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Local’s Guide: Niseko

The top spots to check out on your dream skiing trip to Japan.

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Deep echoes of Taiko drums resonate from the street corner where six drummers beat traditional instruments the size of baby elephants with dramatic, high-reaching strokes. They alternate between deep bass of the drum, higher pitched strikes on the frame, and guttural shouts under snow-laden skies that never stop giving. A group has gathered to watch, pulled deeper into another era with each beat. It’s mesmerizing, to say the least, and just another moment in a day highlighting Niseko’s best—waist-deep snow, authentic ramen, and exotic Japanese whiskey, to name a few.

At first glance, Niseko seems modern and almost westernized. Gleaming new hotels and condos dot every block, ski shops hawk the same hot gear you’ve had your eye on all season, and you’ll have a better chance of overhearing a Kiwi accent on the street than a Japanese one.

The door to Bar Gyu+
The entrance to Bar Gyu+Photo courtesy of Bar Gyu+ / Glen Claydon

But looks can be deceiving. The influx of Australian natives to Niseko has made navigating an otherwise completely far-flung foreign land as easy as a vacation to Vail, while still offering authentic Japanese experiences. Around every corner are restaurants owned by the same families for generations, so thick with the smoke of cooking you’ll wonder after the health of your lungs by the time your first course arrives. There are also plentiful onsens and drumming rituals with roots in the fifth and sixth centuries. You’ll make the trip for the skiing and end up leaving with a lifetime’s worth of fascinating experiences.

Getting to Niseko

Skier in Niseko
The skiing is worth the journey.Photo credit: Crystal Sagan

Traveling to Niseko—the most popular resort on Japan’s northern island—is straightforward with the help of local experts Ski Japan. The Niseko-based agency has been in operation since 1992 and is Hokkaido’s largest inbound tour operator—making travel logistics a no-brainer—which is exactly what you want when traveling to Japan. Trust us.

Fly into New Chitose Airport in Sapporo where you’ll navigate to the Ski Japan welcome desk outside the doors of baggage claim. Once you check in at the desk you’ll be walked to a luxury tour bus for transport to Niseko. The easy 2.5-hour drive makes a pit stop along the way at the Japanese version of a truck stop where you’ll find authentic Japanese snacks—think rice balls stuffed with various adventurous fillings—and the full gamut of uniquely quirky gifts that could only be born of the Japanese.

Arrival into Niseko puts you at a transportation center where you’re greeted by smaller Ski Japan vans that take you directly to your lodging, all-in-all creating one of the most seamless travel experiences you could expect. Packages from Ski Japan are fully customizable and can include any combination of airport transfers, accommodations, lift tickets, rentals, ski school, tours and activities, VIP services, and travel insurance— offering plenty of options for different budgets and skiers of all abilities.

Get the Deal of the Century

When your friends brag about the great skiing in Niseko, what they actual mean is the skiing at Hana Zono, Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village, and Annupuri Ski Areas was phenomenal. The four ski areas can be collectively accessed via the Niseko United pass and together cover the better portion of 1,308-meter Niseko Annupuri mountain. 

Skiing four ski areas sound expensive, but get this: single day lift tickets run ¥7,400, or roughly $65 (!!) depending on conversion rates. Either way, when you factor the amount of freshies you’ll get into the mix the Niseko United pass is the deal of the century. Still not convinced? Last season (2017-2018) Niseko saw 55 feet and 100 days of snow— that’s so much snow that they don’t even own snow making guns.

All the Comforts of Home

Eating ramen in Niseko
Ramen, anyone?Photo credit: Crystal Sagan

If location is everything in real estate, Alpen Ridge wins the Gold. Located at the base of the Ace Family Chair, it’s just steps away from sushi, amazing ramen, grocery stores, rental shops, and shopping. The accommodations are so comfortable you’ll consider never leaving (we did). One- to three-bedroom apartments and four- to seven-bedroom penthouses are sleek and modern interpretations of mountain living that boast warm and inviting atmospheres. Kitchens come fully stocked with everything you’d need to prepare a few meals (save for the food), which comes in handy when you want to pop in for a quick lunch mid-day. 

