“Japan never considers time together as time wasted. Rather, it is time invested.”- Donald Richie, A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan
If you want to snowboard on a volcano, if you are tired of artificial snow and craving powder. Go to Japan! Believe it or not, on a bad winter in Niseko, they still get 18 meters of snow.
It was a bad winter when I did a season there in 2015. No snow in November and almost none at the start of December. The resort didn’t open until the second week and the coverage was pitiful.
But it all changed after Christmas. It dumped and didn’t stop until the end of February. Perhaps a one day break of sunshine in between. The day that every instructor squinted their eyes in horrid disbelieve.
There is something surreal about snowboarding in Japan. The never ending snow, the woods you duck in between the slopes, sushi and ramen and onsens where it’s obligatory being naked with fellow swimmers.
In November I was on a plane off to Sapporo on Hokkaido, Japans north island. If you want to find the best conditions for snowboarding, Hokkaido is the place to be. There are snow resorts all over the island. Most known is Niseko, south-west of the island.
I was on a mission there. My great season in 2015, working as a housekeeper in Wanaka, New Zealand had left me slightly suicidal. The plan was to improve my chances in getting a job next winter on a ski field. The plan was to become an instructor. I had some budget at the end of the New Zealand winter season, so I decided to invest it in a training and follow my dream of snowboarding in Japan. Niseko Academy offered the SBINZ snowboard instructors training I needed.
This is not a post about my instructor training. I will write a post about my training in the future, so keep an eye out for that! This is a post about the Niseko United snow resort.
The best and easy way to get to Niseko is to take a shuttle from the airport. When I arrived in November though, the shuttles weren’t operational yet since they only start during the busy period, December. Luckily Japanese public transport is easy enough to get you where you need to go! Trains get you anywhere for the price of a sushi roll.
The train leaves from the airport to Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido. There I needed to transfer on the train to Kutchan. There is a station in Niseko but it’s in the middle of nowhere. Not a good idea to go there. Kutchan is only a 10 minute drive from Hirafu.
From Kutchan station there are shuttle buses going up to Hirafu. They also continue to the 3 other towns that make up the Niseko United snow resort: Hanazono, Niseko and Annupuri. The 4 areas are connected at the top of the mountain.
Lift ticket prices can be found on the Niseko United website. A season pass goes for ¥115 600. It is expensive, but that gives you a lot of area to play on.
Grand Hirafu and Hanazono
The grandest town in the grandest snow resort. This is where all the bars and restaurants are. Everything is walking distance but if you are feeling lazy bum, then the bus can spare you the 10 minutes uphill walk. Or take the kiddy lift going up the bunny slope. Lines get crazy here starting Christmas holidays and don’t really get any better for the rest of the season.
Staying here is expensive. It’s a full on resort town meaning get your pack of spaghetti noodles for 2 days of wage in the local convenience store. But most of the action happens here. Head down to the Jazz Bar & Cafe Half Note for some excellent Sake. They have live concerts on, so pop in to see what’s on.
At the bottom of the slope is the Niseko Alpen Hotel that has a pool and spa pool. It’s communal so a bathing suit is necessary. Closer to town in the Niseko Prince Hotel is an Onsen. Ladies and gents separated so it’s a clothes off spa. Entry fee in the Prince Hotel onsen is only ￥800. Perfect for tired muscles after a full day of riding.
Snowboarding Grand Hirafu and Hanazono
There is a big variety of easy and open slopes. Take the gondola and combine it with the next chairlift, for an easy descend down Holiday. The slope gets pretty narrow and flat at the bottom, so watch out for zigzagging skiers.
At the right side of the gondola is a gate that takes you through a forest and down to a black diamond called Miharashi. It doesn’t get groomed throughout the season, so make sure you’re standing solid on your board.
At the bottom, close to the Hirafu Mountain Center is the Free Ride Park. Rails and Kickers that will keep you busy when you’re not riding powder.
Snowboarding towards Hanazono there are a few easy gates where you can duck in between the trees. Especially when there is fresh powder (which is pretty much every day), the riding there is epic.
Hungry? Head down from the Gondola to Boyo-So cafe. The restaurant is tiny so it’s possible you will have to wait for some seats. But the food is excellent and worth waiting for.
The name is misleading, even though Niseko United is the name of the resort, Niseko village is tiny compared to Hirafu. The Hilton is located there with a gondola that leaves right at the hotel, the night skiing is awesome and the Hilton restaurants serve great food.
To get here from Hirafu you can take the Ace Quad Lift #2 Center 4 combined with the Ace Pair Lift #3 and then walk over to the Niseko Village ski area. Or take the shuttle bus and it will drop you off at the Hilton.
