Lifts & Terrain
Ski Niseko Hokkaido – Terrain Review & Ratings
Niseko Hokkaido is one of the largest, if not the largest, ski resort in Japan. Unlike lots of other Japanese ski resorts, there’s enough terrain variety (particularly if the side-country gates are open) to ski Niseko for a one to two week long holiday. Another characteristic that is somewhat unique for Japan is that the Niseko ski resort
has some above treeline terrain, although the attractiveness of this is weather dependent.
Like many other Japanese ski resorts the in-bounds terrain is not particularly steep and the Niseko skiing and snowboarding can be broadly summarised as “deep not steep”, with a variety of runs for beginners up to advanced riders, whilst experts will find some steep-ish pitches in the backcountry areas.
Of course the predominant feature of Niseko Hokkaido is snow, snow, and more snow! This is Japow at its finest!
The Niseko Ski Areas
The Niseko ski resort (aka Niseko United) has four major zones that are interconnected (for intermediates and above) via lifts and the slopes towards the top of the mountains. The An’nupuri
area has great groomed runs for beginners and intermediates and access to sidecountry skiing. The Niseko Village
ski area (formerly Higashiyama
) is largely a beginner and intermediate area, with a couple of black piste runs. Hirafu
has something on offer for everyone, whilst Hanazono
is good for tree skiing, sidecountry access, the best snow quality, and terrain park fun.
is inter-connected with Niseko United but it’s not considered part of the resort and has a separate lift ticket.
Niseko United has many many lifts. There is a gondola at An’nupuri and Niseko Village, and Hirafu. The Hirafu gondola has been replaced in recent years and it’s now roomy, delightfully fast and it can even fit fat skis in the racks. All the gondolas are an absolute godsend on bad-weather days, and the King #3 and Hanazono hooded chairs are also bliss.
Thankfully there are no surface tows, although there are a few slow single chair lifts that work reasonably well in the windy conditions. These are affectionately known as suicide chairs considering there are no safety bars! If the weather is particularly foul, even these lifts need to close. Once these top lifts are closed, access between Hirafu and An’nupuri is only possible via shuttle bus (or taxi).
Many of the lifts are open for night skiing. Unlike other ski resorts where night skiing is just for beginners, at Niseko the evenings are for powder hounds too. The area that is lit up is extensive so it’s possible to ski the Miharashi trees and other advanced areas, and sometimes the visibility is actually better at night time than during the day. After a little après ski action, it can be incredibly surreal bouncing around in the fresh powder under the lights. Be sure to wear a helmet!
Considering the lift ticket prices, it is somewhat disappointing that the only lift infrastructure that has been upgraded in many years is the Hirafu gondola. Whilst there are a handful of efficient lifts, many of the chairs are painfully slow and lift lines can be problematic, particularly in Hirafu. Thankfully for the 2016-17 season the King #3 triple will be upgraded to a high speed quad and 2 new lifts will be added to Niseko Village.
You can either buy a Niseko United ticket whereby the four zones of Niseko are accessible off the one lift ticket, or a cheaper single village ticket. The electronic ticket cards require a small deposit.
Lift tickets come in an array of configurations. A one day ticket or a multi-day ticket includes night skiing. There is also an 8 hour ticket which will suit many people, or you can purchase a chunk of hours by recharging your card online.
There is no financial advantage in pre-purchasing lift tickets and only small discounts on multi-day passes. You may wish to pay a little more and buy a ticket each day to give you the flexibility to undertake other Niseko activities
such as a day trip to a nearby resort, cat skiing, a backcountry tour, or go sightseeing. It’s also hard to predict if the weather may shut some of the lifts, or whether you’ll have the energy to go skiing every day!
You can check out prices and buy lift tickets here
Niseko Snow and Weather
Whatever the definition of “blower powder” is, the powder at Niseko is often even better! Even though it’s near the coast, the powder is generally incredibly light and dry (aka ego snow!). The Niseko snow falls in great volumes and is up there as the best powder in the world. No one can really agree on the average annual snowfall as there’s too much of it to keep track of, but it’s about 15-18 metres a season (19.5 metres in the 2014-15 season!).
The Siberian weather patterns that bring the fabulous snow also create the wind and the cold, so Niseko is often very chilly. Even with gondolas, hooded chairs and plenty of trees for protection, this is a place where you may need warm clothes, a neck warmer, face protection, and a hat or headband under your helmet. You might not get much of a chance to use sunglasses, and you won’t often see the great views of Mount Yotei in the height of winter, so take a photo opportunity when you can.
Even though the temps are usually very cold and the powder dry, like anywhere, there are also occasions when the temps rise and the snow turns to snot. Time to hit the groomers or the bars!
See the Niseko ski season
page for information on some of the pros and cons of visiting Niseko in different parts of the season.
Ski Niseko - Beginners
Beginners will largely be restricted to one resort unless they catch a shuttle bus to another area. All four areas have very good slopes for the novice as well as runs for the next progression. Hanazono has good first-timer areas serviced by magic carpets, whilst for more confident beginners, Hanazono has the least variety on offer.
