Avid British skiers may be accustomed to ski trips to Europe or America but if you want to indulge in some of the best skiing on the planet, you need to consider Japan for your next ski trip. Incredible scenery, fascinating culture, mouth-watering cuisine and the best POWDER ever make for a sublime ski trip. The country has tons of resorts to choose from but on our latest trip, we flew to Sapporo in search of the snowiest resort in japan (and possibly the world). If you feel the urge to follow in our footsteps and explore the Niseko ski area we have compiled everything you need to know into this ultimate Niseko ski guide.
Overview of Niseko resort
Niseko resort is a renowned ski destination on the northern island of Hokkaido in Japan. It consists of four areas – Niseko Annupuri, Niseko Village, Niseko Grand Hirafu and Niseko Hanazono. Grand Hirafu is a vibrant village whilst the other three areas are little more than a cluster of hotels at the base of the ski lifts. The Niseko ski map below shows you the whole of Niseko and the four ski areas.
The Niseko ski guide aims to give you all the information you need for a visit to the area. In one convenient location, you will find a wealth of information and essential links to save you time and effort.
The ultimate Niseko ski guide
Don’t forget to bookmark the Niseko ski guide so you can easily find it again. Or better yet, save to your Flipboard and Pinterest accounts.
The ultimate Niseko ski guide covers a ton of information. To navigate, use the table of contents at the top of the post. Click on the three lines on the right to show you all the sections so you can skip to the most relevant bits. This is a long post so this table will help you get to the information you need quickly.
How to get to Niseko
Arrival into Sapporo by plane
The nearest airport to Niseko is Sapporo New Chitose airport. Although there are no direct flights from the UK, British Airways fly from London to Tokyo or Osaka and you can then book an internal flight. (If you opt to fly to Osaka, make sure you allow enough time to visit the captivating city of Kyoto). Alternatively, you can take the Shinkansen from Tokyo.
We booked flights on British airways using AVIOS and flew Club class. We saved almost £6,000 on the cost of the flights, although I’m too tight to ever spend that much on a plane seat! If you want to know how to accumulate tons of Airmiles to do the same, check out our guide to teach you how to fly business class for less than economy.
Internal flights from Osaka to Sapporo cost around £200 each in February 2021. We flew with Jetstar from Osaka and paid ¥52,900 (around £365) including 3 items of hold luggage.
Arrival into Sapporo by train
Incidentally, you can take the train from Tokyo to Sapporo. However, trains cost a similar amount (unless you are travelling on a Japan Rail pass) and take 8 hours. If time is of the essence, flying is your best option.
Getting to Niseko from Sapporo
Buses to Niseko ski resort
A number of buses offer transfers between Sapporo New Chitose airport and Niseko ski resorts. You can book onto White Liner and Hokkaido Resort Liner buses in the arrival terminal but ideally, you should book in advance. Buses can get booked up days in advance. Your only other options then are train or a private transfer.
The bus costs ¥4000 (around £27). It deposits you directly at the Grand Hirafu Welcome Centre and can also pick you up in downtown Sapporo.
Bus options to Niseko
If you book online with White Liner there is a 10% discount and it will make your arrival much less stressful. You can find the White Liner Niseko bus timetables and prices here but note, the last bus from the airport leaves at 8 pm.
Hokkaido Resort Liner
Tickets cost ¥3,800 per adult on the Hokkaido Resort Liner but there are only 3 buses a day from the airport. The last leaves at 4 pm.
Hokkaido Resort Liner also offers a variety of packages which allow you to combine a bus ticket with lift pass and rentals.
Trains to the Niseko ski area
It is possible to take the train from the airport or Sapporo but it is more laborious. The train connects in Otaru and you can disembark at either Kutchan (for those staying in Hanazono or Hirafu) or Niseko (if you are staying in Niseko or Annapuri. The local train between Otaru and Kutchan/Niseko is only two carriages and gets extremely busy so it pays to arrive early to bag a spot.
A single fare without reservation is ¥2100 from downtown Sapporo and ¥3,880 from New Chitose airport. Book trains here.
How to get around Niseko
Niseko shuttle bus
Once you get to the Niseko ski area, there are several options for getting around the area. Once you purchase your lift pass, the Niseko shuttle bus is free. Simply show it to the bus driver as you get off and he will scan the card.
