How-to guide for first timers skiing Niseko Japan
We arrived in Sapporo on January 27th. It was a last-minute decision to rent a car because of price but we found a deal through “World Net rent a car”. We were nervous renting offsite from the airport from an unknown rental company (unknown to us) but this turned out to be a great decision World Net Rent a Car provided a free shuttle from the airport to their location 10 minutes away. We were given a Toyota “Free” minivan that not only had snow tires but was AWD for half the price of a similar rental from the airport with the bonus that they gave us a free Wi-Fi hub for our entire trip. I would highly recommend these guys.
Driving on the left side of the road in a left-hand drive took some getting used to but it also provided some comic relieve for both my nephew and I. The drive to Niseko was along a picturesque coast. It took us 3 hours to get there and we quickly checked into OAC lodge where we were greeted by its Australian owner Mark. We had a private room with shared showers and a common area with Sapporo classic on tap and a free breakfast – my kind of place! OAC was centrally located and while having our own care made it easy for us to explore there were also shuttles available. After getting settled into our rooms we quickly changed and headed off to Grand Hirafu to meet some of my nephew’s friends and to head out night skiing. I’ve never been a big fan of night skiing but this was a good way to shrug off some of that jet leg.
Pro Tip – download the Niseko App. It provides daily reports on all the Niseko hills.
We skied Annupurni on our second day and to be honest I was getting a bit discouraged. There wasn’t any new snow and I didn’t find the mountains very challenging compared to skiing in B.C.
Eating in Japan quickly became a challenge for me. I eat Ketogenically, basically no sugars or carbs. Walking through the streets of Niseko you are bombarded with small family owned restaurants and serving everything from pizza to local favourites like raman and sushi. You can almost taste the food as the smells escape these small restaurants. I figured out pretty quickly that I was going to miss out on an amazing food experience if I didn't set my diet aside for a few weeks.
After our first full day of skiing we went for potato raman at Niseko Ramen Kalahana. This place is small and a bit hard to find. They didn't wan't to seat us until our entire group arrived which was understandable considering how popular this spot is. I let my nephew order for me, a raman dish with a heavy cream and a serious kick. I don’t remember ever having Raman before and I doubt I will ever have Raman that good ever again. After dinner, we went to the famous “fridge bar”. The front door to this bar is a fridge door, the bar is actually called Bar Gyu but nobody we spoke to seemed to know this. This place had an amazing whiskey selection. Many of the locals I met love their whiskey and are proud of their whiskey heritage. Japan produces some of the world’s best whiskey’s many can be sampled at the fridge bar.
The second day of skiing didn’t provide any new snow. We skied Hirafu and Hananzoo. We were lucky to get there when we did because they had just opened some back-country gates. These resorts didn’t require avalanche gear but we had ours and I wouldn’t go without it (There was an in-bound avalanche at another resort in Japan while we were there that resulted in a fatality).
The backcountry rewarded us with some great tree skiing along with small pockets of untracked snow. Still, we were craving for more adventure so we decided to book a guide to take us up Mt. Yotei were we hoped to skin up to its summit, skin into the crater thank climb back up and ski to the bottom. While we were hatching this plan over ice-cold beer back at OAC lodge we met 2 19-year olds from Norway who had already been ski touring the area. We invited them on our Mr. Yotei adventure and booked a guide that night.
We met my nephew’s friends for dinner that night at a restaurant called Genghis Kahn. The building was a domed shaped structure. This was Japanese style BBQ and it was delicious! I would highly recommend this place if you are ok with smoking in doors (this was one of the few restaurants we encountered that still permitted smoking)
The good news on the 3rd night was that it puked snow! What we discovered in Japan is that the forecast along with conditions can change overnight. We decided to make the 1 hour drive to Kiroro the next day and we invited our new Norwegian friends to join us.
Kiroro delivered the goods!! From the moment we stepped out of the car our new friends were blown away at the amount of powder snow and how light and fluffy it was. This day turned out to be the kind of epic powder ski day you dream of in Japan.
Pro Tip – Make sure you have cash. When we got to the top of Kiroro we noticed an untouched powder field. We skied over to it and there was an attendant at the entrance. It was a private area that required another $1000 Yen to access over and above your lift ticket. Well worth the money!
We skied nonstop all day and were rewarded with face shots and chest deep powder snow – this is why we do it!
Access to the side country gates at Kiroror is tightly controlled. Even though we had all our avalanche gear we were not permitted through because we needed to submit a back-country plan with the office first. On a Powder ski day like this we had no intention of burning an hour and possible fresh lines. We skied in-bounds until our last run when we decided to duck the ropes and find even more un skied powder in one of the side-country areas (warning kids – although we were still within the resort boundaries, ducking ropes can have serious consequences)
No visit to Japan is complete without a visit to an Onsen. These natural hot springs are found deep in Japanese tradition and culture. Not much has changed over the years as clothing is not permitted and men and women are segregated. There is no denying the regenerating value of this mineral rich hot water but there was something uncomfortable about sitting in this man soup with 30 naked men including my nephew!!
The following day we drove to Rusutu ski area. When we got there, we were told that they received less than 5 cm of new snow. While Rimutsu looked like it had great terrain we were getting reports that Moiwa received around 20 cm of new snow. We made the decision to burn some time and return to Niseko. It was worth it! We skied deep powder at Moiwa until the end of the day. At this point my legs were exhausted. Time for a day off.
Some of my ski buddies would consider a day off during a ski trip sac religious but between jet leg, 5 days of skiing and our up-coming climb of Mt. Yotei I felt that not only did I earn the day off, I’d be crazy not to explore Japan a bit. Our first stop was a whisky factory just outside of Sapporo. It was like stepping back in time as we walked through the factory, which felt more like a village. It was a great visit filled with history and well, whisky – what better way to start off the day. Our next stop was the Sapporo Beer Factory. This turned into a multi hour event. After touring the factory and sampling the products we decided to have dinner at the on-site beer garden which offered Japanese style BBQ and of course the famous Sapporo brew. It was fantastic. We ended up chatting with some young traveler's at the next table. One of them was from Edmonton and was a work colleague of one of my nephew’s friends that we had been skiing with earlier in the week – such a small world. Traveler's, especially skiers, share a bond and it didn’t take long before we were laughing over drinks.
The day had finally arrived for our tour up Mt. Yotei. We had booked our trip through NAC adventures. Our guide picked us up at our lodge early Friday morning. Unfortunately, the clouds were hanging low and the wind was high so our guide wasn’t very optimistic about our chances of reaching the summit. We started the day in the parking lot of the national park. After putting our skins on we began our trek through the tree line. It was warm and beautiful. We quickly climbed over 1000m through the trees. There was a ton of fresh snow so we knew that if nothing else we would get some great turns in. The sun made an appearance so we had some hope that we might meet our objective. As we broke through the tree line into the Alpine the winds picked up and the temperature dropped. I put on every layer that I had and we trudged out into the exposed terrain. We had been climbing for around 3 hours and reached just over 1600m when the decision was made by our guide that we couldn’t go any further. The snow was starting to get wind effected and the good turns were below us anyway. We removed our skins, had a quick lunch and started our decent. The powder skiing was fantastic and our new Norwegian friends pushed our pace down the alpine and through the trees back to the parking lot in around 10 minutes! Our guides claimed that they have never descended that fast. We celebrated with a beer and headed back to pack. Our new Norwegian friends seemed to appreciate the beer and the company as they sent me thank you notes along with invites to Norway.