At Hirafu, the aptly named Family is very popular with families and beginners, particularly for those staying at accommodation alongside this trail (e.g. The Vale Niseko
, Alpen Ridge
Niseko Skiing - Intermediates
Niseko is paradise for the intermediate skier or snowboarder. With long groomers and fantastic fall-line, there’s plenty to choose from. The challenge for intermediates that are not used to powder is that sometimes the powder is knee-deep on the groomed runs! This takes a little practice if you’re used to skiing ice or hard-packed snow, but it’s a great opportunity to learn to ride powder in relatively easy conditions.
Hirafu has the largest number of runs for intermediates, whilst Hanazono has very limited variety.
Hanazono is where it’s all happening for freestyle freaks. There are three terrain parks with jibs and jumps for beginners, intermediates and advanced riders, as well as a magic carpet serviced jump for the little tackers. Hanazono also has a bag jump where shredders can practise freestyle jumps without breaking bones. The Niseko physios must be spewing! And just to top off freestyle heaven, Hanazono has a proper half-pipe, the only one left in Hokkaido.
Advanced and Expert Skiing and Snowboarding - On-Piste
There are no super steep marked runs (ie piste) at Niseko for experts, but there are some reasonably pitchy runs on the Alpen Super Course and at Niseko Village for advanced riders. The black piste are generally ungroomed runs and considering it snows so much, the bumps tend to stay fairly small and soft.
Most advanced and expert riders ride off the piste and play in the powder.
Niseko Skiing Off-Piste
A huge plus for Niseko is that skiing and boarding off-piste and in the trees is permitted. You’re not allowed to duck ropes and there are some strictly out-of-bounds areas, but otherwise you can explore inside the resort boundaries to your heart’s content. In most off-piste areas the trees aren’t too tight, so it’s a place where you can easily improve your confidence in the powder.
There are many non-secret powder stashes including the Miharashi trees at the top of the Hirafu gondola, the King #3 trees, the tight trees in Blueberry Fields (left of Hanazono no.1 lift) and the more widely spaced trees in Strawberry Fields (right of Hanazono no. 1 lift).
Unfortunately, with the increasing popularity of Niseko, the likelihood of finding freshies in the off-piste areas past about 10am has lessened significantly over the years.
There are various options for off-piste guiding
Niseko Sidecountry / Slackcountry
Niseko sidecountry skiing is also permitted so long as you enter through one of the gates. Sidecountry aka slackcountry is defined as backcountry terrain that's outside the resort boundaries that can be easily accessed with no or minimal hiking or skinning, and have an easy egress to the lifts.
Have respect for the patrollers who are pretty lenient. When the sidecountry gates are closed, it’s for a good reason. For information on the status of the gates and avalanche information, see the Niseko Avalanche Information website
The An’nupuri bowls (entered from gates 1 or 2) are a good example of primo Niseko sidecountry and provide great alpine and tree skiing.
A long traverse from the peak gate provides an infinite number of lines and a reasonable chance of finding your own powder stash away from the hordes. The peak is a 20 minute hike that provides an awesome long run down to the golf course. This area also provides access to the back bowls; the piece de resistance of Niseko.
Mizuno no sawa near Niseko Village (previously a special program area) is also a highlight of the Niseko skiing and snowboarding.
As with all ski resorts in Japan, if you go outside the resort boundaries you do so at your own risk and are responsible for the costs associated with any backcountry search and rescue. Absolutely only go into the sidecountry areas with a transponder, shovel and probe (if you don't have this, you can buy avalanche safety gear
here). If you don’t have the right equipment or the know-how to safely navigate the backcountry, do a guided Niseko sidecountry ski tour
. They will lend you the right gear and take you to some very tasty spots!
If you're prepared to earn your turns with a decent amount of skinning or snowshoeing, there are an abundance of fantastic options for Niseko backcountry skiing and split boarding. There are various options for Niseko backcountry day tours
Niseko Avalanche Risk
Considering the abundant snowfall, the occurrence of avalanches is not as common as you’d think, particularly in the height of winter. With constant sub-zero temperatures and minimal sun, the formation of unstable layers is lessened. The maritime-like snowpack and the snow crystals that typically fall during winter also make the snowpack reasonably stable. However avalanches (and associated fatalities) still can and do happen and appropriate caution should be exercised. There are commonly big glide cracks in the snow that need to be avoided, not only because of the associated avalanche risk, but also because it may take you half an hour to climb out if you fall in!
The patrollers don’t do much in the way of active avalanche control with blasting or other techniques. In most areas, they only monitor the risk and close areas as necessary.
Access to Moiwa via the Slopes
Powder hounds should definitely head over to Moiwa
. This is a little gem of a ski resort! An’nupuri’s neighbour Moiwa can be accessed via the 2nd An’nupuri bowl. You can purchase inexpensive single ride or 4 hour tickets. To get back to Niseko, a short hike from the top of the quad chair out gate 6 is required, but be aware that the gate is only open until mid afternoon and when avalanche risk is not high.