If you know what you’re doing in Japan, it can make the difference between the trip of a lifetime and a week of scratching your head trying to find the cool stuff. Luckily, for a first-timer headed to Niseko, there are plenty of insider ways to experience Japanese skiing and culture.
Niseko is actually a broad term that can be used to refer to the Niseko prefecture, the town of Niseko (which is actually some distance from the ski areas), and, perhaps most importantly, a reference to Niseko United, a collection of four ski areas clustered around the base of a single volcanic cone. The four ski resorts are Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu, and Hanazono. A Niseko United pass is your ticket to skiing at all four (and to a bus service that connects the resorts’ base areas).
While the last two decades have seen major growth in Australian, New Zealand, and North American skiers spending a season—or years—embedded in Niseko, there is still a ton of authentic Hokkaido-specific culture to be found in restaurants, onsens, izakayas, and beyond. Somoza, for example, is a quick ride from the base of Hanazono and features a gallery, locally sourced food, and a new Ryokan-style hotel.
While most North Americans might not be hopping over to Japan this season to chase powder, ramen, and Sapporo Classic-fueled fantasies, skiers have an opportunity to stay local and save money to make an extended stay happen when travel bans are lifted. After all, the longer you stay in Japan, the more authentic it becomes. That might be why there are so many Australians, Kiwis, and North Americans choosing to expatriate and live in Hokkaido full-time.
While most North Americans might not be hopping over to Japan this season to chase powder, ramen, and Sapporo Classic-fueled fantasies, skiers have an opportunity to Stay local and save money to make an extended stay happen when travel bans are lifted.
Remember, when you do finally visit Niseko, each ski area’s base has a lot going for it in terms of food, culture, and accommodations, and each warrants visitor attention. Hiring local ski guides and booking accommodations through a company like Ski.com is a great idea for starters, but taking the time to explore each unique resort and their hotspots by night make for a true Japanese experience and the ski trip you’ve been dreaming about.
Here are some of our picks on what to do, see, eat, drink, and more in Niseko.
A short ride from the base of Hanazono, Somoza takes reservations for lunch or experiential dinners, both of which are designed to tell stories through local food. Take time to check out artist and photographer Shouya Grigg’s art collection downstairs. It’s an enlightening gallery that combines historical relics and modern art from around Hokkaido.
Eat: Asahikawa Ramen Tozanken
On the main drag of Grand Hirafu, Asahikawa Ramen’s key draw is its rich wheat noodles, made entirely with local ingredients. Farming is the pride of the region in the non-winter months, and the rich flavor of the noodles and broth at this winter-only restaurant draws a line out the door every night.
Sleep: Zaborin Ryokan
Most Hanazono hotel options are top-tier, but the Zaborin Ryokan is a cut above. The luxury hotel offers classic Japanese traditions, including private indoor and outdoor onsens, in-room dining service, and a space for tea ceremonies. Don’t miss the foot onsen in the courtyard and a bar with one of the best views in Niseko.
Go Deeper: More Niseko Travel Tips
Ask your hotel to make reservations at least a day in advance for this out-of-the-way, intimate dining experience near Grand Hirafu. Going into its 14th year, Ebisutei’s constantly evolving menu offers a variety of flavors and food from around Hokkaido that’s sure to impress every visitor. Don’t miss the kinky fish and the vinegared mackerel (shime saba).
Drink: Toshiro’s Bar
Located in the Yumoto Niseko Prince Hotel in Grand Hirafu, Toshiro’s might not be as famous as Bar Gyu (a.k.a. the Refrigerator Door bar) but it does have the best cocktails in Hokkaido. Our pick? The Smoked Penicillin is a peated whiskey mixer “smoked” with local charred cherry blossom wood. A feast for the eyes, mouth, and nose.
Sleep: The Green Leaf Niseko
While much of the Niseko Village base area feels dated, The Green Leaf offers a more modern setting. The rooms have great views of the ski area or the hulking Mt. Yotei, and the breakfast spread is sure to keep the hungriest skiers full. Make time for the onsen, with options for both indoor and outdoor soaking.
Local Tip for Niseko
Matt Hampton, Owner of outdoor gear outfitter Rhythm Japan: “Walk into random restaurants. In my experience there are no bad restaurants in Japan. Just pick one and try everything on the menu. Eating out in Japan is part of the culture, so don’t be afraid to try it all!”
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This article was originally published in the January/February 2021 issue of SKI.