Snowboarding Niseko Village
The fun here is in the slopes. Because the Hilton Gondola goes so high, it is a long way down. There are some intermediate runs where you can drop in from the easy slope. The black diamond runs all the way from the top of the gondola down to the bottom.
I loved to come down here after dinner with the bus and snowboard the slopes during night time. It is so quiet, it gives the whole experience something magical. You can take the gondola up from the Hilton and then the rest of the way down is all butterflies and unicorns.
Annupuri is the ski area on the end of the shuttle line. There is not much of a town near the slopes. I went there once, thinking it would at least have a nice cafe to hang out in. Not really, there is not much there. The main hub is just at the bottom of the mountain.
The Niseko Northern Resort has a great All-You-Can-Eat buffet. Or try out Nook, another restaurant down from the hotel, where you can pick your dish from an electronic menu. The food is Western-Japanese and delicious!
Annupuri is a great place to snowboard. On a good day you can board there passing over the top of the mountain from Niseko or Hirafu. Or you can take the shuttle but it takes about an hour.
Again, the gated areas is where you want to go in Annupuri. The gondola is painstakingly slow though. It takes a full 20 minutes to get you to the top of the mountain. Annupuri has some great open tree sections where you can practice your tree riding. The lift lines here are shorter which means more ride time and less people on the slopes.
Kutchan is 10 minutes from Hirafu and the town closest to the resort. I lived here during the time I was in Niseko. Most instructors who work in Hirafu lived here because of rent being cheaper. It’s a real Japanese town, with supermarkets, a station and people living there permanently.
The restaurants are more reasonably priced compared to Hirafu. For the best sushi, the Sushi Train (Top Notch Kaiten) is the place to be! Located on the main road. For ramen and other traditional Japanes food, just pop in a restaurant close to the Kutchan station. The best coffee is no doubt Sprout Cafe, make sure to try some of their baked goods. They are delicious!
If you’re tired of Japanese food and craving for a Western style sandwich, White Rock Bakery has the best bread in town. They are a bit tricky to find, get a 360Niseko dining guide and find them on the map.
During the season there is a shuttle leaving for Hirafu almost every 15 minutes from the station.
Believe it or not there is a ski hill in Kutchan. Compared to Niseko, it is just a baby slope. Nevertheless, I had great fun there while I was injured. It’s really cheap, about ¥100 for a day pass. The wide open slope makes it perfect to practice tricks and there are zero lines. When there’s fresh snow, you pretty much have the whole hill to yourself.
Snowboarding around Niseko
If you’ve spend a few weeks riding the slopes of Niseko United and craving for a change of scenery, there is plenty to do around the mountain. Thanks to awesome Japanese public transportation, options are secured! Go heli-boarding or climb Mt. Yotei with one of the Niseko guiding companies. Or go snowboard at Rusutsu, a ski hill only half an hour from Niseko.
Cat skiing and Heli-boarding
Experiencing powder on the Niseko slopes is one thing. Having an entire run of ungroomed terrain to yourself is another. Hokkaido Backcountry Club offers backcountry tours, cat skiing and heli-skiing if you have a bigger budget to spend. There is also the NAC with the same offer of activities. There office is located in Hirafu, together with an indoor climbing wall and a cafe. They have a really good mountain gear shop with backpacks, gloves, everything you need for winter.
When riding down the slopes in Niseko, you can’t take your eyes of this Japanes giant across the valley. Getting to the top and back takes a whole day. Expect a climb of 3 to 5 hours with a vertical of 1500 meters. But with a run of 5 km it is well worth it. Besides, how many times in your life will you ever snowboard down a volcano?
When going up, make sure you have a guide and are trained for the backcountry. You need to be fit for the long climb. There are plenty of mountain guides around the four towns of Niseko United that do guided tours up Yotei. Just go in and ask.
30 minutes from Niseko village is Rusutsu snow resort. It is smaller in size, with only 37 runs. Big crowds stay around Niseko so on a weekday you might have the slopes all to yourself. There is a shuttle that stops at Hirafu and goes to Rusutsu daily, it also stops in Kutchan. If you want to stay the night, there are 2 resort hotels right at the slopes. Otherwise there are some lovely pensions and houses where you can stay with locals.
While I was doing my snowboard instructor course in Japan, I took a side trip to Phoenix Park, South-Korea. If you want to know all about snowboarding in a Korean ski resort, read my blog post about it here.
I spend three and a half months living in Kutchan. During which I passed my level one exam and became a certified snowboard instructor. Thanks to that and my level one ski instructor certification, I was hired in the winter of 2016 for Ohau ski fields in New Zealand. I am still instructing snowboarding around the world and plan to do so in the future.
Japan was an amazing place to ride, because of powder and the culture. I recommend it to anybody who loves snow sports to experience it!
I hope to return to Japan and work as a snowboard instructor in the distant future. Until then, arigatou gozaimasu Japan!