Ski noob? Japan noob? Then tourist-friendly Niseko should be one of your top choices for a ski holiday in Japan. Here’s a simple, not-scary guide to planning your own epic trip.
Recommended for: snow sports, outdoor lovers, wine & dine, onsen (hot springs), honeymoon, families, friends, cosy village feel, Japan noobs
Not Recommended for: culture vultures, sunny days (usually cloudy during winter), shopping (only souvenirs and sports gear), people who want to just “see snow” without skiing/snowboarding
Suggested itinerary / Budgeting – From USD1,400/adult for 6D5N including 4D lift pass, rentals and lessons (excluding airtix): See my sample itinerary & budget for 6D5N Ski Niseko.
Note that if you just want to see snow / play snow, you DO NOT need to go all the way to Niseko (at least 2.5h by bus from Sapporo city). There are many ski resorts much closer to Sapporo (1h drive or less, can even do a day trip) such as Sapporo Teine which has a tubing park for kids and wallet-friendly day trip packages, or combine onsen-hunting at Jozankei Onsen resort town with skiing at Sapporo Kokusai (shuttle buses running hourly – see timetable here). Or prefer a more “Japanese” resort? Read my guide on choosing a ski resort in Japan.
Ski resorts in Hokkaido (Source: Tokyotravelpals website)
Beginner’s step by step guide to DIY ski Niseko
Niseko’s tourist infrastructure is well-developed. There is no need to go through a travel agent, as most hotels and ski schools have websites where you can make bookings and enquiries. If you are a first-timer to skiing or DIY travel in Japan, Niseko is a very good pick. Yes, there are a lot of Westerners (think of it as the Bali of Japan), but it is also one of the few resorts in Japan that offers group ski/board lessons in English (vs. less commercialized Japanese ski resorts that only have English instruction when you hire a private instructor- much dearer and subject to availability) and it is easy to rent gear and navigate restaurants on your own.
Ski season for Niseko is Dec-Apr, to be safe aim for mid-Dec to mid-Mar. Many restaurants in the area only operate mid-Dec to mid-Mar, but if you are feeling lucky you will get good discounts on lift tickets and accommodation in early Dec and late-Mar into April (shoulder season).
Step 1 (T minus 3 mths): Book your flights (Usually no promo for flights in Dec no matter how early you book).
Step 2 (T minus 3 mths): Book your accommodation. You may want to do this even earlier as most hotels offer some early bird discounts (for confirmed bookings made before July) and better availability. Most Niseko hotels require a 20% deposit, check the refund policy carefully.
Step 3 (T minus 1 mth): Research ski schools and/or gear rental shops. There are a number of options in the area (see below section on ski-related info) and it is better to compare prices online than tramping about in the snow when you get there. You should pre-book for peak periods such as Xmas/NY.
Step 4 (T minus 1 mth): Book airport bus transfers and restaurants (especially if your group exceeds 4pax).
Step 5 (T=0): Arrive in Niseko. You should ideally collect your rental gear on your day of arrival to avoid wasting precious slope time the next day (your first skiing day), as you will need time to try stuff on. Most rental shops do not charge you for the day if you collect your rental gear from 4pm onwards.
Step 6 (T+1): Eat. Sleep. Ski. Repeat.
Niseko is one mountain (Mt. Annupuri) with 4 separate villages at the base on different sides of the mountain (i.e. Hirafu, Hanazono, Niseko Village and Annupuri). Each village is about 10-15min apart by car/bus (NOT walkable) so you need to first decide which village you prefer to stay at.
Niseko area map (ski-japan website)
See my reviews of the 2 hotels I have tried in Niseko:
- M Hotel (small hotel in the heart of Hirafu Village)
- Silver Birch (2 BR apartment in Hirafu Upper Village)
1. Hirafu – My preference as it is the biggest
Hirafu is the biggest of the 4 villages, with the most restaurants and amenities (e.g. gear rental shops and convenience store) so I would recommend staying here for convenience. Although it is the most commercialized, Hirafu still has a “Japanese” feel as there are many independent businesses and restaurants (as opposed to some ski resorts with only one glitzy mega-hotel). Hirafu’s side of the mountain also has the largest number of ski runs (although the beginner runs are also the most crowded).
