To date, I have made 3 trips to Niseko, Hokkaido for snowboarding. It all started in 2016, when my friend (who’s a seasoned snowboarder) invited us to join him. And let’s just say, I am all hooked ever since.
According to my friend, the snow in Hokkaido is the best, not that I can confirm it since I have not snowboarded anywhere else. But, my friend had snowboarded around the world, and to him, nowhere else in the world can you find powdery snow like Hokkaido.
In this post, I will only cover snowboarding, and not other sightseeing activities.
Also, there are a few ski resorts in Hokkaido. But, this post will only cover Niseko ski resorts, which is the largest, and comprises of 4 villages (An’nupuri, Higashiyama, Grand Hirafu, and Hanazono).
Before the trip
Rent your gears in advance
I am still considering whether I want to commit to this “expensive” hobby for the longer term, and hence I have not yet decided to invest on my own gears.
For the last 3 trips, I have rented my gears from Goodsports. This also saves me on excess / oversized baggage charges.
Tip: Pre-book your gears as early as you can to get a good discount. For my recent trip, we managed to get 30% discount, and ended up paying about 15,000 yen (USD 135) for 3 days of rental (snowboard, ski suit, and helmet).
Arrange for lesson, if it’s your first time
If this is your first time snowboarding, I highly recommend registering yourself for lesson ! It is pricey, but I learned it the hard way, the importance to take lessons from a professional, especially if you are not as athletically natural as me.
Gosnow is the official training provider in Grand Hirafu base. Prices starts at 8,000 yen (USD 80) for group lesson, and 20,000 yen (USD 200) for 2 hours private lesson.
With group lesson, the progress of the class will be limited by the weakest link in your group. With private lesson, you will get undivided attention from your instructor, and you get to progress at your own pace. I took private lesson, and was very comfortable with the pace, allowing myself to make (and learn from my) mistakes.
I could not stress enough, the importance of taking lessons. I tried to “pick it up” from my friend. And it was the worst decision I ever made. For the first day, I was falling all the way down from the top of the mountain. It reached a point where I told my friends that I was going to give up ! “This is it for me ! No more next year !”
I am so glad I took lesson the 2nd day, and just by perfecting my brake, it gave me the confidence I needed to continue for the next few days, while I continue to practise on my own.
How to get there
From Kuala Lumpur, the most convenient way is via Air Asia, which is the only airline that flies direct to Chitose.
From Chitose airport, we will take a bus to Niseko ski resorts, which is about 2.5 hours ride.
Where to stay
Book accommodation early
You want to book your accommodation early, for better rates, especially during peak seasons (January and February).
Of the 4 villages at the base of Niseko mountain, we prefer staying in Grand Hirafu, as there are more accommodation and food options.
For my recent trip, we decided to splurge a little and checked ourselves in Gondola Chalet. It is not a “ski in ski out”, meaning there is no direct access to ski in and out of the hotel. But, we had a really comfortable stay. We got a 4 bedroom 3 baths apartment.
For my first two trips, we used to stay in this lodge ran by this most friendly Japanese & Canadian couple. However, it is no longer available, and is currently undergoing construction into what looks like another hotel.
Niseko village has developed so fast over the years I have visited, with more foreign investments. Last, I even saw site preparation works for a Singapore luxury condo development.
Consider ski lift side or food side
One significant consideration when deciding where to stay in Grand Hirafu is Upper Grand Hirafu (red box), or Lower Grand Hirafu (blue box).
Refer map above, Upper Grand Hirafu is nearer to the ski lifts. In comparison with the Lower Grand Hirafu, staying in the Upper Grand Hirafu area definitely saves a lot of energy having to climb the slope with your gears from and to your hotel.
However, from my experience, there are more food options in the Lower Grand Hirafu area. Not to mention my favourite outdoor onsen, which is also in the Lower Grand Hirafu area.
Ski pass explained
Simply put, there are two types of ski pass.
- Points pass
- Hourly / daily pass
With the Points pass, it costs 4,200 yen (USD 38) for 12 points. And you deduct points (depending on ski lifts) from your ski pass as you board the lift. Top up is available at 400 yen per point.
Take for example, if you take the Hirafu Gondola, it will cost you 4 points. And as you alight the Gondola, you can either take the Green route or the Black route Miharashi.