If you don’t have a pass you will need to pay. To do so, jump on the bus at the rear and take a numbered ticket. When you disembark, give the number to the driver. Above his seat, a screen displays the numbers and the corresponding fare. This is the amount you will need to pop in the payment box when you get off.
I have put extracts from the timetables below but you can download the full PDF of the Niseko United ski bus timetable here. The last buses are around 9.30 pm which means you can indulge in some apres-ski after a hard day on the slope, and then jump on the last bus.
Niseko United ski bus timetable
Hanazano Niseko United area shuttle bus
There is also a free Hanazano bus which runs up and down between Hanazano and Grand Hirafu every 30 minutes. The route is shown below but you can view this online. You can also download a Hirafu map of the Hirafu ski resort.
Alternatively, you can book a hotel within walking distance of Grand Hirafu as we did.
Free Niseko resort buses
The Grand Hirafu mountain centre is a hive of activity, with endless buses dropping off passengers. Most of these are resort shuttles dropping passengers from a specific hotel to the ski slope. If you decide not to book a Grand Hirafu hotel, as mentioned above you need to check if your hotel offers a shuttle of this nature. If so, it is worth enquiring as to the timetables and how late they run.
Where to stay in the Niseko ski area
The best place to stay in Niseko if you like plenty of options for food and drink is Grand Hirafu village. This ski resort has a bustling town with plenty of bars and restaurants. There are also tons of food vans scattered around the town which serve slightly more reasonable food.
Sadly, Niseko Hirafu accommodation is expensive although it is possible to stay in more budget places such as a backpackers or the Slowlife lodge where we stayed. We paid just under £700 for six nights for a room with bunk beds and shared bathroom and toilet facilities. It was a very friendly place with great hosts but if you are an introvert it probably isn’t the place for you.
Here are some suggestions for the best places to stay in Niseko.
Where to stay in Grand Hirafu
The best place to stay in Grand Hirafu is the Ki Niseko if you want a ski in ski our hotel. The Ki Niseko is at the very base of the mountain just a few minutes away from the Grand Hirafu gondola station.
It cost £337 for one night on 29th February 2020 but has incredible views of Mount Yotei, a sauna, restaurant and spa tubs
If you want to check out other options, hotels.com can show you all hotels on a Hirafu accommodation map like this one. You can then easily determine which are in price range and within reasonable distance of the slopes.
Where to stay in Hanazono
In Hanazano there is only really one option which is the Park Hyatt Niseko. This hotel is in a prime position at the base of the Hanazono Hooded Quad Lift and is super luxurious. The hotel offers ski in ski out facilities, seven restaurants, a spa, indoor pool and hot springs.
For seven nights between 15th and 22nd January the hotel costs a mere £6,033! It may not be a realistic option therefore for many people and there are much better value options elsewhere.
Where to stay in Niseko village
In Niseko there is one main option which is the Hilton Niseko. Whilst the hotel offers a selection of restaurants and bars, prices are higher than in Grand Hirafu for both food and drink. The hotel does offer direct access to the Niseko gondola however so is another hotel in a prime location for avid skiers.
The hotel may also be a great destination for non-skiers as it offers access to a wide range of activities other than skiing. These include bicycle rental, golf, hiking, horseback riding, soaking in hot springs, tennis and walking. You may want to check which of these will be available beforehand however if you are planning a winter visit.
Lowest price for the Hilton Niseko is £198 a night on the 9th March 2020
Where to stay in Niseko Annapuri
Niseko Northern Resort An’nupuri is a luxurious hotel with a spa, sauna, and free station pick up. It is just an eight-minute walk to resort. One night prices cost from £119 in March 2020 but book early if you plan to visit in peak times.
There is limited other accommodation in Annapuri so you might be better staying in Niseko or Grand Hirafu and either skiing between resorts or taking the bus.
The Hyatt House Niseko in Grand Hirafu costs £3,404 for seven nights in January 2021. It has a free area shuttle bus, bar and restaurant.
Ultimate Niseko ski guide tips for accommodation
As you can see, Niseko accommodation simply isn’t cheap but if you really need to keep costs down, you could consider one of the following.