Alpen Ridge’s front desk staff maintains a wealth of information for recommendations on all things local—from their favorite onsens to the best restaurants—and huge first-floor ski lockers keep your apartment free of snow-laden gear. In-unit laundry comes to the rescue to freshen up baselayers and ski socks, and the signature Japanese heated toilet seats will push you over the edge of falling in love. There’s nothing quite like a warm toilet seat to warm frigid cheeks after a long, cold day. Not one detail overlooked to help you make the most of your experience.

Gear You Actually Want to Ski

Rental gear can get a bad rap—to say it’s not typically the crème of the crop is being generous—but imagine you’ve traveled half way around the world to ski the kind of epic pow dreams are made of without lugging a ski bag. Niseko Base Snowsports makes it happen. Located on the main floor of the Alpen Ridge building, NBS has stocked such a legit quiver of skis you don’t even need to consider hauling your own. You’ll find the newest hot-ticket fat skis from Armada, Head, K2, and Line leaving you with nothing to worry about but finding a snorkel for the stupid deep snow.

Your Private Tour Guide

Niseko’s snow is legendary. Featured in pretty much every ski publication around the globe and countless ski flicks, it is literally what dreams are made of. With all of this coverage, Niseko is anything but a secret and these days skiers flock from abroad in throngs to get their piece of the #Japanuary pie, gobbling up pow quicker than you can say powder day. 

A local guide, well-versed in the many nooks and crannies of the four resorts that make up Niseko United, makes all the difference in finding unbelievable snow you (and everyone else) would otherwise miss. We skied waist-deep snow through open glades that was picture perfect and fantasy-like, but we would never have found it without our guide and Japanese ice cream enthusiast, Sven, to show us the way. It might seem like a splurge, but without direction you’re guaranteed to be missing a piece of the Japanese powder experience. Platinum Pro Guides are English speakers and full of secrets you’ll be lucky to get your hands on. 

Bonus: Guides will also keep you out of no-go zones with high consequences like unexpected cliffs and possible arrests for trespassing (yes, really).

Try the Other Local goods

The bar at Bar Gyu+
Don’t drink them all in one sitting.Photo courtesy of Bar Gyu+ / Glen Claydon

If you don’t know what you’re looking for there’s a solid chance you’d walk right by Bar Gyu+. The façade looks more like an oversized boulder than the hippest mountain town bar on the planet. Stepping inside the front door—a vintage refrigerator door you have to duck to fit through—transports you to an alternate dimension where Japanese whiskey is the language of love you didn’t know you’ve been searching for your entire life, opening a direct path to the depths of your soul. 

Read more: Whiskey Rising

Cozy tables are low to the ground and almost child-sized, lit exclusively by candlelight, and the bar is covered with exotic whiskeys you’d need months to work through. Behind the bar a picture window spans the width of the wall, with bountiful amounts of snow piled in drifts leaning against it contributing to a feeling of having found the only place in the world that matters. Hand-drawn (by the bar’s owner) cocktail and spirits menu adds a kitschy twist to a space whose details have been perfectly curated to feel as though the evolution of Bar Gyu+ has been completely organic. Take your bartender’s recommendation on where to start and come back night after night until you’ve worked your way through the menu.

Soak Like a Local

The Japanese ski experience isn’t complete without a visit to an onsen. The long-standing staple of Japanese culture was born of necessity in long-ago days where in-home plumbing was but a speck of a dream and onsens were a way to bathe and soak in the mineral-rich waters. 

The natural springs that dot the Japanese islands are today visited by both locals and visitors alike looking to take advantage of the benefits of soaking in the hot springs. Yukoro Onsen, a favorite of locals, is an easy walk from Alpen Ridge and boasts outdoor rock-lined pools (separate areas for men and women) where falling flakes meet rising steam while you soak. Leave your bathing suit behind to experience Yukoro Onsen like a local.

On-Mountain Dining to Write Home About Bo-yo-so

When you’re skiing in a snow globe lunch isn’t typically a top priority (cue Power Bar on the lift), but lunch in Japan? Definitely worth stopping for. Bo-yo-so is hidden in the trees of Grand Hirafu and hard to find, but for those who know the way, there is no other option. The cabin in the woods is owned and operated by a family that lives on the second floor, and if you’re lucky grandpa will take your order (you’ll want to point at things on the menu as his English is about as good as your Japanese) and mom and extended family will prepare it. Nothing tastes quite as good as authentic Japanese ramen mid-way through the best skiing of your life. 

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