As we landed at Shin Chitose airport in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido on the first weekend of February 2020, I remembered that this is my 20th season of snowboarding. Niseko seemed like a great way to start the next decade of boarding to me, especially since it’s been a few years since my last visit.
It’s been a low snow year seemingly all over in Japan so far this season, and recent reports from friends who’d been up in Hokkaido weren’t great either, but as the bus wound its way from the airport to Niseko whilst it was good to see the snow, it was clear it wasn’t a bumper year.
Niseko itself has changed a lot in the two decades since I first went up – gone are most of the small hotels on the narrow road up to Hirafu, as it’s now a broad street with more parking on either side to serve more cars for the many new hotels and hotel apartment buildings. It all looks very nice to be honest and the evolution of the bars and restaurants now cater to most international tastes and budgets and extend far from the slopes as a continuous urban stretch.
Many people also comment on how few Japanese people come here any more. Maybe that’s true, but the local economy must be doing well.
However, when we talk about Niseko, we should really be talking about the snow.
The Saturday we arrived we got the kids sorted with rental gear very swiftly at the Base rental and ski school, so we could get down to business.
Spending the first day just on Hirafu, there was a good covering of snow, with a few thin areas, and some ice patches, and really not much of anything you’d call powder. I did’t see any tree branches on piste poking through as friends who had been here just a few weeks earlier had reported, so that was something. Then, on Saturday night, as we had some food in the Three Trees Cafe (it was OK, a bit overpriced for what you got, even in Niseko), the snow began, and it stayed that way for most of the trip.
We stayed in the Niseko Park Hotel. It’s got more of an old school Japanese ‘ski-jou’ resort hotel feel, but it was quite nice and if you’ve never seen or done that aspect of Japan, it might be worth it. We had a tatami room for the family, a toilet and basic shower, a fridge and TV and that was about it. We put out our own futons, and that was about it. The package we got through Expedia included bed and breakfast, and the latter was a good example of a generic buffet ‘viking‘ breakfast of fruit, rice, bacon, eggs, bread and all the classics. It wasn’t a bad way to start to start a day boarding to be honest.
Next morning was the first full day on the mountain, and my partner surprised me by suggesting we take that top traverse over to Annupuri Sure, why not, how bad could it be? As could be easily anticipated, the weather was clear on the lifts up…until that last stage and then cloud, snow and wind closed in, making the traverse do-able, but more by touch n feel than any visible land marks. When the clouds broke though the view of Mt. Youtei was as stunning as ever, and as the snow continued, the increasing amount of powder made it a joy to board.
For a bit of a break, we headed down to the cafe for some hot cocoa and a rest. This is the first time outside of some odd Tokyo cafes where there was a tip jar on the counter, as n\anything more than an ornament. Service wasn’t as good as it used to be either, which was a bit disappointing.
One thing I notice when I go to Annupuri is that every year there seem to be fewer and fewer trees on and around the piste, and whilst this makes for a wide gelande, there seems to be so much more wind on there, and drifting snow. For the cafe in question, years back it would be possible to miss it as it was buried in a copse of trees, which made it a nice little nook – especially on night runs – whereas now it’s almost completely exposed. All that said, Annupuri continues to a be a fun area, and we did quite a few runs until going back up top for the traverse back, which thankfully was a lot clearer.
After an afternoon doing yet more runs and relaxing with the kids, I took them out for their first nighter, starting on the lower Hirafu runs, then we went higher up – great powder but it was pushing minus 17C at times, but the kids loved having fairly empty slopes, and the novelty of all the nighter lighting, and some continued good snowfall. The low temps also highlighted that my GoPro 7 struggles at these temperatures, and whilst I could get photos most of the time, the battery constantly reporting low values and likely performance, meant video was limited.
Off slope, I took a walk down to the local super market to make a s\quick snack for dinner, and I was quite impressed at the sheer amount of foreign products, and for the first time in a long time, managed to pick up some Weetabix of all things (not for dinner).
The hotel had an onsen which wasn’t bad, and was decently clean, and even had a rotenburo (an outdoor hot spa bath), which was well maintained too. As anyone who has travelled Japan can attest, this is not always the case.
So for three of the four days we had great snow, powder, and I did the required ploughs down the side of the Super Course through deep powder, watched family members nodding off next to the heater in the cafe, and generally had a great time.
Whilst there was quite a few people there, it was obvious the number of Chinese visitors was down, and around the bus and airport, more people than normal were wearing facemasks, as by this point the COVID-19 was well known around Asia and restrictions were beginning to come into effect.
What else to say – a great trip to Niseko, where hours and hours just disappear into smooth run after smooth run, and apres ski is up there with the best of them, and as I always say, if you havent done Niseko, you really should, especially now they’re offering more snowmobile and guided off piste runs.