- Hire a car and stay in a neighbouring village a little further from the slopes. You will need to factor in the cost of the hire car when comparing costs.
- Consider staying at one of the backpackers in town. Niseko backcountry lodge offers a bed in a dorm for ¥6,760 a night between 15th and 22nd January. Note, this is the price for an individual so if you are travelling as a couple it will be cheaper to book a hotel.
- Consider Airbnb Niseko options but be warned, many properties may be remote, and it is likely you will need a car. For instance, between the 15th and 22nd January on Airbnb, you can book the Yotei View Cottage which costs ¥10,800 a night. It sleeps five so is much better value than a hotel, but it is in a more remote area. This is the cheapest property I could find on Airbnb and it offers cooking facilities. If you are travelling as a group this could reduce costs dramatically at £75.85 a night shared between five people.
- Note, if you have yet to sign up for Airbnb, use this Airbnb referral link to save up to £23 off your first night stay.
Where to eat and drink in Niseko
The Grand Hirafu Welcome Centre stocks booklets which list all the food and dining options in the area. The guide indicates price range, locations, food types and some other brief information. You can also view the options online.
We ate at a number of places around town but have to confess no meal stands out as being amazing. My best meals overall were local udon noodle dishes in the mountain restaurants of Boyos and King Bell Hut both of which are in the Grand Hirafu ski area. The King Bell also has strong heating ducts so is a great place to defrost if the weather gets super frosty.
For coffee, our personal favourite was Rhythm & Beans in the Rhythm store just south of the Grand Hirafu Mountain Welcome Center. There are lots of places where you can buy a decent coffee but the usual servings are tiny. The coffees typically cost more than a Starbucks with half the volume of a grande!
Rhythm & Beans serves decent size coffees and they have a super cute in-house dog to boot. Be sure to pop in and say hello to Milo.
Big cheap beers
Jojos café is a great place for an apres-ski drink. It has fabulous views over Mount Yotei (assuming it isn’t covered in cloud) and litre beers cost ¥1000 versus ¥2000 at the Tap Inn in Odin Place.
Not so cheap beer
The Tap Inn is nevertheless worth a visit. It is a quaint little bar tucked away on the 2F of the Odin Building. The staff are super friendly and happy to chat, so if you are flying solo this might be a good place to start. They also serve a variety of craft beers which you can sample.
Niseko ski season
The Niseko snow season runs from December to the end of March. The area is renowned for incredible snowfall. When we visited locals complained about the lack of snow, but we were blown away by the amount of snow. It was not uncommon to ski through huge drifts of snow on piste. It was so soft and fluffy too that our skis did not catch – pure heaven!
Niseko weather and snowfall
To obtain the latest Niseko snow report, head to Snow Forecast. This site provides details of the expected Niseko snowfall and Niseko weather forecasts. The latter are useful for planning your clothing attire as temperatures can be bitterly cold on the mountain. The average during our visit was around -10c but it fell as low as -17c.
What makes skiing in Niseko so popular of course is the famous Niseko powder. Powder hounds delight in sharing stories about the amount of daily snowfall with average snowfall in a season around 14 metres. To put that into context, Zermatt gets 2.63 metres, Banff gets 1.98 metres and Vail gets 4.82 metres. The Niseko mountain is seriously snowy!!
Niseko ski packages
It is possible to book Niseko ski packages which combine ski rental, Niseko lift passes and transfers. For instance, Powderhounds offers packages from £732 per person including hotel, transfers and lift pass.
You can also buy combos which include lift pass and bus transfer from Sapporo.
Niseko ski pass options
You have two options for your Niseko ski pass. You can buy a Niseko All Mountain Pass or you can just buy passes for each of Niseko, Annapurna, and Grand Hifaru/Hanazano. You can ski between all four of the Niseko ski resort areas or if the terrain is too challenging you can take the Niseko shuttle bus.
Note, to ski between Annapuri and Niseko ski areas is across a non-groomed slope with deep snow. It is certainly not suitable for beginners and I struggled significantly as an intermediate. Unless you are a confident skier, you may be better riding the Niseko bus between these two Niseko resort areas. I kid you not when I say I practically had a meltdown as my skis sunk into metres of snow and I struggled to traverse.
