One thing that has shaped me countless ways of which even I am unaware is growing up in Montana. Perhaps it made me more free spirited and wild that my adolescent years were spent skinny-dipping and frolicking on the mountain nearby skiing. Perhaps it made me a mountain snob. This I know to be absolutely true, as anything less than the Rocky Mountains is a letdown for me. If I ride from top to bottom of a mountain and my legs aren’t on fire part of me is a little sad. On the other hand, if I race from top to bottom, my quads almost giving out and think to myself “This is what it feels like to be alive” then we have a good mountain.
It makes it difficult to take me skiing sometimes.
Lucky, oh so lucky for me: my Minnesota-raised husband joined the bandwagon of big mountain skiing. I spent a year in Boise, Idaho during my residency and my then-fiancé Matt would come visit me. We spent a few weekends out at Sun Valley which is a magical resort if ever there was one. I could go on and on about what makes Sun Valley special but what it really did was get my husband out of his Minnesota ski rut and onto a real mountain. Turns out, he’s crazier about skiing than I am. I still beat him down the hard and fast groomers but he rocks the moguls and powder like someone born in the West.
I hadn’t thought about Japan as any kind of skiing mecca until we went to the Warren Miller film the year before we moved to Japan. They featured Hoikkaido and talked about the meters of champagne powder the northern-most island of Japan got each winter. I suppose I put it on the backburner of my mind until that pesky husband of mine got an itch in the fall of 2013. He begged for it to be scratched.
We went to Niseko, the largest ski resort in Hoikkaido in the winter of 2014. And again in 2015. It’s our last year here and Matt is insisting we go twice this winter. Niseko is actually four resorts centered around Mount Annapuri. From north to south, the resorts are: Hanazono, Grand Hirafu, Niseko, and Annapuri. You can access them all with an all-mountain pass which is what I strongly recommend as you most likely will want to traverse between the different resorts over the course of one day.
The southern most resort and family friendly area, Annapuri is a great place to learn to ski. Matt and I didn’t spend too much time at Annapuri but I know that gentle groomers definitely have their place. There are a couple more advanced slopes with some bumps toward the bottom of the hill as well.
Just north of Annapuri is Niseko where a large Hilton Niseko sits at the base. The resort is a ski-in-ski-out hotel complete with various restaurants and onsen. If you are looking for a one stop shop where everything is under your roof this is it. You must try out onsen which are essentially hot springs; the best ones are indoor/outdoor and you can go sit in outside and look at the mountain as the snow softly falls around you. They are same sex, no clothes permitted and a very Japanese experience. If you’re comfortable with nudity, it is the best way to relax and soak your legs after a long day skiing. On the hill at Niseko you can find some good bumps and it is generally more challenging than Annapuri. Many Japanese skiiers enjoy moguls and Niseko is a popular area.
Just north of Niseko on the mountain is the Grand Hirafu Resort. Though the mountain is connected and you can ski from resort to resort, at the base of the mountain the areas are very distinct and separated by a few miles. Hirafu Village is my personal choice for a location to stay and many Australians who come up for extended holidays pretty much run the town. There are delicious izakaya restaurants where if you listen closely the Japanese people speak English with an Australian accent. Niseko Pizza is a great spot for dinner or if you are looking for something a little fancier The Barn makes for a special evening. There are several good places to go out with friends for a drink. If you are in the Hirafu Villlage everything is walking distance and all you have to do to get home from a night out is slide down the hill to your lodging (if you can find it buried in meters of snow). Hirafu, like Niseko, is a solid ski hill with some good bumps and steep groomers, some powder here and there.
Some of the best skiing at all the resorts is at the top above the tree line. On mornings where there has been heavy powder overnight, you will see an exodus over the top of the mountain for adventurous types looking to go backcountry. They have their backpacks, shovels and supplies because the powder is very deep; going backcountry here you need to know what you are doing to ski or board safely and avoid avalanches. Due to the heavy snow and wind that is sometimes at the top of the mountain, the single person lifts are sometimes closed. If they are running get to them as soon as you can for fresh waist-deep powder. When it gets windy, the visibility at the top is reduced and white outs are common so if you get sunshine and no wind this is where you want to go.
Lastly, by far my favorite area to ski in Japan is Hanazono. What makes Hanazono so incredible is the long runs you can do off-piste in the trees. Untouched powder that puffs up around you like a cloud, light, soft, absolute heaven for a powder hound. All you need is a little faith in your legs and powder skis for the best day of skiing of your life. The key to skiing Hanazono well is to get off the marked runs and make your own trail. A little scary your first time but you won’t go back. The trees are deciduous, spaced adequately for great visibility and maneuverability. What makes skiing at Niseko and generally in Hoikkaido truly amazing is the quality of the powder so hitting it at Hanazono is the best way to get the most out of your Hoikkaido adventure. One other little secret: crab ramen at the base lodge of Hanazono. Best. Ramen. Ever.
One thing is for certain: it snows a lot in Niseko. With 15 meters annually and more on heavy years, you don’t have to worry about machine made snow or icy conditions. The walls of snow everywhere lining the streets will make a believer of you. No matter if you’re new and want to spend time at Annapuri, are going along for the onsen and nightlife, or are in it for the JaPow (Japanese powder) Niseko has it all. Take it from a mountain snob, this is world class skiing.