Niseko offers a winter getaway with world-class skiing and snowboarding entwined with a culture steeped in ancient tradition.
Text by Jeff Hawe Images by Mark Walsh & Colin Wiseman
Atop the slopes facing Mount Yotei on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the birch forests roll on endlessly under the heavy blanket of winter, bisected only by narrow runs of white. On these pristine paths, the air is quiet and still, its silence only interrupted by the sound of your breath and the crunch of snow beneath your feet.
As the deep shadows of winter morning retreat across the face of Mount Niseko-Annupuri, you relish the day’s first run down silky slopes of newly fallen powder. Looking back up the incline, you easily trace your board’s deep arc amongst a few sets of freshly laid tracks. Then, a chairlift swiftly scoops you up, transporting you back to the peak.
Niseko is a municipality with a population of about 10,000 residents located near Mount Yotei, a dormant volcano within Shikotsu-Toya National Park. It lies about 50 kilometers to the southwest of the city of Sapporo, where New Chitose Airport is located, the closest major hub.
From here, it is a two-and-a-half hour trip to Niseko along a scenic route, for which there are multiple car rental options, as well as shuttle services. Once you have arrived, it’s easy to fall into step with Niseko’s relaxed mountain town pace.
The quiet air belies the fact that most visitors are on the slopes at any time of day, especially late January and February, when the powder is deepest. Niseko is frequently included among the top 10 ski resorts in the world, largely due to its snowfall averaging nearly 600 inches per year.
Frigid weather, blowing in from the Siberian north, delivers an abundance of light, powdery snow across more than 2,000 skiable acres and six ski areas.
The main area of Niseko Higashiyama, also referred to as Niseko Village, combines with Annupuri, Hirafu, and Hanazono to provide access to four of these ski areas via one ticket. Night skiing is also widely offered.
One of Niseko’s proudest productions, aside from its dreamlike powder riding, is the Gentemstick snowboard, a physical representation of the philosophies of master shaper Taro Tamai, who believes that the wave and the snow are similar elements since each serves as a contact point to the earth.
An avid surfer himself, Tamai’s Gentemstick is perfect for riding the face of the rolling terrain and the feathery snow of Niseko. Stop by his headquarters for a gander at some fine snow-riding craft, and leave with a new outlook on the sport.
As the day wanes and your legs become weary, unwind at one of Niseko’s 15 onsen, which range from a lavish spa to a simple, communal bathhouse. A mineral rich, volcanically heated water bath, the onsen is as much a part of the Niseko experience as are the slopes.
The Niseko Grand Hotel has a popular coed onsen that provides a more social soaking experience, while Goshiki Onsen Ryokan, a 30-minute drive north into the country, offers a rustic experience surrounded by snowy mountain views.
For those with a curious palate, the restaurants in Niseko also dazzle. Niseko lies in a region with fertile volcanic soil, providing an abundance of diverse and delicious local ingredients. Stop in at Sessa in the Hirafu area for shabu shabu with top-grade Wagyu beef, or visit Farmers Dining U-Respa in the heart of Niseko town for traditional tonkatsu.
At the latter, an unassuming storefront gives way to a charming interior serviced by enthusiastic staff. A popular tonkatsu here features succulent Sangenton pork, a rare hybrid hog that is bred in Japan.
For a more hands-on experience, learning about the country’s historic tea traditions, visit Green Saso, a modern café that pairs high-quality green tea tastings with traditional Japanese sweets.
When evening descends, it’s time to decide if you are going to hit the slopes again, now under a starry sky, or explore the town as snowflakes fall and warm restaurants beckon. Whatever you choose, you can be sure that Niseko’s top-notch skiing and snowboarding, its bottomless snow, and its soul-warming hot waters will draw you back time and again for the ideal winter getaway.
WHERE TO STAY? The Sekka Annupuri Lodgeis a short walk from the Niseko Annupuri gondola, which is the main transportation to the top of the runs. The resort’s rooms combine modernism with traditional Japanese harmony.
Alternatively, The Vale Niseko is a five-star hotel that boasts the ultimate ski-in, ski-out accommodations. Perched at the edge of Niseko Hirafu ski runs, it offers a range of accommodations, from single rooms to multi-room apartments with private onsen spas.
Lodging options are many in Niseko, and a quick visit to the municipality’s tourism website (nisekotourism.com) can help get you situated perfectly.