Niseko Powder Guide
I visited Niseko in February of 2018 to fulfill my dreams of the ultimate powder vacation and soak in a little Japanese culture. Below are ideas, thoughts and surprises I encountered along the way….
Niseko is located on the northern island of Japan (Hokkaido), but most international flights land in Tokyo, on the middle island. If you have time, you can take a bullet train to Hokkaido, which is very scenic. We chose to fly to Hokkaido, into the main airport there called Chitose. Japan Airlines in an excellent air service. Jetstar was a little less accommodating, as they never sent us a confirmation of any sort. I also recommend planning extra time between flights, and keep in mind that you will need to pick up your baggage in Tokyo, go through customs, then re-check it for the flight to Chitose. Make sure you get a few Yen (Japanese coin) before you leave the states for the airport vending machines. Many of the money-changing spots were closed by the time we landed. Once in Chitose, you can purchase a bus ticket to Niseko thats about $40. Its a three-hour ride from the airport with one stop at an amazing Mushroom house- Literally a huge building filled with all kinds of mushrooms and mushroom-related products. They also serve hot buns, various meats on skewers and rice balls. Once in Niseko, you will be dropped off at the main transit station which is right at the base of the mountain. From there, you can easily walk into the town of Niseko. When navigating between base areas, or to go to the larger city of Kutchan, simply hop on the local bus. Its free with your ski pass, and very cheap without it. You will find that most people know English, and there are many signs and instructions in English to help you on your journey. If you learn a few key phrases in Japanese, such as “hello”, “thank you” and “please”, you will be well-regarded by the Japanese people you encounter. When thanking someone, it is customary to bow your head. When in doubt, just thank and bow.
If you have a mountain collective pass, you have two days of skiing in Niseko. Remember to bring your printout to a manned ticket booth. After those two days, you can buy full day passes for around $60 from the kiosks. Each pass requires a small deposit ($10) that you will get back when you return your plastic pass to a kiosk. They are RFID, so stash them well!
Niseko is made up of four separate resorts operating under one company and on one mountain known as An’nupuri. Your pass is good at all the resorts, however their base areas are spread out, so make sure that you end up at the right place near where you are staying at the end of the day. Night skiing goes on most lower mountain lifts until 8 pm. Always grab a trail map and have it handy in your pocket. Learn more about the mountain.
Backcountry in Niseko
There are lots of opportunities to get off the beaten path. We discovered our favorite method on day 3. You can buy a “points pass” at Niseko, paying only a few dollars per point. Each lift requires anywhere from 1-6 points to ride. Piece together a few lift rides to get to the top of the mountain. You will see several gates marked on the trail map. A well-defined path is easy to hike up from Gate 3. Don’t bother with skins, its a short stair-stepper to the top. Once there, you will see a small hut and marker. From that point, drop off the backside into thigh-deep dreamy powder. Pleasant 20-35 degree slopes make this an incredible cruiser for a few thousand feet vertical descent. Near the bottom are wide-open birch tree stands. From there, skin up anything in sight that looks good! If you are on a split board, I recommend looking for the steeper slopes, as the heavy duty powder can weigh you down quickly. Always carry a beacon, probe, shovel and Avalanche pack. Get prepared for some of your best days!!
Avalanche danger is a real threat in the backcountry and its important to keep your senses attuned to what is going on around you. We found that the local Avalanche forecast can be very vague, due to translation issues. One day, it read: “Avoid falling into frozen creeks, because they are cold”. Seriously. A true hazard out there, however, is the glide cracks. These huge cracks open up in the snow when it gets heavy and starts sliding on the bamboo growth underneath. I watched my partner get swallowed by one when attempting to cross a small snow bridge. Luckily he was able to spread his skis and arrest himself, then extricate. As a snowboarder, consider having your poles available even on the downhill, just in case this happens. We also witnessed some small but potentially deadly slides on our exit during our first day in the backcountry. Heavy wind loading coupled with steep terrain that we found ourselves in gave us a few “oh shit” moments that I’m not proud of at all. Don’t let the powder haze obscure your vision- always be aware! Niseko Avalanche and Weather
So, the real treat to dropping into the backcountry behind An’nupuri is the tiny Onsen that sits at the bottom of the valley. Onsen is a Japanese hot spring, this one is mostly enclosed in a lovely guest house. Its about $7 to enter, and you buy your ticket from a machine. Once inside, a cold Asahi beer awaits you in another vending machine. Men and Women soak in separate areas. Its very important to follow this custom. Once you get undressed (no need for a suit) it is polite to wash yourself with the small showers provided. There are buckets that you may sit on to rinse off. Then climb into the wonderful mineral springs and soak those tired muscles! From the onsen, it is a 20-minute skin back to Annupuri base area, where you can catch a bus into Niseko.
