NISEKO IN HOKKAIDO

You can’t get too much snow up here

by Chris Bamforth

Glaciers are in retreat, global weather patterns are going haywire and the Earth’s climate is the warmest it’s been in a millennium. Nonetheless, every winter, as regular as clockwork, winds from Siberia howl across the Sea of Japan, siphon up moisture, and dump it on Hokkaido as some of the world’s heaviest precipitations of snow. One such place that never suffers from any shortfall in the snowfall is Niseko, a collection of ski resorts in southwestern Hokkaido that is blanketed each winter by over 15 meters of the white stuff.

Complaints about too much snow, though, are seldom voiced in Niseko, basking as it does in its reputation as offering some of the finest conditions for powder skiing to be found anywhere in the world. Attractive though Japan may be as a place for skiing, it doesn’t appeal to all skiers. Intermediate and advanced skiers frequently bemoan the lack of challenging slopes. Niseko suffers from no such dearth, offering more mogul runs and steep terrain than practically any other Japanese resort. And with its 57 runs on terrific snow, a vertical drop of 960 meters, 38 lifts and almost 50 km of groomed slopes, Niseko is Hokkaido’s biggest ski resort.

Size, of course, isn’t everything: Niseko also happens to be Hokkaido’s prettiest ski resort. Dominating the Niseko landscape is the spectacular cone of Mount Yotei — known for obvious reasons as the “Fuji of Hokkaido.” And the attractive scenery of the Niseko area is one of alpine meadows, swift-flowing green rivers and spacious woodlands of pine and silver birch.

For the skier and snowboarder, though, the mountain peak of real interest is not Mount Yotei, but the one on the other side of the valley. It is across the two faces of the mountain known as Annupuri that Niseko’s ski areas are found. Niseko is a complex of several resorts, essentially made up of three major ones together with an additional two minor, secluded ones used mainly by locals. The three main resorts are Niseko Annupuri, Niseko Higashiyama and Niseko Hirafu, with Hirafu itself being further subdivided into the Alpen, Kogen and Hanazono areas. All these resorts and areas operate slightly different seasons and lift hours. The lifts connect at the top of Annupuri, and a shuttle bus links the very spread-out lift areas.

At one time, all these resorts operated completely independently, but that exasperating situation has now come to an end, and the Niseko Free Passport is valid for all lifts as well as for the shuttle bus. Skiers and boarders wanting the organized feel of a self-contained resort will find that at the huge Prince Hotel in Higashiyama, where the lifts begin right beside the hotel. But for all-round friendliness and character, Hirafu is the place to go. Located at the foot of Annupuri, Hirafu is a spa town, and so after enjoying the slopes you can immerse yourself in the thermal delight of one of Hirafu’s three onsen.

Hirafu has an easy-going, village-like atmosphere, and though there are some medium-size hotels, attractive and cheap accommodation is available among the large enclave of pensions beginning off the main street. In Hirafu, visitors will find no shortage of lively bars and restaurants, covering everything from a first-class yakitori izakaya to the ethnic specialties within the atmospheric interior of a Mongolian yurt.

The large influx of foreigners every season sees to it that life here is far from dull. It is also thanks to the foreigners living in Niseko that this place has developed into a multifaceted outdoor center. At many a Japanese resort, the winter sports options are pretty much limited to skiing and snowboarding, but because of a few Australian-run enterprises in Niseko, a remarkable number of activities are available. The adventurous can go ice climbing, snowshoeing, winter rafting, winter abseiling; they can go on back-country tours and take snow survival courses. Lessons are offered in snowboarding, skiing and half-pipe. In the depths of winter, you can even go bridge swinging — like bungee jumping except you leap and become a pendulum under the bridge.

After the spring thaw, Niseko also has plenty to offer. Time was that summer activities in Hokkaido’s ski resorts could be summarized pretty much by the uninspiring word “golf.” But in Niseko the extensive summer options include white-water rafting, bungee jumping, ballooning, horse-trekking, mountain-biking tours, rock climbing and duckying (going downriver in an inflatable kayak). Those wanting to perfect their climbing techniques can do so all year round on the indoor 11-meter wall at Niseko Adventure Centre (NAC).

For locals, life tends to revolve pretty much around just these two seasons of summer and winter. The severity of the winter means that such considerations as spring and autumn fall beneath most people’s radar of interest. Summer in Niseko may now have a good deal going for it, but it is, of course, winter that brings in the huge number of visitors. For the skier, the season is long, generally running from the end of November to the first week of May. From mid-December to mid-March, you are virtually guaranteed fluffy powder snow excellent for skiing. Night skiing until 9 p.m. is possible from December until the beginning of April.

The laid-back character found in Hirafu is evident on the slopes here and elsewhere in Niseko, where there is remarkable tolerance for off-piste skiing. Skiers wanting further off-piste challenges can find those in Niseko’s back country, which covers over 30-sq. km.

For those who do make it to the slopes of Annupuri, there can be few views more impressive than that of snow-capped Mount Yotei standing majestically across the valley. And after the skiing, that same mountain glowing deep red in the sunset is the most memorable sight while getting to grips with a decent hot rum cocktail in a cozy Hirafu bar.