Tip: Green route is the easiest, for beginners, followed by Red, and lastly Black for experts
We prefer to go up to the highest point, and then take our time descending the slopes, trying out different routes. To do that from Grand Hirafu base,
- Take Hirafu Gondola (4 points)
- Snowboard left to the base of King Hooded Quad Lift #3
- Take King Hooded Quad Lift #3 (2 points)
- Snowboard right to base of King Lift #4
- Take King Lift #4 (1 point)
As you see, it takes about 7 points to get to the top. And from the top, you can snowboard / ski to the other villages.
We always made sure to make a stop at Hanozono resort, for this most amazing snow crab ramen !
Hourly / daily pass
The hourly / daily pass is rather straight forward. Hourly pass starts at 4,800 yen for 5 hours, but it is only for one mountain, i.e. you cannot use the lifts in other villages.
The daily pass starts at 5,900 yen for 1 day, one mountain. However, with the daily pass, you can opt for All mountains access, which starts at 7,400 yen for 1 day.
Check out the full price list for Grand Hirafu (one mountain) lifts, and the full price list for All mountains access.
Ski pass comparison
For easy comparison,
- 12 points pass (4,200 yen), consider you need 7 points to get to the top
- 5 hours pass, one mountain (4,800 yen)
- 1 day pass, one mountain (5,900 yen)
- 1 day pass, all mountains (7,400 yen)
Now, with all these information, you can set out to plan your days.
We usually arrive Niseko village in the afternoon, and after we got ourselves checked in and gears rental sorted out, it is about 1500 hrs.
So, for the first day, if we plan to do 2 trips to the top, we will get the 5 hours pass. Else, we will get the 12 points pass.
Tip: The points pass can be shared, and you can use it for days.
Tip: Always check the weather forecast, and ski lift operations before you buy your ski pass. Cause during bad weather, the top lifts will be closed, so you may want to consider to just use Point pass.
On other full days, it is just a matter of whether we want to do one / all mountain(s).
Of course, the above comparison and consideration is more for short stays (less than 1 week). If you are planning to stay any longer, it is worth considering weekly / season pass.
All ski pass requires 1,000 yen deposit which is fully refundable when you are done using it.
Some of my favourite and least favourite routes
I do not think I have a particular favourite route. I am still experimenting and learning, and I enjoy trying out different routes.
However, I really hate snowboarding on flats. Some of the routes I dread,
- Silver Dream, it is just long and boring
- King area access pass (on Green route), there is this really flat path before you go through this underground tube, and end up at Grand Hirafu base
Always be sure to take a selfie with Mount Yotei
What to eat
Below are a few restaurants we always patronise, every single time we are back in Niseko village.
- Ezo Seafoods, they serve the best seafood in Niseko village, reservation is mandatory, if you cannot book a table online, try emailing them for assistance. We always order the Omakase, i.e. chef’s recommendation.
- Ebisutei, Izakaya (Japanese pub) setting, they serve the best oden (one pot dish consisting of several ingredients cooked in a soy dashi broth), reservation is mandatory.
- Tsubara Tsubara, you must try this very special Hokkaido curry, which is more like a pepper stew. It is not exceptionally out of the world, but it is definitely very comforting having it in the cold.
My recent trip, I discovered this very interesting spin on ramen, i.e. Potato ramen, which has potato foam on ramen. If you have not tried it before, you should give it a try.
One last thing you shouldn’t miss
Onsen in the outdoor under the snow
You must try Japanese onsen (hot spring) at least once if your lifetime ! And if you are like me and my friends, you cannot get enough of it.
There is really not much things to do in Niseko village besides snowboarding, and skiing. Hence, our everyday will usually start with snowboarding until about 1800 hrs (I don’t prefer snowboarding after it gets dark). After, we will drop our gears in the hotel, and head straight to onsen. We will take our shower there too, and then have dinner before heading back to the hotel to rest.
There is nothing better to do after a long day of snowboarding, than to soak yourself in a hot spring, out in the cold, cold beer on one hand, snow falling on your head. It really helps relieving the muscle aches and sores, as well as rejuvenate the skin.
Yukoro onsen is the one and only place we go to. Entry fee is 700 yen per person.