A Little Taste of Japow
Back in March 2017, six of our team headed to Japan to experience first-hand the outstanding skiing and unique culture. We were based in Niseko but also skied the nearby resorts of Kiroro and Rusutsu before rounding the trip off with 24 hours in Tokyo.
Myself, Andy, Hannah and Matt had never visited Japan before, let alone skied there, but we were met by Ski Safari’s Founder & Chairman, Richard (a regular visitor to Japan) and Hokkaido local Kenji, who acted as our tour guide for the trip.
We typically recommend skiing Japan in January and February for the best chance of experiencing the legendary "JaPow" but, despite travelling in March, we still had a taste of powder as well as clear blue skies - which can be a rare sight during peak season - and we practically had the slopes to ourselves in all three resorts.
To learn more about the resorts on Japan's main island, Honshu, read our Nagano Ski Safari trip report from our team trip in February 2018.
Our base for the week, Niseko is Japan’s most popular resort for international visitors. As well as the large and varied terrain of Mt Niseko-Annupuri, there are a number of nearby resorts and backcountry areas to explore, so you can access a lot of terrain without needed to move accommodation.
Niseko is actually made up of four separate ski areas interlinked at the top of the mountain; Annupuri, Niseko Village, Hirafu and Hanazono. We managed to ski all four areas over two days, although we could have done with another day or two to explore the mountain in full.
Hirafu, where we stayed, is the main village and is where you’ll find the majority of the shops, bars, restaurants, plus a supermarket and even a public onsen (traditional Japanese hot spring). The hotels tend to be closest to the slopes, with a wide range of apartments a short walk away in Lower Hirafu. As well as a bus service between each resort base, there’s a regular free shuttle bus around Hirafu so you don’t have to worry about a long walk to the lift or back from the bar.
There are dining options for all tastes and budgets, from traditional izakayas (Japanese 'food pub') where no one speaks a word of English (thank you Kenji for helping with that one!) to western style pizza places run by Australians. I was a big fan of the sushi train restaurant in the nearby town of Kutchan, where many of the locals who serve the resort live. It felt more authentic than Niseko and it was unlike any sushi I've had in the UK, although I can't say I knew what I was eating!
We also enjoyed a tasting menu at the popular Ki Niseko (first time eating sea urchin and stingray for everyone) and Hannah particularly enjoyed the izakaya across the road from our apartment:
"Sitting on the floor and eating was certainly a challenge but once the food that our guide Kenji ordered for us arrived, I no longer noticed how I was sitting."
As well as the biggest village, Hirafu boats the biggest of the four ski areas. It was still very quiet but noticeably busier than the other areas, especially close to the base. Some of the lifts in Niseko are quite outdated (especially if you’re used to North American resorts) but the new hooded, high-speed King#3 Quad lift with heated seats shows that infrastructure is moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, it hadn't snowed for a few days when we skied Hirafu on our first day so we spent most of our time on piste, but Kenji pointed out his favourite powder runs through the trees as we went past.
The second largest base, Niseko Village is home to the popular Green Leaf. It’s a great place to stay if you prefer a quieter holiday and if you have novice skiers with you as it offers the most beginner terrain but also top to bottom black runs. There's also a rental store and in-house onsen at The Green Leaf so no need to travel to Hirafu.
Moving to the south side of the mountain, we only skied Annupuri briefly on our first morning. It was quite icy due to no fresh snow for a while (which changed overnight!), but we found wide runs with sparse trees (my first "tree skiing" experience!). The runs are handily graded black at the top, red in the middle and green at the bottom, so you just catch the lift up to where you feel comfortable!
Everyone agreed that Hanazono provided our best day by far. It's a small area with just three lifts and eight marked runs, but lots to explore in between. We had first tracks, which meant we caught the first chair after the lifties at 7:30am - a full hour before the lifts opened to the public. With blue skies after 10-15cm of fresh snow overnight, it's not a morning any of us will forget soon.
All runs were ungroomed, so we had fresh tracks on every lap before the mountain fully opened. Andy, Matt and Rich used the hour to warm up for a morning of cat-skiing with Hanazono Powder Guides (fresh tracks is only available if you book a package with HPG) on nearby Mt Weisshorn (a former ski resort), while I conquered my first ungroomed black run and the steepest skiing I've attempted, borrowing one of the cat-ski guides for a run.