The Japanese coin is called Yen, and the exchange rate is about 100 Yen to $1. However, you will find that a Niseko vacation is close to being as expensive as an American resort. Hotels are probably the greatest expense you will incur. The hotels in Japan may be “westernized” or not. If not, you will find that they are small and typically have an entrance room where you are meant to take off your shoes. Bring clean house slippers for this purpose. We were lucky to have a friend invite us to stay in her guest house for a small fee. Our room had two futons on the floor and a kerosene heater for warmth. It was simple but comfortable, and we had the luxury of a private bath. There are hostels in Niseko which are more affordable, check before you leave to make sure there is room for you. You may have to spend more money on accommodations, but you can cut other expenses by using the point-system passes and skiing backcountry, stocking up on food at the convenience mart and not buying a lot of beer- beer is very expensive in Japan. There are a lot of sakes and whiskeys that are cheaper.
Niseko is a very Westernized town, and populated by a lot of Australians. As a result, it is difficult to find authentic Japanese food and sushi. You will have better luck in the cities such as Chitose and Kutchan. If you’re not feeling adventurous, there is pizza, steaks, burgers and bars in the downtown area. Ramen bowls are good fuel and warm you up nicely. The best bang for your buck will come from the local convenience store, Seicomart. This wonderland of a market has cheap rice balls and steamed buns, which are great to pack in your pockets for later snacks. Also a help-yourself espresso machine at the front counter, beer, whiskey and all kinds of strange Japanese treats. Just down the road from Seicomart is a small lot of food trucks that sell everything from Indian food to “Oysters and Tequila”. YEP. Its awesome! The “Nook” at the bottom of Annupuri is a decent cafeteria with curries and ramen bowls. You will buy your meal at a machine, then take the ticket to the counter. We also typically bought a small sake which the bartender happily warmed for us. Its a perfect end to a day in the backcountry and kills time while waiting for the bus.
We also spent a day at a nearby resort called “Moiwa”. We were lucky to hit the slope after it had been closed for a few days and there was about 30 cm of new snow. Although it seemed crowded in the morning, we found ample powder lines all day, with wonderful trees and small cornices to huck. There was basically only one lift worth riding and the terrain was limited, but hardly anyone skied the deep powder, so it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
We had ambitions of climbing and skiing the nearby volcano, but due to weather and an inability to get a ride to the trailhead, that plan fell through. Niseko in February has a ton of snow, and with that snow comes a total loss of visibility on most days, making trekking difficult and dangerous. There are a few guide companies that will take you up. When we spoke to a local guide about it, he gave us some good tips and information.
The Onsen is also a guest house and you can rent a room there! This is what we will definitely do next time we visit. You will also need to rent a car, because no buses go there. You can get an international drivers license at any AAA.
For happy muscles and a clear mind, check out Powder Yoga at the bottom of Niseko in the AYA building. The English-speaking instructors are wonderful and the classes are fantastic, with lots of variety.
If all of this seems like WAY too much information, and you’re looking for someone to plan your perfect backcountry Japow trip, check out Backcountry Babes (yes, they accept men on their trips too!). The trip will include support, instruction, delicious food and wonderful skiing/riding!
Well, thats all I got! If you have any questions about Japow and how to get there, feel free to comment below! See ya on the slopes!