The Main Village of Hirafu comprises Upper and Lower Village. Stay close to Seicomart / Main Intersection to be within walking distance of all amenities. See this Hirafu village map for a better idea of the village layout.
Should I pay more for ski-in-ski-out? There are only a handful of true Ski in Ski out (slopeside) accommodation options in Hirafu (e.g. Vale, Alpen Ridge, Niseko Alpen, Prince Hirafutai, Chalet Marusaki, the new Ki Niseko) and the prices are proportionally high. Luckily, the Main Village of Hirafu is small and you can walk from the Seicomart / Main Intersection to the nearest lift (i.e. Ace Family lift) in 2 min, so you still have lots of options even if you can’t afford slopeside accommodation. Note that you need to walk uphill to Ace lift if staying at Lower village (don’t even try think about walking from Lower Village to Hirafu Gondola!!!!).
Should I stay in the outskirts? I would not recommend staying at places that require a bus ride to the lifts, for example Hirafu East and Hirafu South villages (NOT within walking distance of the Main Village- prices are naturally lower there). Although there is a free ski shuttle, it gets very crowded at peak times and you might not get a seat. IMO the cost savings do not justify the inconvenience.
2. Niseko Village – Popular with Singaporean families
The name is misleading as it sounds like it is the centre of Niseko. It is soooo NOT. There are only 2 self-contained mega-hotels here: Green Leaf and Hilton. The big downside is that there is no proper village here, only the restaurants, shops and ski operator that belong to the hotel(s). It is 20-30% more expensive to rent gear and have lessons here (captive audience). You can bus to Hirafu (about 15-20min) via the Niseko United shuttle or the free Hilton shuttle, but this gets crowded at peak times (e.g. before and after dinner) and is difficult if you have a big group. In December, this place will feel like Little Singapore. [Update 2014/2015 season: Kasara townhouses and some luxury restaurants and shops have opened, so those staying/dining/shopping here have a couple more options.]
3. Hanazono – Very few accommodation options (pensions and lodges, no big hotels until Park Hyatt opens in 2019). 1 cafeteria restaurant at the base only. Great for first-timers as there is a free learner slope (magic carpet / conveyor belt thingey). 10min by bus from Hirafu.
4. Annupuri – Popular with the locals. A handful of accommodation / restaurants here and 1 big resort hotel (Niseko Northern). Ski slopes are less crowded and hectic as it is 40min by bus from Hirafu (the lifts that get you to Annupuri via the peak close when the winds get too bad, so half the time, people have to bus to get here). The Annupuri ski area is relatively small with mainly green/red runs.
Flights – Getting to Niseko from Singapore
1. From Singapore to Hokkaido (Sapporo New Chitose airport)
No direct flight from Singapore to Hokkaido at time of writing except seasonal charter flights during school holidays, however you must book via travel agent and these are usually packaged together with accommodation. For routes that transit via Tokyo, the main options from Singapore (from USD800 with promo) are:
– SQ/United/Delta, followed by JAL/ANA: SQ/United/Delta does not fly between Tokyo and Sapporo, so you will need to buy your domestic tickets separately. JAL or ANA offers domestic tickets at from JAL or ANA at a discounted price of JPY10,800/way) for international visitors (you have to first book your international tickets before you can buy the discounted domestic tickets on their websites). Alternatively, you can fly the domestic segment via budget airlines such as Jetstar or Vanilla Air (from JPY5000/way without check in luggage).
– JAL all the way for both international and domestic segments (oneworld)
– ANA all the way for both international and domestic segments (star alliance)
Note that if you fly via Tokyo Haneda you will not be able to check your luggage all the way through (for some bizarre reason that I still don’t understand).
If you are not set on transiting via Tokyo, you may find cheaper routes via China (Air China or China Eastern), Seoul (Korean Air), Taiwan (Eva, Scoot), Bangkok (Thai) and HK (Cathay Pacific). These routes may involve longer transit times.
2. From Sapporo airport to ski area in Niseko
There are a number of bus companies running scheduled routes (several times per day in winter) from Sapporo New Chitose airport to the 4 villages in Niseko. I usually use Hokkaido Resort Liner (JPY4,000/pax per way) as I am able to buy the tickets online (prepay with credit card). Journey is about 2.5h (with 1 toilet stop). White Liner is the other popular one (about the same price), and public bus companies Chuo (3-3.5h, cheaper at JPY2,470/way or JPY4,000/return) and Donan (Japanese website only) also run airport buses to Niseko. Your hotel will usually pick you up for free from the bus dropoff point.
