Skiing in Japan
For many, skiing Japow is the trip of a lifetime. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret—if you like to ski or snowboard and you live in California, New York, or Boston, this is problably the most underrated and efficient trip abroad you can find.
Table of Contents
- Table of Contents
- Why is this trip so amazing?
- History of Skiing in Japan
- Sample Itinerary
- Niseko Gotchas
- Best places in Hirafu
- Sightseeing in Hokkaido
- Have a season ski pass in the US that includes days at Niseko
- Own your own equipment
- Live close to a large, international airport
Many folks living in LA and SF will meet this criteria as they’re probably on the IKON pass to get unlimited days at Mammoth and Squaw/Alpine. I’m not sure how popular this pass is for folks in NYC and Boston but I know that it works for some mountains in that vicinity as well. If you have this pass, you get several free days of skiing at Niseko. If you have to pay for ski passes out of pocket, this trip becomes significantly more expensive.
Flying to Sapporo internationally during the winter is expensive. You’ll want to fly to Tokyo instead. If you’re not near a major international airport, getting to Tokyo (much less Sapporo) will be a giant pain and probably isn’t worth the hassle.
Why is this trip so amazing?
There are a couple of things unique to Japan that make this trip really interesting:
- Unreal snow
In Tahoe, you’ll have several weeks between storms, and when you do get a storm, it’s normally so massive it can take a day or two for things to open back up. In Japan, you get a consistent 6-12 inches every night. That means every day is a reset day! The snow is super light and fluffy, great for pow turns.
- World-class aprés
There is nothing better after a long day on the mountain than hitting a natural hot spring with a cold one. The food is delicious, especially the sushi (you’re only ~50km from the ocean). And if you still have energy after all that exercise and a full belly, the bar scene is nuts.
If you can get to Tokyo, you can visit a huge number of other cool places very easily. Osaka, another metropolis popular with tourists, is less than 3 hours from Tokyo by train. Trains leave every 20 minutes so it’s easy to find one that fits your schedule. In the next few years, you’ll even be able to take the Shinkansen straight to the resort!
- Yamato (Black Cat) Transport
Affectionally called “Black Cat” Transport by gaijin because of their logo, you also might hear it referred to as “Takkyubin” (Romanized as TA-Q-BIN).This service allows you to forward all your bulky ski equipment and luggage directly to your accomodation for cheap (~$15). Now you can go sightseeing all across Japan unencumbered by a ton of luggage!
- Jagata-kun swag
Everything in Japan has a mascot and they are all excellent. There’s even a Twitter account dedicated to documenting them all. Jagata-kun is the famous skiing potato of Kutchan. Before becoming one of the fastest-growing areas in all of Japan, this rural area grew potatos. His hat references Mount Yotei, which looks like a mini Mt. Fuji. It’s worth the trip just to get your hands on as much Jagata-kun swag as possible.
A Brief Oral History of Niseko
This is the history of Niseko I was told by some of the elder statesman in town and shouldn’t be taken as Gospel. But I’ve included some sources to back up the broad strokes of my story.
It was the 1980s and Japan was ascendent on the international stage thanks to their dominance in consumer electronics. This led to a rise of a booming consumerist class similar to the Yuppies in the US. In 1987, a movie was released in the country called Take Me Out to the Snowland!, which became synonymous with this culture at this particular moment in time (similar to Miami Vice in the US). If you’re interested in more of the specifics, this article is a pretty good primer.
Anyways, this movie was a smash hit in Japan and is widely credited for creating the skiing boom in the country. A huge amount of ski infrastructure was built to accomodate the demand, resulting in the fractured resort setup we discuss in future sections. But it turns out, a lot of Japanese didn’t care about skiing for skiing’s sake. They cared about the cultural cachet it carried. So when the Japanese economy imploded in the early 1990s, the skiiers disappeared but the infrastructure didn’t.
