilst eating the most insane food you’ve ever seen. I still have no idea what it was.

But for the original soul of Niseko, there’s no need to look further than the new Gentemstick showroom just outside of Hirafu. Taro Tamai’s legendary brand is still based here, and between running your hands over some of the most beautiful shapes you’ll see and watching the real locals put them to work on the groomers, it won’t be long before you’re setting your stance positive and spending all your time perfecting your snowsurf technique.

“We miss you Edo-san!”
Ben Howells, lost in transitions
Steam dreams

It’s the end of the trip, but there’s one last treat still in store: cat boarding with Niseko Photography. I’m wedged into what looks like a spare Soviet tank with the guides and a bunch of Skandi skiers. The local driver – who obviously has no interest in riding pow – slaps the gears and levers around moodily as we ascend once again for another lap of the untracked woods. The cramped cabin is filled with a mixture of steam and diesel fumes and I am smiling. Full bore, ear-to-ear grinning.

We’re deposited, stumbling out of the box and strapping in again, ready for another shot at entering the white room. Legs sore from riding fourteen days on the trot with freshies on every single one, it’s not quite the last run but I’m damn well gonna treat them all like they are. This place has grown on me like nowhere else and though I’m well versed in leaving places, for the first time I really don’t want to.

“The cramped cabin is filled with a mixture of steam and diesel fumes and I am smiling. Full bore, ear-to-ear grinning”

With my cat at the vet, this one was still sicker

With my companion rested up post-surgery and about to be released from hospital, the back half of the trip has been more of the usual Whitelines fare, swapping luxury accommodation for a free bed in a seasonaire cellar. It’s comfortable and homely, despite my roommate’s amorous antics with the odd American cougar, and with what’s now an embedded routine – wake up, shred, lunch, onsen, night shred, hospital visit – it’s making the thought of going even harder.

But we’ll push that to one side for now, it’s time to drop in. The snow is so deep and forgiving that bouncing around from pillow to pillow is almost effortless, and flat landings that would result in knees to the chest back home welcome you out without much more than a face shot for your troubles. I ain’t no Kazu or Gigi, but this place made me feel like I could go toe to toe with them. Just one more lap, please?

Japan, man. It’s the place.

My Hokkaido house / Lego house and lego van / Everything awesome

How We Did It

Fly to Chitose via Tokyo: ∼£600
Return transfer to Niseko:∼£60
Stayed at Powder Tracks with Niseko Central
Lift pass: ∼£290
Catboarding with Niseko Photography

Newsletter Terms & Conditions

Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.

Read our full Privacy Policy as well as Terms & Conditions.