We spent New Year in Niseko, Japan. Trip report format below is from Snowheads. Read on …
Date: December 27th-January 5th 2010/11
Our mob: 10 of us, Aussie/Brit/hybrids, and even a Kiwi
Website : here
Basics : Niseko is in Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island, about 2 hours in a bus from Sapporo. It’s rightly famous for its powder, getting prodigious amounts from mid-December until early March. It’s also a bit like Bondi Beach with pow instead of waves and sharks, being invaded by a decent sized contingent of Aussies every winter.
The skiing: The ‘Niseko United’ ticket gives you access to 4 small-ish ski areas that are all linked on Mt Annapuri. Combined, this is a decent sized area, with plenty of variety, and great tree skiing. The only thing that is missing is serious steeps, but that’s not usually a big deal ‘coz Niseko is all about pow. This is our third trip, and previous ones brought outrageous, near constant snowfalls of Utah-like fluff. We weren’t quite so lucky this time, with the base probably a good metre down on normal. Still, we scored 5 powder days from 9, and 2 of those were a good 30cm-ish. So moderate for Niseko, but excellent by most standards. And of course, the day after we left, it dumped a metre!!
Niseko has ‘local rules’ which pretty much allow you to ski the whole mountain within the boundary, except for some very visibly roped-off areas which are not avi-controlled and clearly dangerous (someone actually died in an avi while we were there). This creates some truly magnificent tree skiing, especially in areas off the Hanazono 3 chair and Ace quad, where there’s some divine lines in deep snow to be found. There was superb, power-laden bumps off Koniyuki under the Niseko gondola, and the short hike (or occasionally working rope tow) to the top of the decommissioned Higashiyama gondola opened up a smorgasbord of steep, soft shots in areas where the wind was blowing in snow.
Off-piste : With the base a little low, most of the gates to the ‘slack country’ areas were officially closed, mainly because the shrubbery (bamboo like stuff called sasa grass) was poking through everywhere. By the end of the week, enough new snow had fallen to make Strawberry and Blueberry fields skiable, and one of the lower Annapuri gates opened. There’s much good terrain to explore in these areas. Right now, I suspect they’ll be great …
The resort : Niseko (Hirafu) village is a strange mishmash of old-ish, boxy hotels, small ‘pensions’ and new, chic apartments being marketed strongly to Aussies. Built on the lower extents of the ski hill, it’s hilly and often slippy as for some reason the locals are strong advocates of serious snow removal methods. ‘Scraped to the ice’ pavements would test the skills of Olympic ice skaters, and are often catastrophic for visiting Antipodeans more used to sand. You still see folks in high heels though. Mostly women 😉
Food : It’s Japan, The food is great. The village has plentiful, mostly small restaurants and ‘isakayas’ that serve dishes you’d expect as well as local traditional food (the ski area mascot is a skiing potato!). The grilled mackerel is amazing, wagyu beef sukiyakis overwhelm taste buds (and cholesterol levels), and some of the local sashimi is as good as I’ve ever tasted. On the ski hill, there’s an array of small and large restaurants serving unbelievably tasty ramens (snow crab miso ramen is my favorite at the base of Hanazono), katsu pork and dishes you’ve never heard of. It all tastes wonderful.
Hotel: We stayed in Pension Berg, a typical 2 star hotel in an excellent location on the main street, 5 minutes walk to the lifts. It’s a pretty standard pension, with a small room (twin beds!), shared Japanese bathrooms and breakfast. The breakfast was very good value, English style with Japanese quirks (e.g. salads) and very respectable coffee. The locals got Japanese breakfasts, which also looked excellent and tempting. I nearly asked to switch, but there was really no reason. Overall, a top spot for the price.
Costs: Beer 400-600 yen in a bar, 100-300 Yen in a supermarket.There is wine, even some local stuff which can be decent, but in restaurants/bars our female contingent (and sometimes me) drank sake and various types of shoju. Some of the local beers are well made microbrews, and there much variety in sakes to explore. Bowls of ramen on the ski hill are around 1000 Yen, and in restaurants you can get for example a sukiyaki for 2 for 2500 yen, grilled mackerel for 1500 Yen, and sashimi from 700-2000 Yen depending on the size and quality of the serving.
Conclusion: 3rd visit, and while probably the least good snow conditions of the three, there was plenty of Japow to be skied. I’d prefer to go mid January when the conditions are about as reliable for powder skiing as you get anywhere. Resort-wise, Niseko seems more Aussie-fied than 4 years ago, but not to the extent that it’s becoming a major detriment. Yet anyway. The parents of Lucille and Bella at Sapporo airport should be polite enough to tell their kids not to crawl all over my bags in the luggage claim. Or at least tell their nanny to. And the bloke who protected a table at lunch in a busy restaurant for an hour for his 5 ‘invisible’ kids needs to be told to share. Or get his ass out and ski pow while we eat our lunch …