Fastforward to the turn of the Millennium. Word was starting to spread around the Aussie snowsports community about hidden gems on the Japanese islands: unbeatable powder with virtually no lines. And the best part? Virtually no jet lag! Previously, Aussie powder hounds had to decide between the Rockies or the Alps for world-class skiing. Between the 18+ hour flights and the jet lag, you almost lost an entire week of your vacation just to travel.
That wasn’t to say that planning a ski trip to Japan was easy. Obviously, there was the language barrier to contend with. But there were other complicating factors as well. Japanese ski resorts didn’t know how appealing their mountains were to foreign audiences and made little effort to market outside Japan. Western credit cards and ATM cards weren’t compatible with their Japanese counterparts. It was almost impossible to book accomodation ahead of time. And what happens, Heaven forbid, if you break your leg? These factors and more show why foreign travel to Japan’s ski resorts was near zero.
But the powder was just too good for these trivial matters to keep true believers away. Aussie ski bums began funding their habits by setting up tour companies that would handle transit from the airport, accomodation, and backcountry guides. Ex-pats began to venture up from Tokyo for Golden Week. And slowly, the trickle of gaijin became a steady stream.
Today, foreigners flood into Niseko every winter, although Aussies have been supplemented by the nouevo riche from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia. The old Japanese pensions are being quickly replaced with gleaming glassy towers. While the Japanese economy struggles due to a rapidly shrinking and aging population, the area around Niseko is one of the few places where property values are rising—and how! Still, even as recently as 10 years ago, in order to get Japanese Yen you had to drive 15 minutes to the post office in the next town to over to exchange your traveler’s checks. My friend swears he even saw an honest-to-God yakuza member in an onsen his first season in Hokkaido (apparently the area used to be a favorite retreat for yakuza before it was overrun by foreigners).
Today, the secret is out. Lift lines are long again, especially on powder days. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the experience of a lifetime.
- Fly into Tokyo (either airport) This should save you some money compared to flying directly to Sapporo, plus gives you the opportunity to see more of Japan.
Forward your snow gear to your accomodation Before your departure, visit the snow sports TA-Q-BIN site to make sure your bags will be compliant. Remember, this is Japan! They will get out a tape measure and go through the theatrics of measuring every dimension, even if your luggage is clearly is too large or too small. You can also send normal bulky luggage as well, that page is here. I also recommend calling your accomodation to see how long they will hold on to your bags as this will determine how much time you can spend traveling around. If you’re staying at a place without a full-time staff, like an Airbnb, you probably won’t be able to send the bags directly to your accomodation. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use TA-Q-BIN as they allow you to ship packages to their offices, convience stores, or delivery lockers where you can pick them up at your leisure. Beware! These places may also only hold packages for a certain number of days! When you get to the airport, pick up your bags from baggage claim and visit the Black Cat luggage office which should be located close by. Relieve yourself of your snow gear. At this point, I recommend only having a small day pack that weighs less than 15 lbs.
You’ll probably need a day or two to get over jetlag, and Tokyo is the perfect place to do it. Take a few days to explore the city and get your bearings. Of course, I have opinions on what you should do but other people have covered this much more thoroughly than me and I will defer to them.
Visit Osaka/Kyoto (optional)
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, take the Shinkansen to Kyoto and Osaka, about ~3 hours away. Kyoto is a quieter, more bucolic city that is home to many older cultural sites which you’ve seen in people’s Instagram and online dating profiles (think temples, torii gates, castles, etc). I’ll be honest, it didn’t do a lot for me personally but to each their own. Osaka, just ~20 minutes away from Kyoto via Shinkansen, is the largest Japanese city outside of the greater Tokyo region. Since it’s so close to Kyoto, most people hit both in one trip. Unlike me, you probably have a Real Person Job and are doing Important Grown-Up Things. This means that you probably don’t have unlimited time to to explore. Nevertheless, I think a week will give you enough time to see a lot of different places. My suggested split would be 4 days in Tokyo, 1 day in Kyoto, and 2 days in Osaka.
