Choosing where to snowboard/ski in Japan can be pretty tough thanks to so many incredible resorts, mountains and ski areas. Thankfully almost all of them get a huge amount of snow each year. Niseko, on the island of Hokkaido, is one of the best as it provides a great mixture of excellent snow conditions, nightlife, easy access and the opportunity to meet a variety of other travellers as opposed to being stuck in a single resort. Niseko was closed for two winters due to Covid but it’s back to better than ever thanks to some of the refurbishments (e.g. heated chairlift) made during the lockdown.
The area has become incredibly popular in the past few years, mainly due to its amazing powder. Depending on what you read, Niseko receives an average between 14 and 18 meters of snow each winter, making it one of the snowiest areas in the world. But it’s not just the amount of snow that Niseko (Hokkaido in general) receives that makes it awesome but the quality of the snow. Fluffy powder, six-branch dendrites, call it what you want, it’s the good stuff. For more information as to why Japan receives so much high-quality snow see the snow section further down the article.
The northern Japanese island of Hokkaido has ski resorts spread across it for locals, travellers from beginners to advanced. But if you’re looking for a mixture of bars, restaurants, mixing with locals and foreigners then Hirafu in Niseko is the place to go. While other areas around Niseko have great accommodation options there isn’t a great variety of things to do once you’ve finished on the mountain for the day.
Where to Stay in Niseko
All of the resorts have great accommodation options but the liveliest part of town is Hirafu so I’ll cover places around there. Hirafu is split between upper, middle and lower with easy chairlift access from the upper and middle sections. Staying in lower Hirafu means you’ll need to walk up the hill to get onto a chairlift. The intersection is the main area and most places are within a few blocks of there. The family chair is a two minute walk from the intersection so you don’t need to stay near the gondola or welcome centre to be close to the mountain.
We stayed at Miru Nozomi Views which was excellent. It’s a newly refurbished hotel very centrally located. There’s a separate area for boots and boards/skis which keeps them out of your room. They don’t have any staff onsite but can pick you up and drop you off at the Welcome Centre for the bus to and from the airport.
Where to Eat
There’s heaps of restaurants in Hirafu and they fill up fast, sometimes it feels like a race to shower and head out to make sure you find a place to sit. Alternatively, get something to eat after coming down from the mountain then head out later for drinks.
The best breakfast in town is at Green Farm and the big breakfast is the best hangover cure…alongside ramen.
The Edge at Hanazono is at the bottom of the new chairlift and gondola and is the best place to grab lunch on the mountain. There’s options from ramen to burgers and all are reasonably priced and big servings. You can easily ski/board in for your meal and out once you’re done.
Niseko is famous for its powder, bars, restaurants and food trucks. There’s two designated food truck areas plus a few other food trucks scattered around town. With a total of approximately 30 food trucks there’s heaps of variety. There’s a few outdoor seats and tables around the trucks but no heating so you’ll be eating outside if you chose dinner from a food truck.
The best sushi restaurants in town…and the prices match. There’s usually a waiting line at night but you can easily get a table for lunch. The food is great but very expensive.
Typical pub located across the road from the food trucks. Burgers are sold during the day but the evening menu is very limited. It’s good for a drink but I’d recommend eating at one of the other places on this list. If you read my Tokyo guide you’ll see I mention that I was surprised Japan wasn’t more efficient. The Stakehouse was an example. You can see in the picture below a cash only sign at the bar, the bartender confirmed cash only….but…you can order food (and drinks!) on the right hand side and pay with card. wtf?
The famous Hilton buffet is at The Hilton Niseko Village. There are two buffets options and although expensive are worth the money if you’re a big eater.
The cheapest places to eat are the supermarkets, and they’ve got pretty decent food. There are three main supermarkets in Hirafu all with pretty similar things. Seicomart is on the main street near the food trucks, Hirafu 188 has a supermarket on the ground floor and Lawson is a supermarket on the eastern side of town towards Kutchan. All have cheap eating options like ramen, katsu, sushi rolls as well as some hot food options like fried chicken, all sell alcohol and all have ATM’s.
Places to Drink
A great pub with the best pub food in town. If you’re over ramen and sushi then the burgers and wings at Wild Bills are an excellent choice. The tables are moved about 10pm to make a dance floor and the bar packs out on most nights. On a Friday and Saturday nights it gets really packed.
Bar Gyu a.k.a Fridge Door Bar
The first bar that opened in Niseko and probably the busiest. There’s usually a waiting line by 8pm and sometimes earlier so if you want to visit Gyu get in early. Although nicknamed the fridge door bar it’s actually a 70’s vending machine door at the entrance to the bar which was installed by owner Ionna during a renovation. The bar was originally the house of the current owner Hisoshi who was working as a ski instructor when one day he decided to turn his place into a bar.
Not as well known as Wild Bills and Gyu but Bar Burunba has just as much, if not more character. The small bar gets busy but has a really inclusive vibe which means you’ll end up chatting to the everyone around you. There are also seats at the bar where you can chat to other travellers or friendly bar staff. You’ll be sure to have a great night here but be careful with the Bruce Willis cocktails…you might end up making noodles in the bath. The bar is cash only.
The fanciest bar in town that also serves food. Although not overly expensive the crowd, design and general vibe are more suited for a fancier place. The opposite of Freddies.
The nightclub of Niseko. Freddies starts the evenings off slow with after ski drinks but once the DJ starts at 10pm things keep going until late. There’s a snowmobile at the front door so you know there’s going to be a cool vibe once you’re inside.
How to Get to Niseko
The most common way to get to Niseko is from Sapporo (Chitose) Airport then getting additional transport to Niseko. You can also take the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin Hakodate Station then a 3 hour bus to Niseko. Check out my guide to Tokyo if you’re head down there before or after your trip.
