Niseko has fast emerged as the premiere ski destination in Asia. Known for offering the best powder on the planet, Niseko is made up of four interconnecting ski resorts located at the imposing Mount Annupuri. What was once the stomping ground of powder hounds travelling on a budget has been transformed into an enclave of luxury ski chalets and condos, with vibrant dining and nightlife paired with serene onsen hot springs and endless natural beauty.
The name “Niseko” refers to four interconnecting ski resorts which together make up Niseko United. Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village, Hanazono and Niseko Annupuri are all located at Mount Annupuri. Of the four, Grand Hirafu is arguably the most famous and also draws in the biggest grounds. Together, the four resorts offer varied terrain catering to skiers and snowboarders of all levels. The area has gone through major changes in the past decades and continues to evolve with global hotel and resort chains investing millions to the region.
The area’s unique climate means Niseko enjoys some of the driest, lightest powder in the world aptly described as “champagne powder.” This has made Niseko one of the most sought-after ski destinations around. World-class skiing paired with high-end accommodation and gourmet dining has earned Niseko the nickname “the Aspen of Asia.” Though Niseko is mainly known for its epic winter, the area is also starting to attract visitors during the summer months with activities ranging from mountain biking to world-class golfing and beyond.
History & Culture
Niseko is located in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands. The area has gone through rapid transformations during the past decades. Niseko’s first ski lifts were installed in the 1960s. The area was mostly favoured by domestic skiers until Australian powder hounds discovered Niseko in a big way starting in the late 1990s. Thanks to a constant stream of international visitors and a steady base of expats owning second homes in the area, Niseko has developed a unique character melding together the Japanese way of life and cosmopolitan influences.
Planning Your Trip to Niseko
Niseko is first and foremost a winter destination, with the main ski season spanning roughly from late November until early May. December through to February is the busiest time of year and sees the lifts, slopes and restaurants get packed on a daily basis. After the melt, things quiet down. There is, however, an increasing buzz around the summer months and many expats swear it was the green season that persuaded them to stay for good. Our Niseko travel guide aims to give you the essential information, list the most popular things to do in Niseko, provide more information on locations to visit and finish with some inspiration from our travel writers.
Life in Niseko is characterised by the four seasons. For the best chance of the best powder, you should plan on travelling between December – February, though this is also the busiest (and most expensive!) time to visit Niseko. You can typically also enjoy skiing in late November and from March through to early May, minus the crowds. During the summer months (from June to August), Niseko sheds is wintery whites for lush shades of green, with temperatures hovering around 20-25°c. For more information, check out our detailed guide to weather in Niseko.
Niseko comes to life during the winter months, with something fun and interesting happening throughout the ski season. After the snow melts, the crowds disperse and things quiet down significantly – you’ll even find restaurants closing down for the summer months. There are, however, a few festivals and events to liven up the green season, too.
Things To See & Do in Niseko
Niseko is famed for its endless powder and offers infinite thrills for avid powder hounds and those looking to try skiing and snowboarding for the very first time. Beyond the slopes, the area offers fun activities both during winter and after the melt, ranging from snow tubing to serene onsens and from mountain biking to world-class golfing. Though many travellers stay within the confines of the ski resorts, we strongly encourage you to explore further – the Hokkaido scenery is too beautiful to pass up on!
Niseko is surrounded by stunning natural landscape and rural Hokkaido countryside. The most famous landmarks which you simply cannot miss are Mount Yotei and Mount Annupuri – the latter is also home to all four of the Niseko United ski resorts. Here, we’ll give you an overview of each resort and a few other local highlights you should consider adding to your itinerary.
These four resorts make up Niseko United. Purchasing the Niseko United All Mountain Pass will give you access to lifts at all four resorts.
- Grand Hirafu – Most popular of the Niseko resorts, offering great beginner runs, night skiing and dining options.
- Hanazono – Great for families, with a big focus on comprehensive ski and snowboarding lessons.
- Niseko Village – Sunniest spot in Niseko. Owned by a single company, so feels like a private resort.
- Niseko Annupuri – Quieter than the other four, Annupuri offers easy access powder and quieter runs.
These two resorts are within a short drive from Niseko. They’re not part of Niseko United so you will need to purchase a separate lift pass for each resort.
- Moiwa – This small resort is located right by Niseko Annupuri, offering great powder and minimal crowds.
- Kiroro – Kiroro offers fresh powder and no lift lines, with lots of activities for adults and kids alike.