Fly up to Sapporo with a budget airline
When you’re ready to hit the powder, fly up to Sapporo (New Chitose Airport). Japan has a few budget carriers, I found a ticket from Sapporo to Tokyo for ~$90. However, most of these budget carriers have luggage restrictions of 7kg (14 lbs), with any overages being charged extra. I’d recommend deciding in advance whether or not you want to eat this charge. I tried to meet the limit and failed, paying $30 for the priviledge of carrying an extra 2 lb.
Head to the resort
The best way to get to Niseko from the airport is to take a charter bus. The bus is superior for several reasons: it’s (slightly) cheaper and quicker than the train, it’s way easier to deal with your ski gear (if you fly directly to Sapporo) and, most importantly, it takes you directly to the heart of the resort. There are several different operators, but they all cost around ~$30. They depart directly from the airport terminal and you can find their offices on the right immediately after exiting customs. It’s about a 3 hour drive to the resort. Be warned! These buses do not have bathrooms. They do stop halfway at a convienence store, where you can use the restroom and buy some snacks.
- Shred hard
Spend the next week making the most of all those free days you have on your ski pass. Remember, there’s night skiing too!
There are a lot of confusing things about Niskeo that are hard to ascertain online. I got bit by them and I met a lot of tourists who got bit by them too. But we failed so that you can succeed!
You want to stay in Hirafu
The “Niseko” on Google Maps is not the “Niseko” we refer to when we talk about the skiing. Google Maps Niseko is a small hamlet really far from where you want to be. While it appears to have a train station, this is also a lie as the station is permanently closed. Similarly, on Google Maps you’ll find a small development called “Niseko Village”. A reasonable person might assume this is the ski village with shops and bars and such. That’s a lie, it is just a single resort that cleverly markets itself as being in a “village” to lure in schmucks like me.
You want to stay in Hirafu. If you stay in Hirafu, you can walk to the lifts. You’re in the middle of the nightlife. You’re around all the good restaurants. It’s where the ski outfitters and boot techs are. It will be expensive. But trust me, stay in Hirafu.
The biggest town in the area is called Kutchan. Kutchan is home to the grocery store, hard ware store, gas stations, restaurants, etc. It is where the new Shinkansen line will stop. But for your purposes (skiing as much as possible), it is not a good place to be.
One mountain, several resorts
Us Catholics have this cool “One God, three forms” thing going on. Niseko is kind of similar. There is one mountain, Mount Annupuri. Unlike our mountains here in the States, which tend to be one or two peaks in a range of similarly sized mountains, Mount Annupuri is a dormant volcano, rising like a cone up from flat terrain. Back in the day, four different resorts built small ski areas on different “slices” of this mountain. Even today, you can buy a ski pass that gives you access to just one of these slices. “Niseko United” is the consortium of all four resorts. To be honest with you, I still don’t really understand how this works, but no matter because you’ll have access to all of them with the days included on your IKON pass or similar.
Because the mountain is a cone, all the resorts connect at the top, allowing you to ski from one to the other. However, the bases are really far apart. It can be a 30 minute drive to get between them. And while there are free shuttles, once the ski day is over you can easily get stuck.
It’s hard to get around
If you can’t walk there, getting there will be a pain. There are resort-operated shuttles that take you between the different resort bases. There is a municipal bus that takes you from Hirafu to Kutchan but it runs very infrequently. Cabs exist, but there are not many of them so in peak season you actually may not be able to hire one. They are expensive, and they stop running around midnight (even though the bars stay open later). This is the main reason why you want to stay in Hirafu because if you stay anywhere else, you will have a really tough time getting around. This is also why you want to take the charter bus from the airport to the resort, as the train drops you off in Kutchan and it is hard for gaijin to get a cab from there.
One really great part about Niseko is the “slackcountry”. You can take lifts and go through designated “gates” to access out-of-bounds territory. This is where you’ll find the untouched pow that makes Niseko so legendary.
