Niseko ski resort
Amazingly at the dawn of the 21st century almost no one had heard of Niseko, the Japanese ski resort located on the country’s most northerly island of Hokkaido. However, over the last ten years it has really made a name for itself.
The reason? The snow. Niseko gets more of it than almost anywhere else in the world, and, more importantly than volume, it is the light, fluffy stuff – perfect powder.
Once dominated by – predominantly Australian – powder hounds, Niseko has not rested on its laurels and has continued to evolve. Now, aside from its remarkable 15m (49ft) average snowfall, visitors can enjoy cultural delights from Onsen baths and superb sushi, to the stunning Mt Yotei, said to be a half scale replica of Mt Fuji, which dominates the view from the slopes.
Accompanying these attractions is a burgeoning scene of gourmet restaurants and quirky eateries that offer both traditional and international cuisine in some interesting settings.
It may have taken its time to accumulate the crowds, but with its winning combination of superb powder and strong cultural appeal, Niseko is only heading in one direction – up.
Niseko is on Japan’s main northern island of Hokkaido, about 100km (62 miles) west of the island’s capital Sapporo. It is based on Mount Niseko Annupuri and is part of the Niseko-Shakotan-Otaru Quasi National Park.
The three main resorts are spread around the mountain from east to west, with the main focus being the ski village of Hirafu at the base of Niseko Grand Hirafu. Kutchan, the area’s main access town with a railway station, is a few kilometres northeast of Hirafu.
On the slopes
The snow conditions here couldn’t be better, with practically guaranteed fresh powder (and lots of it) dumped each night affording a long season – from late November until early May.
With nearly 50km (31 miles) of groomed slopes and many more off-piste opportunities, there’s a ski run for everyone at Niseko. There are plenty of wide, open areas of gentle slopes for beginners as well as halfpipes, mogul fields, tree runs and tabletops for more experienced skiers and snowboarders. A single ski pass covers all of the local resorts, or it’s possible to buy individual tickets to each area.
The longest run is 5.6km (3.5 miles), which can be extended even further with a hike to the summit of Niseko Annupuri from the top chairlift. For those who prefer to get up the mountain quickly whilst protected from the elements, three gondolas glide to the upper slopes from each of the main bases. Skiers can really make the most of their on-slope time here, as night-time skiing sees lifts running until 2100 daily.
There is a variety of ski schools for beginners, while the more experienced can follow ski guides for backcountry adventures, including Telemarking and ice climbing – the large overseas population here ensures there are always English-speaking guides.
Hire of good equipment is readily available in the resort. Niseko Adventure Centre (tel: +81 136 232 093; www.nac-web.com) and Niseko Outdoor Adventure Sports Club (tel: +81 136 231 688; www.noasc.com), both in Hirafu, are a couple of reputable outfitters.