POINTS OF INTEREST
There is so much more to Hokkaido than just the ski resorts! Explore beyond the beaten path and experience all sides of this unique Japanese island. Our concierge team can arrange a private car and driver to take you around the region – here are a few local highlights you might consider visiting.
- Lake Toya – A beautiful volcanic lake located at the Shikotsu-Toya National Park and framed by Mount Usu, an active volcano.
- Sapporo – The largest city in Hokkaido with a population of 2 million, great for shopping, dining and entertainment.
- Otaru – A small costal city characterised by a well-preserved canal area and herring mansions harking back to the city’s heyday as an important fishing hub.
- Furano – Scenic region known for its lavender fields and high quality produce and dairy products.
After a long day of skiing, Niseko offers plenty of opportunity to relax and unwind. Soak yourself in an onsen, enjoy a rejuvenating massage or head out for a pint with your entourage – Niseko has it all.
Soaking your sore muscles worn out on the slopes in a traditional Japanese onsen is one of the great pleasures of travelling to Niseko. Onsens, or natural hot springs, are endemic in Japan thanks to volcanic activity in the country. In Niseko, you’ll find a handful of public onsens scattered across the ski resorts. The water is believed to have great healing properties and soaking in one makes for a very relaxing pastime. Visiting a public bath might seem daunting – for more information on what to expect, check out our guide to proper onsen etiquette.
Another great way to unwind after a long day of skiing is to treat yourself to a healing massage. Masseuses in Niseko focus on treating muscles worn out on the slopes, so you know you’re in good hands. You can get a massage at one of the handful shops in Hirafu or better yet, enjoy one in the privacy of your chalet. Our concierge team can arrange this for you.
Prep your body for the slopes by joining a Pilates class in the heart of Hirafu Village. Guided by internationally qualified instructors, the classes are designed to tone your body, improve your posture and to get you ready to hit the slopes like never before. Don’t fret about the logistics – our concierge team can organise a Pilates class for you.
Tours & Activities
Most people head to Niseko to enjoy the slopes and with good reason – the area offers some of the best powder snow on the planet. The Niseko United All Mountain Pass will provide you access to all four ski resorts, meaning you can hop between resorts as you please. All four resorts offer fantastic ski schools and private lessons for adults and kids alike, allowing first timers to try out the sport safely and for seasoned skiers to take their skills to the next level.
Besides skiing and snowboarding, Niseko offers a whole array of other fun filled winter activities. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are great ways to explore the surrounding nature at your own pace, while snowmobiling and snow biking offer a more thrilling ride through the powder. Snow tubing is a super fun activity suitable for the whole family – simply hop in a tube and slide down the mountain!
Though most people head to Niseko to experience that famous japow during the winter months, the area also offers fun activities and beautiful scenery during the summer. After the snow melts, Niseko reveals its lush green charms and outdoor enthusiasts get to enjoy activities like mountain biking, world-class golfing and fly fishing, all surrounded by pristine Hokkaido landscape.
Eating & Drinking
Since the area has taken off like a rocket, Niseko has developed a thriving dining scene. Hirafu Village in particular is dotted with mouth-watering dining options ranging from local izakaya pubs to the Michelin starred Kamimura. Niseko Village mainly offers high-end dining options in keeping with the resort’s elite feel, while Hanazono and Niseko Annupuri tend to offer more casual options. As life in Niseko is very much seasonal, many of the most sought-after restaurants get booked out months in advance so if you’re looking to try out a specific venue during peak dates, it’s important to plan ahead! Another quirk of dining in Niseko is that some of the restaurants close their doors as the ski season winds down. For ultimate indulgence, our team can also organise a private chef to prepare a Japanese feast in your chalet.
The island of Hokkaido has developed a unique, much lauded food culture and the area is known for offering some of best seafood, fresh produce and dairy products in Japan. Here are just some of the local specialities you should to try when you’re visiting Niseko.
Hokkaido is famous for its ramen, with different regions of the island offering a unique take on this iconic noodle dish. This hearty dish is perfect for slurping on those cold Niseko nights – don’t be shy, slurping your noodles is actually considered polite in Japan! Roughly speaking, there are three main types of ramen in Hokkaido, each relating to a city: Sapporo (miso based ramen), Hakodate (clear, salty broth) and Asahikawa (seafood based soup with soy sauce). Pick out a favourite – or sample all three.