Niseko ski area map
This map of Niseko shows each of the mountains clearly and gives you some idea as to whether you could manage in just one area or whether you would prefer to buy a Niseko All Mountain Pass
The All Mountain Pass costs ¥8,000 for one day and ¥34,800 for five consecutive days. I have reproduced the table of prices from the website but as you can imagine, this will date quickly. This link should take you to the latest ski prices.
You will need to pay a deposit for your lift card at outset which costs ¥1,000. When you return your key card at the end of your trip, this money will be returned to you. Simply pop them in the refund machine on your last day.
If you are happy to spend all your time in one ski area, here are the details for each. You will save some money, but the difference may not be enough to warrant less choice on the mountain.
Niseko lift pass
Grand Hirafu lift pass
Compared to the All Mountain Pass, a Grand Hirafu lift pass costs ¥6,200 for one day and ¥27,500 for five days. This saves ¥1,800 on the cost of a day pass and ¥7,300 over 5 days. Respectively this is around £12.50 and £51 so is not a bad deal for an area covering around 60% of the Niseko ski area. The Grand Hirafu ski pass covers both Hanazono and Grand Hirafu but night skiing is extra.
Niseko Annapuri lift pass
A Niseko Annapuri lift pass costs ¥4,000 for one day and ¥17,100 for five days. Here is the link to the latest prices but as you can see you save around 50% off the price of the All Mountain Pass. This is quite a considerable saving, but you may have to tolerate a little inconvenience in order to get to the slopes. If you decide to stay in the area, you may also find that you soon tire of the limited runs in this area.
Niseko Hanazono lift pass
See the Grand Hirafu lift pass prices as one lift pass covers the two areas.
Which Niseko lift pass should I buy?
Based on the difference in price for a Niseko All Mountain Pass versus individual ski area lift passes, I recommend simply buying the Niseko All Mountain Pass.
For two people for four days we paid ¥56,200 which converted into £408.70.
You can also purchase an Ikon Pass which allows you to ski 41 destinations across North America, Australia, Japan, and Europe! There are two passes as you can see below.
Niseko trail maps
The Niseko trail map shows the entire four mountains on one convenient map. It also highlights the length of each run and the gradient so you have an idea what to expect. It pays to carry a Niseko piste map with you, as maps on the mountain seem hit and miss.
Each individual mountain also has more detailed trail maps which is a great idea. You can find them below.
Niseko Grand Hirafu trail map
The Grand Hirafu lift passes gives you access to the Grand Hirafu and Hanazono ski areas. This area offers a variety of slopes to suit all levels with 8 black, 9 red and 7 green pistes. Some of the greens have quite steep cambers but are wide open allowing plenty of space to turn.
The area also offers night skiing from 16:30 to 20:30 every day between December and March. Check the Niseko Grand Hirafu area page to see the exact dates for the season when you plan to visit.
Niseko Annupuri trail map
The Niseko Annapuri ski area has 13 pistes and 6 lifts. It has some lovely longer green and red runs with the following 5 red, 4 black and 4 green pistes.
You can also night ski between December and March from 16:30 until 20:30. Exact dates can be found here.
Niseko Village trail map
The Niseko ski area was my least favourite area but it is probably the best one for beginners. It has several short gentle slopes lower down which are ideal for building confidence but more advanced skiers will quickly tire of these.
Further up, there is a long green run, but it may be a little challenging for nervous beginners. For intermediate and advanced skiers there are 7 red and 8 black pistes respectively. In total there are 27 pistes and 8 lifts.
This area also offers night skiing from December to March between 16:30 and 20:00. Exact dates and times can be found here.
Niseko Hanazono trail map
The Niseko Hanazono has some lovely wide pistes through the trees but has just 5 red, one green and one black piste. Beginners may also soon tire of the sole long green run but remember this area is included in the Grand Hirafu lift pass.
There is no night skiing in the Hanazono resort area.
Niseko Ski rental
There’s a ton of options for ski rentals in and around town. Many will drop you at the slopes once you have hired gear, but it pays to check as you don’t really want to cart skis and boots far. Here’s a few convenient options to select from but you can also use Google to search other options.