This area is unpatrolled by ski patrol and it’s not under avalanche control. Routes back to the lifts are not marked. While ski patrol will close the gates if the avalanche danger is extremely high, it is no substitue for avi training and proper equipment. However, this rule was never enforced and you saw tons of Jerrys hitting the gates and doing stupid things. This will be changing. Starting in the 20/21 season, you will need a beacon and a helmet to go through the gates. Of course, you should also carry a shovel and probe. Probably best to bring this from home as rentals will be expensive.
I would also recommend hiring a guide your first day to show you some of the hidden, locals-only spots AND to show you how to navigate back to the lifts.
Best places in Hirafu
While Niseko is home to world-class powder, one of the best parts about Niseko is the awesome nightlife. There are tons of tiny bars where you can pack in, rub shoulders with people from all over the world. It’s a great place to meet locals who can give you the inside scoop or network with filthy rich people. Here are some of my favorite places:
- Elvis Kebab—Elvis sells delicious kebabs out of a small shack on the main road. Cool guy who’s been doing it for years, and the kebabs are tasty.
- Tikka Masala wrap—Taj Mahal is an Indian restaurant in Niseko, but they also have a food truck on the main drag
- Karaage—eating the fried chicken from the convience stores is a rite of passage for any first-timer to Japan. Just like NC BBQ or college basketball, you gotta pick a favorite and defend your choice to an unreasonable degree.
- The Cabin—amazing meat pies. The owners are super cool and love Niseko, it’s worth stopping in and having a chat. Also home to a gin-based bar.
- JoJos @ NAC—great burger combo, one of the more affordable meals in the area
- Sandwich truck—in the food truck area on the main drag there is this sandwich truck with sandwiches that are out of this world. I don’t know the name but when you walk through the little food truck court you’ll definitely see it and know what I’m talking about.
- Niseko Sanroku Parlor—a bit out of the way, the best way to get here from Hirfau is to ski over to Niseko Village then walk about 5 minutes to the restaurant but it’s worth it. Great sandwiches.
Barunba—this bar is tiny, so there’s a good chance you might not be able to get in. If you do, there are only three cocktails you should get: the Jet Li (small), the Bruce Lee (large), or the Bruce Willis (huge, and discontinued for people’s safety). These drinks are strong but so, so tasty. A great place to get the night started.
Wild Bills—quite simply one of the most legendary bars I’ve ever had the pleasure of frequenting. I saw people getting tattooed on the pool tables, the filming of an exhibitionist porno, and everyting in between. Given they have an event almost every night, including good DJs and trivia nights, it’s has one of the more consistent crowds in town, especially later at night.
Tamashii—tends to be more of a dance club later in the night. Another popular place for locals. Sometimes a cover charge is required for entry.
Bigfoot Bunker—not quite as big of a party bar as Wild Bills or Tamashii due to its size, but I really liked the staff and it was a favorite hangout spot of staffers when I was there.
Bar Gyu—often to referred to as “Fridge bar” because the door is a fridge, this is an expensive whiskey bar. I actually never got here but a lot of tourists were excited to check it out.
Sightseeing in Hokkaido
If you have time, I would definitely recommend checking out Sapporo, the largest metropolis on the Hokkaido island and one of the largest cities in Japan. I found decent hotels to be super cheap ($30/night). Navigate the city using the underground pedistrian space to stay warm while covering a ton of ground. The #1 thing I would recommend here is the Sapporo Beer Garden where you can get all-you-can-drink Sapporo beer and all-you-can-eat “Genghis Khan”, a specialty of Hokkaido where you cook lamb on a metal skilet at the table. Super fun vibes, a favorite of the local college students. Speaking of the local college students, I ended up hanging around Hokkaido University which had a surprisingly leafy and “American”-style campus despite being in a major city. If you come late in the season, you might be able to catch a Hokkaido Fighters baseball game, which is quite a sight.
Otaru probably the closest city to Niseko. A port city located right on the Sea of Japan, there’s awesome sushi and other seafood and pretty interesting architecture. It’s a good day trip from Niseko. You can actually ski (!!!) from the peak of Mount Annupuri to Otaru, but I just took the train from Kutchan.