Donburi is a popular Japanese rice bowl dish. The dish usually includes a mix of fish, meat and vegetables served over steaming white rice. In Hokkaido, one of the most popular donburi dishes is kaisen don, a fresh seafood and sashimi rice bowl. The exact toppings will vary from restaurant to restaurant, but salmon, crab and sea urchin are popular choices.
A hearty bowl of curry is just what the doctor ordered after a long day out in the snow. Soup curry is a Japanese take on curry, with a hearty bowl of rich broth, vegetables, spices and herbs served with rice.
Genghis Khan or Jingisukan is a popular lamb barbecue dish endemic to Hokkaido. In fact, Hokkaido is one of the only parts of Japan where lamb and mutton are consumed in large quantities. The grilled lamb is served with an assortment of veggies and a special sauce giving the dish its rich flavour.
Hokkaido is known for its delectable seafood and one of the absolute must-trys here is the crab. You’ll find crabs prepared in a variety of ways – you can have it raw as sashimi, enjoy it in a hearty donburi bowl, have it grilled… Getting hungry yet? Lucky for skiers, Hokkaido crabs are said to be at their best during winter.
Surrounded by all that snow, ice cream might be the last thing on your mind – but hear us out! Hokkaido is known for producing some of the best milk in Japan. This provides Hokkaido soft serve ice cream its delicious taste and texture. You can try traditional flavours or opt for something a little more outlandish. The best place to try Hokkaido ice cream is directly at a dairy farm, such as the iconic Milk Kobo close to Niseko Village.
Drinking & Nightlife
Niseko’s nightlife follows the ski season – during the peak powder dates, things are festive and lively while after the melt, not that much is happening. During peak season, Hirafu Village is the undeniable heart of Niseko’s nightlife with a vibrant mix of Japanese and Western influences. While clubbing as such doesn’t really exist in Niseko, you can spend a wild night out at a lively bar or settle for a long dinner at a local izakaya accompanied by pints of cold Sapporo beer. During the peak dates, nightlife in Hirafu can get quite rowdy – which is something to keep in mind if you’re considering staying in the very heart of town and still getting a good night’s sleep! Another fun way to spend a night out on the town is to do some karaoke in the neighbouring town in Kutchan – it’s simply a must in Japan!
Niseko comprises four ski resorts, all located on Mount Annupuri. Grand Hirafu is the most popular of the four resorts and can be divided into three areas: the upper, middle and lower village. You’ll find the ski lifts in the upper village, most restaurants and pubs are in the middle village, while the lower village offers a more residential feel and houses a lot of the more luxurious accommodation.
Driving north from Hirafu Village, you’ll pass by Izumikyo, a more relaxed area offering plenty of accommodation options within easy reach of the action. Continuing your drive about 15 minutes or so, you will reach the Hanazono ski resort. Hanazono offers slopes to suit levels along with comprehensive ski schools and fun activities for the whole family. From Hirafu, Izumikyo and Hanazono it’s only a short drive to the town of Kutchan where you can stock up on groceries or spend a fun night out belting out karaoke tunes.
Driving south from Hirafu Village, you’ll pass by the residential area of St. Moritz with chalets offering easy access to Hirafu. Continuing your drive, you’ll reach Niseko Village. This resort is owned by a single company, giving the area the elite feel of a private resort. The next resort over is Niseko Annupuri, which offers easy access powder and smaller crowds. Niseko Annupuri is neighboured by the petite Moiwa ski resort which while located at the same mountain as the other four resorts is not a part of Niseko United. To ski here, you will need a separate lift pass from the Niseko United All Mountain Pass.
There are over 100 Ministry Approved chalets in Niseko. Niseko chalets range from around USD $300 per night for a two-bedroom chalet to over USD $2,000 per night for a six-bedroom luxury chalet. Many high-end chalets come with amazing luxury facilities, including private onsens, gyms, custom ski rooms, family-friendly bunk rooms, wine cellars and more.
The closest airport is New Chitose Airport (CTS), located in the metropolitan Sapporo area about 110 kilometres from Niseko. This international airport can be reached with direct flights from destinations including Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney and Helsinki (note that the latter two are seasonal connections only available during the ski season). Airlines flying to New Chitose include ANA, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Finnair, Jetstar and more.
Currently, nationalities from 68 countries are entitled to a 90-day visa on arrival to Japan. This means there is no need to apply for a visa beforehand – your passport will simply be stamped on arrival. For other nationalities, you will need to obtain a visa before entering Japan.