Hanazono ski rental
Niseko Sports Rental offers a variety of rental packages. Mid performance skis or snowboards cost ¥14,500 per person to rent for four days.
Grand Hirafu ski rental
We hired skis at the Grand Hirafu Mountain centre because we could leave skis and boots overnight at the centre. Convenient changing areas allow skiers to switch out of boots just yards from the slope and dedicated storage areas for your skis and boots mean you won’t need to hire lockers throughout your stay. As the Niseko ski bus drops off immediately outside the centre, on your first and last day, you can hop on the bus and save your feet from a long walk in ski boots.
We paid ¥26,000 (£189.07) for two people for performance skis for four days.
Niseko village ski rental
Niseko village rentals offers standard skis and poles for ¥11,100 for three days. This price is per person. You can upgrade for ¥14,900.
Annapuri ski rental
You can rent skis and poles in Annapuri for ¥12,000 for three days.
Niseko Ski schools
Niseko Annapuri Ski Schools
Niseko Annapuri Ski and Snowboarding School offers lessons for two or four hours in group sessions. These cost ¥5,800 and ¥9,300 respectively.
Hanazono ski school
The Niseko International Snow Sports School offers group lessons from ¥16,000 for a half day and ¥18,000 for a full day. You can also book beginners packages which include lessons and rental equipment for ¥20,000.
Grand Hirafu ski school
We opted for Go Snow lessons which we booked at the Grand Hirafu Mountain centre. I paid ¥9,900 for a full day lesson (10.00 until 15:30) with Karl, a British guy from Wigan. Go Snow Niseko limits groups to a maximum of six people and Karl did a great job of rebuilding my confidence and encouraging the group to be a little more daring with some forays into the trees. I have to say it was the best ski lesson I have ever paid for as we had so much fun!
Grand Hirafu ski school also offers lessons and charges ¥5,300 for a half day or ¥8,500 for a full day lesson. As you can see these costs are considerably less than the other outlying resorts.
Niseko Ski School
You can book Niseko ski lessons here. Group lessons cost ¥14,000 for four hours or ¥10,000 – ¥12,000 for two hours.
Niseko mountain facilities
One of the things I love in Japan is that each restaurant has dispensers for free water and sometimes even tea! You can fill up bottles at your leisure so there is no need to spend loads of money on bottles of mineral water.
There are a variety of on mountain restaurants and bars serving traditional Japanese food and some western staples such as pizza and fries. Prices are not over the top, but you will usually need cash as credit cards are often not accepted.
A particularly lovely restaurant is the Lookout View in the Niseko ski area. This is part of the Hilton hotel and thus is much more expensive (for instance a bottle of sparkling water cost almost £10!) but the views truly are spectacular. It has a strange order system whereby you select what you would like by the entrance, pay your money into the machine and then put the tickets on your table for the staff to collect.
Again, a welcome feature in the Niseko ski area is the abundance of on mountain toilet facilities. These are scattered liberally around restaurants and rest areas and you will usually also find them by the gondola stations. Better still, they often have heated seats which is extremely pleasant when the mountain is so cold!!
The Niseko lift system
The Niseko lift system seems a little dated in parts but functions reasonably well. Although bottlenecks occur around the gondolas and some key lifts, rarely will you wait more than ten minutes to jump on a lift.
Signage on the mountain is a little lacking at times. You may need to pay due care to ensure you do not inadvertently end up on a more difficult slope than you hoped for
Other useful information
There are several physiotherapist centres around the area. They offer traditional Physiotherapy services as well as sports massage. I booked a 30-minute sports massage at Niseko physio. Don’t be deceived by the petite Asian therapists – they have the strength to pack a punch into those massages.
Typical costs in Niseko
Costs in downtown Hirafu are much higher than in neighbouring Izumiyko. As mentioned previously a litre beer in Grand Hirafu was more than double the price of the same drink just a little further out of town on the road to Izumikyo.
That said, I genuinely do not believe Japan warrants the reputation it has for being expensive.
Any other tips to add to the ultimate Niseko ski guide?
Maybe you have visited Niseko and have some other top tips for visitors to the area. We would love to hear from you, or even just know what you thought of the skiing in this part of Japan.