Hanazono is a great place to start the day if you want to miss the early lift lines at Hirafu. Unlike other parts of Niseko which are only connected by the top lifts and black runs, even beginners can easily move across to Hirafu halfway up the mountain.
For Hannah and I, this was our first day where we skied powder almost all day, proving that you don't have to be a great skier to enjoy Japow!
"When I was told that I was going to Hokkaido to ski, my first thought as an intermediate skier with no powder experience was that I may struggle. I was pleasantly surprised by how wrong I was."
We weren't the only ones to discover how well Niseko caters to those looking for new experiences, as Matt found on the cat-skiing morning:
"As a first-time cat-skier and inexperienced off-piste skier I found it ideal - a great first experience of cat-skiing and just the right amount of snow, pitch, etc. for skiing. We were in a cat which operated even in fog/cloud, whereas a heli would have been grounded. Several shorter descents in one morning rather than one long one allowed time for a rest, taken in the cat whilst heading back up the mountain. You have time in the cat to talk to your friends and the guides and grab a drink and a snack. It was nice and relaxed, I can imagine doing the same thing by heli would be much more time-pressured."
Watch our highlights from Niseko:
Our first day's skiing actually took place an hour from Niseko in Kiroro. You can catch the bus to Kiroro, stay overnight or you may end up there if you hire a guide in Niseko, as Andy explains:
"On any given day the guide will turn up and suggest which resort will best suit you for the day ahead. They are serious about their business and would have been up looking at the weather charts, speaking to their colleagues, making sure you are going to find the best snow and have the best day possible."
A guide will also help you fill out and submit your route plan - a requirement for out of bounds skiing in Kiroro.
The resort particularly impressed the sole snowboarder in the group, Andy:
"Even though it had been a few days since the last storm we still managed to find some powder stashes and excellent tree skiing. It’s rare that you have a bluebird day in Japan and the views the clear skies afforded us I shall never forget. Endless terrain, so much pow, and guides that can take you right there. The terrain in Japan lends itself perfectly to snowboarding. Mellow undulated terrain, deep light powder, mythical tree lines, a perfect powder playground.
Hannah and I stuck to the rolling, groomed runs as it was our first ski trip of the season. Despite being known for its off-piste, the inbound terrain is actually very beginner/intermediate friendly and the mountain felt empty as most of the skiers and boarders head straight for the backcountry. In the morning you'll see masses of hardcore skiers queuing to hand in their route plans and grab a coffee but an hour after the lifts open it's empty!
Watch our sunny Kiroro highlights:
We also took a day trip to Rusutsu, around 45 minutes from Niseko in the opposite direction to Kiroro. This was our first taste of Japanese powder, with 10cm falling the night before, and my first experience of skiing powder and trees.
It's one of the most unusual resorts you could possibly visit. There's a huge amusement park at the base (shut during winter) which you can see from the slopes, and that theme is continued in the quirky Rusutsu Hotel at the base. The interior is decorated like a Bavarian village with a multi-story carousel, singing tree and weird and wacky amusements spread throughout.
The resort was a personal highlight for Hannah:
"This was my first real experience of skiing in powder (still knee deep in late March) and enjoying weaving through the trees. With no one around for most of the day, on or off piste, it was the perfect day to learn new skills and make the most of the long, wide, tree-lined runs on offer, easily the best ski day that I have ever had."
For me, it felt like the most authentic Japanese resort, with far fewer westerners than Niseko, so I was very surprised to find Heavenly and Steamboat logos dotted about! It turns out that Rusutsu's owners previously owned both resorts in the USA.
Watch our Rusutsu highlights:
After a few days skiing, we boarded an internal flight back to Tokyo to see the sights before flying home early the next morning. Find out just how much we packed into 24 hours.
I had assumed it was quite an ordeal getting to Niseko, but it's not too dissimilar to many resorts in North America. An 11 hour 30 minute international flight, followed by a 1 hour 45 minute domestic flight (with a short changeover) and a two hour transfer to Niseko.
It feels even less with the clash of culture - green tea and kiwi juice served on flights, trying Japanese food for the first time in Tokyo Haneda airport, exploring the huge shopping mall attached to Sapporo Chitose airport, and plenty of places to stop to shop and look around during the transfer.
Experience it Yourself
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One of the handful of non-skiers before joining Ski Safari, I've now skied in North America, Europe and Asia. After my first taste of powder and tree skiing in Japan last winter, I'm looking forward to more off-piste adventures!