As the airport is located over 100 kilometres from Niseko, it’s good to arrange your arrival transfers prior to landing. Whether you prefer to take the bus or opt for private transfers, our concierge team can arrange this for you, taking all the hassle out of logistics.
The most affordable option for reaching Niseko from the airport is by bus. There are several bus companies offering transfers from the airport to Niseko and our concierge team can organise this for you. The bus counters are located at the airport – simply follow the signage as you exit the terminal and look for the bus company indicated on the documents you were issued upon booking. This being Japan, the busses leave on time so you should be at the designated point at least 10 minutes early. The bus ride to Niseko takes about three hours, with a 20-minute toilet and snack break at the halfway point. Most busses offer a few different stops in Niseko, including Hirafu Welcome Centre and the Hilton in Niseko Village. From these stops, you’ll either be collected by your accommodation (make sure to check if this service is included beforehand) or you can get a taxi – there is a taxi office right next to the Hirafu Welcome Centre. For more information, check out our guide for getting from Chitose Airport to Niseko by bus.
PRIVATE AIRPORT TRANSFERS
For the most comfortable ride possible, our team can arrange private airport transfers for you and your group. This will bring you from New Chitose directly to your accommodation in Niseko in the comfort of your own private vehicle.
There are a few options for getting around Niseko. Here, we’ve ranked them according to our recommendations for first-time travellers.
The easiest way to get to and from the slopes is by hopping on a free shuttle bus. There are three shuttles operating in Niseko: Niseko United Shuttle Bus (connecting Niseko Annupuri, Niseko Village and Grand Hirafu), Hanazono Shuttle Bus (runs between Hirafu Village and Hanazono) and Grand Shuttle Bus (the local shuttle in Hirafu Village). All three have clearly marked stops and they run regularly during the ski season. For more information, check out our detailed guide for getting around Niseko by bus.
Depending on where you’re staying, you can also make your way around on foot. Hirafu Village is generally easy to navigate on foot, though reaching the ski lifts does mean a bit of an uphill climb from the lower village. A seemingly short walk might also take longer than expected with bulky ski boots on. During the peak season when traffic can get congested, walking is often the best way to reach the nearest restaurant if you’re staying locally in Hirafu Village. Just remember to dress warmly; keep in mind the streets can get very slippery and watch out for snow and ice falling from the roofs!
Metered taxis are readily available in Niseko, particularly in Hirafu Village where you can usually hail one down the street – though taxis can be in short supply during peak season. Rates depend on the size of the vehicle and start at around JPY 550 (USD $5) for the first kilometre or so for a maximum of four passengers. Drivers will often speak little English, so it’s good to have the name and map of where you’re going written down, preferably in Japanese.
If you are a confident driver with prior experience of navigating snowy conditions, renting your own car can be a great way to explore Niseko. To rent a car in Japan, you must have an international driver’s licence or obtain a Japanese driving licence. If you don’t have experience of driving on icy roads in the snow, we don’t recommend renting a car in Niseko during winter.
Japanese people are generally very polite and welcoming and the local culture places great value on following etiquette and customs. Though Niseko has been heavily westernised, it’s still important to have respect for the local culture and customs. As always, it’s more important to remain kind and respectful than it is to follow every little rule. Here, we give an overview of the basics.
Tipping is not customary in Japan and thus, it’s really not expected. In fact, any tips you try to leave might simply cause confusion or they might be turned down altogether!
When it comes to fashion in wintertime Niseko, one trend trumps all others: bundle up! It’s very important to keep warm in the cold weather, so make sure you dress accordingly when out and about. It’s nice to look good but it’s more important to stay warm! Always remove your shoes when entering a home, chalet or hotel room. Most accommodation will offer slippers to wear indoors.
One of the most unique experiences one can have in Japan is visiting an authentic onsen hot spring. Before you jump in headfirst, remember that certain rules apply when visiting these public baths. First, tattoos are traditionally a big no-no in Japan, so perhaps reconsider if you’re in a more rural area and are sporting some visible ink. Most onsens have separate sections for men and women. You enter the water naked, so you should shower thoroughly before getting in and you should never let your towel touch the water. For more information, check out our detailed guide to onsen etiquette.
Health & Safety
Like the rest of Japan, Niseko is generally very safe and crime is very rare. Most accidents happen on icy roads and due to weather conditions. To stay safe on the slopes, be sure to follow the Niseko Rules. The advice provide here is a general guide only and does not replace the advice of a doctor.