Getting To Niseko From The Airport
The easiest way to get from the airport to Niseko is on one of the bus services. There are three main companies but the Whiteliner is the quickest and goes to Hirafu first. The bus takes between 2.5 to 3 hours, stops once about half way and costs 4500Y. The landscape is covered in snow but you don’t see much because the windows fog up.
The train takes longer than the bus and requires a transfer in Sapporo. Also, the closest train station to Niseko is in Kutchan which is 17kms from Hirafu so you’ll either need to take a taxi or bus to finish the journey once you get off the train in Kutchan. If you don’t plan on spending any time in Sapporo then the bus is the better option.
The most convenient but also most costly way to get from the airport to Nisko is to take a private transfer. However, the transfer wont save you too much time compared to the bus and costs ten times as much at 45000Y.
Hire A Car
If you plan to see more of Hokkaido then hiring a car is a great option. Be aware though that a lot of the roads will be covered in snow and ice so if you’re not confident driving in those conditions then you’re better off getting another transport option.
Niseko United is made up of 4 resorts; Annupuri, Niseko Village, Niseko Grand Hirafo and Hanazono. You can buy individual lift passes for each resort (Grand Hirafu and Hanazono are combined under the same lift pass) or you can get the All Mountain pass which will give you access to all areas plus free usage of the shuttle bus running between them. We bought the all mountain pass but there were a couple of days when we only went to Grand Hirafu and Hanazono. Lift passes can be bought at each resort or online. A 6 day All Mountain lift pass costs 44,000Y, you can find more details and prices in the resources section below.
If you visited before Covid you’ll be pleased to know there’s been some improvements. The biggest change to Niseko United has been to Hanazono. The old charilift is now a six-seater (with Italian leather) heated, high-speed lift. There is also a new 10-person gondola with new runs on the far east of the resort. The plan is to eventually integrate it with the Weiss Ski Resort.
When To Go
February is known as the powder month as it snows almost everyday but more snow means less visibility. Also, the Sapporo Snow festival is held in the first two weeks of February so you can time your trip to see the impressive snow sculptures stretching over a kilometre down Odori Park.
March brings better visibility and warmer weather but not as much powder as February. But…there’s that much powder that even taking some off February means there’s still plenty. I recommend late February or early March unless you want to see the Sapporo Snow Festival as well.
Things to Do Around Niseko Other Than Snowboarding
Going to an onsen is a cultural Japanese experience that everyone should fit into their Japanese itinerary. Onsen etiquette is important as onsens are considered sacred places in Japan that have been around for centuries. Onsen etiquette includes not wearing any jewellery or clothing in the onsen, covering up tattoos, being respectful of others and avoiding loud noises. However, the onsen in Hirafu is less conservative so having tattoos or wearing swimwear is accepted. Onsens are typically separated into men’s and women’s areas, with some offering private onsen rooms for families and groups.
There are a few onsens around Niseko but the most picturesque is Yukichichibu in Rankoshi which is a 25 minute drive from Hirafu or just 10 minutes from Annupurri. The only public onsen in Hirafu is Hirafutei at the Prince Hotel and costs 1000Y, cash only. The women’s side has views of Mt Yotei and the men’s has views of Mt Annupuri. Entrance is 1000Y, cash only. For a complete list of onsens in the area see the resources section below.
Day Trips & Activities
Snowshoe trips, snowmobile tours, fishing, indoor rock climbing and fat bike tours are all year round activities that you can do in or around Niseko. A trip to the Blue (Biei) Pond is also worth doing but avoid the middle of winter as it freezes over so you can’t see the vivid blue colours the lake is named after.
Why Does Niseko Get So Much Snow?
Niseko’s legendary snowfall is not created from storms rolling in from Siberia which is widely reported. Instead the heavy snowfall occurs due to a unique combination of low air pressure north of Hokkaido and high air pressure over Siberia creating airflow across the Sea of Japan. This is referred to as the ‘ocean-effect’ or ‘lake-effect’ and doesn’t happen anywhere else as consistently or significantly as in Japan.
As the air and clouds approach Hokkaido’s coastline, they encounter both cold temperatures from the ocean effect and are lifted by rising terrain. The humid atmosphere condenses into snow as it plummets to areas below zero degrees. The result is heaps of fresh powder thanks to an unending stream of moisture coming off the sea. Adding to this phenomenon is Niseko’s winter temperature staying around -10C which results in the formation of six-branch dendrites i.e. the fluffy, high quality powder perfect for snowboarding and skiing.
Travel Resources for Visiting Niseko
Niseko United – The official site of Niseko where you can buy lift passes and find the trail map.
SnowFes – The official site of the Sapporo Snow Festival.
Explore Niseko – A list of activities in Niseko other than snowboarding or skiing.
Niseko Tourism – A complete list of the onsens around Niseko.
Viator – Huge selection of activities, tours and experiences with great cancellation and price match policies.
Get Your Guide – Great selection of experiences from sea, land and air.
SkyScanner – The best place to start looking for flights. They compare prices from a huge amount of airlines
Hostelworld – Thousands of hostels with millions of reviews. You can also contact other travelers before you arrive.
Travel Insurance – None of us plan to fall off motorbikes or break a leg snowboarding but if it happens make sure you’re covered.
Booking.com – One of the best accommodation booking pages available. This is my benchmark before searching for a better deal (which often can’t be beaten).
AirBnB – Huge range of home to rent across the globe and discounts for longer stays.
RentalCars.com – The best site for renting cars while travelling, they find the best rates and provide great insurance options.