A little over a year ago, I stepped off of a bus into a snow storm on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. Rob and I had come to the town of Niseko to snowboard, and in the almost white out conditions that evening it looked like our dreams of riding powder were about to come true.
The next morning when we awoke snow was still falling, but lightly now, just a sprinkle. So we strapped into our boards and headed up the mountain for what would end up being some of the best snowboarding I’ve ever done.
It’s taken me a while to write thing post, I’ve had a hard time coming up with the right words to describe the experience. Most of my journaled notes and social media posts from our three days in Niseko only say things like “this is awesome!” “this is the best snow I’ve ever ridden!” “amazing!”, so while not super descriptive of the experience, it certainly lends itself my state of mind – total elation.
To be totally honest, I didn’t know there were mountains to snowboard in Japan, until right before we got to Tokyo. Growing up in California and having ski restorts within driving distance, I’d never considered that there were ski resorts in other countries (it’s a little embarrassing I know). So whether your mind is being blown that there’s epic powder to ride in Japan, or you are already in the know and scheming your way over there, here’s some of the details to know.
If you are going to Niseko in the winter to snowboard or ski, there will be snow, and it will be cold. It snows just about every day in winter there, and you better believe it snowed all three days we were there too.
On average, Niseko gets a whopping 595 inches of snow a year! Putting it in the top five snowiest resorts in the world.
Where is all that snow coming from though? Well, cold air coming off of Siberia picks up moisture in the Sea of Japan and then drops all that cold frozen water right down on Hokkaido’s western side, and Niseko is at the center of it. Temperatures range from 21 degrees to 36 degrees December through March, making for four solid months of snow, so remember to bring your warmest base layers and wooly socks.
Niseko is technically the town located at the base of the Niseko-Annupuri Mountain, and home to four ski areas, Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu, and Hanazono, collectively known as Niseko United. All four can all be ridden on the same ski pass and between the four there is 2,191 acres of rideable terrain, making it roughly the size of Kirkwood (my favorite resort) in Tahoe CA, or Alta in Utah.
(Click here for a bigger map)
You can technically ride between all four areas if you go all the way to the tippy top, but they also have a convenient free shuttle that goes between the bases. Our first day we stayed at Annupuri, just taking laps up and down the the couple of lifts on that side. We were in such a state of awe and excitement about how good the snow was that we didn’t need to go anywhere else. I remember saying to Rob after the first run down “The snow is so light and fluffy, it’s like riding on a cloud! This is amazing!”. Every turn felt like I was floating or flying, the dry powder doesn’t weigh you down or get you stuck like some of the wetter stuff here in California can. I was giddy about it the whole day.
The next day we ventured out to see the rest of the mountain. We took a couple of warm up runs at Annupuri near our guest house, then hopped on the shuttle to Niseko Village. You’ll know you’re there because the Hilton hotel at the base looks like an Empire compound out of Star Wars. So up the gondola we went, to the very top, riding all day till our legs felt like jello, and eventually coming down into the Grand Hirafu resort.
Because of the constant and consistent snowfall they have a lot of gondolas, and not just the kind that take you from the parking lot to the ski area where you can get on chairlifts from there. I mean you can take a gondola from the base to the top of the mountain, and that’s rad, especially in a snowstorm. And even the regular chair lifts offer some reprieve from the elements, with shields or covers that come down over you to block the wind and snow. Talk about plush! As someone who gets really cold on the chair lift I really appreciated these extra touches.
We stayed in a little guest house called The Cotton Farm just a block or two away from the Annupuri Gondola. The house was cute and cozy, with breakfast in the morning and free wifi (always important for us digital nomad types). They also had the traditional Japanese style baths. It’s basically like a personal hot tub, and it feels amazing after a day on the hill. Our hosts were incredibly kind and accommodating, they were able to arrange both lift tickets and gear rentals for us which we did not expect, but greatly appreciated.
Before we got to Niseko I’d researched where to rent gear, and it seemed that Rhythm Japan was both the most popular and had the best selection, plus they would deliver to your hotel. Low and behold when our host at the guest house told us she would arrange for our gear rental and delivery it was Rhythm Japan that showed up. We filled out a questionnaire about our sizes and things we needed, and our host called them up and gave them all the info. They brought a couple different sizes for both Rob and I in snowboards and boots, as well as snow clothes – pants, jackets, gloves, goggles. It was so awesome and easy.
Food & Drink
Japan has amazing food, and Niseko is no exception. Breakfast was provided at the guest house, but for all other meals we were on our own.
Pizza Del Sole: For something easy and delicious pizza is my go to. I know what you’re thinking “why are you eating pizza in Japan?!?”, and you know what, its because it’s good. We actually got take out from Pizza Del Sole both the first night after we got in, and the last night after snowboarding all day, and it was awesome both times.
Lucky Fingers: The restaurant at the Annupuri Lodge has delicious izakaya style food (or small plates to share) and an excellent whiskey selection. We ate here our second night in town after a day of snowboarding, it was the perfect date night spot, and totally relaxing, although that might have been because of the whiskey.
Rakuichi Soba: If you look up restaurants in Niseko this is always the first to come up, and that’s because Anthony Bourdain came here on his show “No Reservations”. We tried to go, but it was either closed or full the night we went, I can’t remember now. But if I had the chance I’d definitely give it a try!
Niseko Tap Room: Japan has got its own style and industry of craft beer, and being the hipster beer drinkers we are, we had to try as many as possible. The beers were delicious and so was the bar food, it was perfect after a day of snowboarding.
Side note, we were up at the top of the mountain, and I was so tired from riding all day that I wasn’t sure if my legs were gonna make it down the last runs of the day. But our plan was to try out the beer and snacks at the Niseko Tap Room, and for that I was determined to make it down. It just goes to show, that I’ll push through just about anything if I’m rewarded with beer and french fries.
We flew from Osaka to New Chitose Airport just south of Sapporo, it’s the closest airport to Niseko, but still about two and half hours away.
We hadn’t pre-booked our transportation from the airport to Niseko, so once we landed we began furiously checking train and bus schedules. After some internetting we found a bus that left from the airport and went to all the ski areas in Niseko, then found their booth in the airport, bought tickets on the spot and were on the next bus. There are a couple different bus companies that drive this route, and I’m not sure of the one we took, but here are a couple to look into: White Liner and Hokkaido Access Network.
The drive took about 3 hours because it was snowing, but we did get a break in the middle to get some snacks and use the bathroom.
Getting back to Tokyo we opted to take the train. This was kind of exciting because we got to take the bullet train! It goes about 200 miles an hour and while it took a bit longer than it would have to fly it was worth it. The seats are comfy, come equipped with plugs and you have tons of leg room.
I didn’t know what to expect when we got to Niseko, other than there would be some snow and we’d do some snowboarding. I had no idea it would end up being such an amazing experience. Sometimes I wish we’d stayed longer to explore more, because all we did was literally snowboard, eat, and sleep. But honestly if we stayed longer we probably would have just snowboarded more.
So maybe my short journal entries and notes were right, maybe the best way to describe snowboarding in Niseko is just “Amazing!” “best snow ever!” and “so much fun!”.
Packing for Japan in Winter
Snowboarding the Western US & Canada: An Epic Winter Road Trip
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