Niseko International Clinic is located in Izumikyo just outside Hirafu Village. The clinic can treat most sports injuries, including fractures, dislocations and sprains, with English speaking physicians available. For more serious injuries and medical conditions, the nearest hospital, Kutchan Kosei General, is located in the neighbouring town of Kutchan. Medical care in Japan is of the highest international quality and can get very expensive very fast. Ensure your travel insurance will cover you.
Located at Hirafu 188 in Upper Hirafu, Sapporo Drug Store offers over the counter medicine, sports tapes and braces. Otherwise, Niseko International Clinic also has its own pharmacy.
SNOW AND ICE
Most accidents in Niseko happen due to weather conditions. When you’re out on the slopes, always follow the Niseko Rules to stay safe. Don’t drive if you haven’t experienced driving in the snow before. When you’re out and about walking, keep in mind the streets can get very slippery and watch out for snow and ice falling from the roofs.
Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and theft is very rare in Niseko, too. That being said, petty theft can occur so it’s good to keep an eye on your belongings and not to leave your skis or snowboard unattended. Otherwise, take the same precautions you would in any urban area.
Need to Know
Japanese Yen (JPY) is the local currency and overall, cash is king in Niseko. While most larger venues have started accepting credit cards, some smaller restaurants and shops still might not. ATMs are also in short supply, so it’s good to plan ahead. There is one international ATM in Hirafu Village (located inside the Shiki Niseko building) and at the time of writing, none in Hanazono, Niseko Village and Niseko Annupuri. The lesson? Always carry some yen with you! In Japan, money is usually not passed directly from hand to hand but instead placed in a small tray at the cashier.
Japanese is the native language spoken by locals but English is widely used in Niseko. During the ski season, most of the seasonal staff are foreigners so getting by with English will not be a problem. Once you head outside the ski resorts to more rural areas, Japanese reigns supreme. Even in Niseko, you might come across situations where only Japanese will do, say when conversing with a taxi driver with limited English. In these situations, it’s good to plan ahead and have your destination and map at the ready in Japanese.
Good morning = Ohayou gozaimasu
Good afternoon / Hello = Konnichiwa
Good evening = Konbanwa
Good night = Oyasumi nasai
Thank you = Arigatou gozaimasu
You’re welcome = Dou itashimashite
How are you? = O-genki desu ka?
I’m fine = Genki desu.
Yes = Hai
No = Iie
Excuse me = Sumimasen
Sorry = Gomen nasai
1 = Ichi
2 = Ni
3 = San
4 = Shi
5 = Go
6 = Roku
7 = Shichi
8 = Hachi
9 = Ku
10 = Juu
20 = Nijuu 30 = Sanjuu
100 = Hyaku 200 = Nihyaku
Do you speak English? = Eigo wo Hanasemasu ka?
I don’t understand. = Wakarimasen.
Help! = Tasukete!
Be careful! = Ki o Tsukete!
No problem! = Kamaimasen!
Niseko has a population just shy of 5,000, with foreign residents making up around 10% of the population. The area has one of the fastest growing populations in Japan where a declining population has become a national concern.
Japan’s country code is +81. Data speeds of 3G and faster is the norm across Japan. To use the local mobile networks, you will need an unlocked phone which can access 3G or 4G networks. You can pre-order a local prepaid SIM card and pick it up on arrival at the airport or simply purchase one once you land. This is the easiest option as there is limited opportunity for picking up a SIM card once in Niseko. Another alternative is to hire a portable pocket Wi-Fi which you can also pre-book and pick up at the airport. Many of the restaurants and practically all accommodation in Niseko offer free Wi-Fi. Once you head outside the ski resorts, finding free access points will become harder.
Niseko follows Japan Standard Time, which is nine hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) / Universal Time.
Travel insurance is absolutely essential for every traveller. A typical travel insurance policy will have coverage for a traveller’s main concerns, including trip cancellations, medical emergencies, travel delays, and lost luggage. Most policies are built to be comprehensive to protect travellers from a variety of events that may cause financial loss before or during their trip. Some policies specifically exclude ‘dangerous activities’ so be sure to check what is covered in your policy.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at World Nomads and you can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Niseko has evolved into a cosmopolitan ski mecca, characterised by the best powder on the planet. When we’re not busy on the slopes, our team loves exploring all the new restaurants and fabulous new chalets popping up all over Niseko. Check out our latest Niseko blog posts written by experienced Ministry of Villas travel writers.