Train from the airport is also possible but do note that the train stops in Kutchan town and you need to catch another bus or taxi to the ski village/hotel area. Too much hassle with lots of luggage or kids.
Transport – Getting around
1. Public bus
Donan and Chuo are 2 companies that run the public bus routes in the area. Prices start from JPY100 (pay cash to driver).
2. Niseko United Shuttle / Grand Hirafu shuttle
The Niseko United Shuttle connects the 4 Niseko villages and is free if you have a Niseko United ski pass for the day (the driver will scan your pass when you alight). If you don’t have a ski pass just grab a ticket from the dispenser when you board and pay in cash to the driver when you alight. The Grand Hirafu shuttle connects Hirafu and Hanazono only, and is free (no need to show any ski pass).
Do NOT use taxis unless desperate. Meter starts at JPY530. A mere 6km trip will cost at least JPY2,000.
Ski/Snowboard related info
Link to trail map here.
1. Lift Passes
There is no need to buy lift passes in advance. Buy on the actual day of skiing (there are ticket counters at the main lifts) depending on weather conditions and your physical state. A Grand Hirafu (Hirafu + Hanazono) lift pass should suffice for beginners, vs. a Niseko United All Mountain (4 areas) lift pass. Read my post on How to save money on ski trips for more details on the various type of lift passes.
2. Equipment Rental
Main gear rental shops in Hirafu are:
- NBS, at Ace Family pair beginner lift
- Rhythm around Hirafu main intersection
- Grand Hirafu with 2 locations: Hirafu Gondola + .Base near Welcome Center
- Niseko Sports with 3 locations: Vale, next to Rhythm, Hanazono.
All have English-speaking staff. Rentals cost about JPY10k for 3-day rental of ski+boots+poles or snowboard+boots. Best to compare prices online as you don’t want to waste time walking from one shop to another in the snow.
You can also rent waterproof jacket+pants but you may not be able to rent ski goggles or gloves (for hygiene reasons) so bring your own. First timers can just use sunglasses instead of goggles.
An alternative (20%-30% cheaper) is to hire off-mountain from Goodsports, to be delivered to your accommodation. However I would not really recommend this for a first-timer as you do not really know what sizes you need. Basically you input your feet size and height/weight on the web form and they will estimate the length of the skis/snowboard for you. It is possible to change sizes but may be a waste of time (e.g. if you arrive out of office hours).
3. Lessons / Ski School
If you are new to skiing/snowboard, do invest in lessons. I would recommend at least 3 full ski days with 2 or 3 half-day lessons in the AM + self-practice in the PM. English speaking instructors are readily available in Niseko. Read more about whether to take group or private lessons and how to make the most of your ski lessons.
In Hirafu itself you have the following options for group lessons in English
- The incumbent, NBS operates from Ace family lift area (pros: green run has a nice gentle gradient; cons: super crowded, no magic carpet / conveyor belt thingey),
- Grand Hirafu snowsports school is now Japanese only for group lessons, English group lessons now run by GoSnow.
- wef 2014/2015 season: New ski school called GoSnow which opened in conjunction with the new Ki Niseko hotel. operates from Hirafu Gondola area (pros: has a magic carpet for GoSnow students, less crowded than Ace family; cons: relatively steep-ish green run).
An alternative not in Hirafu is NISS, which operates at Hanazono (pros: free magic carpet; cons: 10min free shuttle bus ride from Hirafu).
There are hundreds of eateries in Niseko and you will never go hungry. Your main resource should be the Niseko Area Guide or Niseko Wine and Dine brochures, which can be found at most hotels in Niseko or online.
- My Niseko Onsen List
- 5 tips to save money on ski trips
- Ski FAQs for Singaporeans (& other clueless tropical bunnies)
- DIY your ski trip to South Island, New Zealand
- Sample itinerary: 7N ski Niigata, Japan
- Sample itinerary: 9N ski Nagano, Japan
Back to: 6D5N Ski Hokkaido budgeting