DIY your ski trip to Niseko

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

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A rare bluebird day in Niseko (view from Rinkan run)


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.

Accommodation
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:

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).

3. Taxi 
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).

4. Dining
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.

See also:

Back to:  6D5N Ski Hokkaido budgeting

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56 responses to “DIY your ski trip to Niseko

  1. Hi. these may be silly questions, but glad if you can advise me. I am going to stay at 39-1 Higashiyama Niseko-Cho Abuta gun Niseko village, Abuta District.

    Questions:
    1. which ski resort is the nearest to the above address? is it Niseko Village ski resort?
    2. there are two of us will be travelling there and first time to do ski, we only be there for 2-3days. thus cannot afford to spend all days to learn ski, can u recommend any short hours ski lesson conducted in english for 2 persons? and price?
    3. how do i go about renting the ski tools and how much? i will be bringing none but only myself there. any specific shoes or outfit to take note?

    Hope to have your reply soon. Thanks
    Mery

    Like

    • Hi Mery! You can read my blog post on what type of ski lesson is suitable for you (https://beyondbanality.wordpress.com/2015/11/01/ski-lessons-tips/), most of your questions should be answered there.
      1. Yes Niseko Village is the closest ski area to your hotel.
      2. I assume you are staying at Hilton or Greenleaf? They have a ski school within the hotel that offers English lessons (see their website for details and prices). There are typically 2h-2.5h lessons (morning or afternoon session) for you to choose from if you do not want to do full day lesson. You can use the rest of the day to practise on your own.
      3. Hilton and Greenleaf ski school will have ski rental and you can rent everything there.

      Like

  2. Hello. Thanks for your info and help with this page. I’m David from Malaysia and i have booked accomodation in Niseko. 1st nite Mountain Jam in Hirafu and 2nd night at Ikoi No Yuyado Annupuri. Would like to know should i reserve a lesson slot now or should i wait till i reach niseko as i heard the lessons could be fully booked? And i have checked the GoSnow website that first timer pack costs 20000 yen for 1 day. Would just like to know if the price is for a group or per person? And if i were to get an 8 hour pass, can i use it in and out? Meaning 4 hrs usage during daytime, exits then 4 hr for night ski…

    Thx again in advance for ur reply and help.

    Like

    • Hi David , If it is peak period such as Xmas/new year week I would advise to reserve first. According to GoSnow’s website, the 20k yen first timer pack is per person and already includes a lift ticket, and must be reserved at least 3 days in advance. An 8h pass is valid for only 8h from the first time you swipe in. By the way, have you considered staying two consecutive nights in one place instead ? it would be quite to change hotels in winter , carrying luggages in snow etc. and also please note annupuri is 40 min away from hirafu by bus. Or perhaps a slightly longer trip ? one day ski is not enough as a first timer as the first lesson is quite basic and most people need you at least 3 days to enjoy the fun / speed part of skiing/boarding.

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      • Thanks for your reply. Really appreciate it. I will be self driving from Lake Toya the first day. I guess i can reach before 9am and leave all my stuff at the hostel first… I will be having a 25 days holiday in Hokkaido starting from Sapporo and all the way to Shiretoko and back. And i have already booked all my accomodations. Guess it’s too late to change my itenary now. Will try to reach as early as possible the first day from Lake Toya then i might have 3 full days to skii… Hopefullly… I will be staying at Sapporo the 3rd day for another week before heading home… wee….

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  3. Hi! Thanks for your blog. It’s so informative! I’m trying to plan a first trip to Hokkaido for my family, we have 2 kids. We are total ski beginners though, and will need some ski lessons in English. Am now trying to decide where to stay in Hirafu. Given that we will likely be going for private English ski lessons together, and are travelling with children so a location nearest the ski area will be good, no need to drag the kids around too much. Do you suggest staying nearer the Ace family ski lift (like The Vale) will be better, or staying near the Gondala side is better (like Ki Niseko) ? Are there any other activities like tubing and snowmobiling at Niseko too? Many thanks!

    Like

    • Hi cyn ! You haven’t said how old the kids are but have you considered a ski in ski out Hokkaido resort such as tomamu, Rusutsu or club Med sahoro? Hirafu is great if you want to go out for drinks and dinner and stuff like that at night but with kids I would (as you correctly pointed out) prioritise accessibility to slopes and all-in-one convenience. Both Rusutsu and tomamu have mini snowmobile, sledding etc onsite too (no need to travel to a separate location), as well as other kid friendly indoor activities. however if you have your heart set on hirafu then personally I prefer the ace family lift area because the gondola area is a bit of a hike from all the other amenities. Snowmobile requires travel to separate location tho (the tour will most likely include transport from hirafu).

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      • HI! Thanks for the very quick reply! My kids are 5 and 8years old. I’ve considered the all-in-1 resorts. But Tomamu private ski lessons in English for our period of stay seems to be all sold out (they don’t seem to have other English lessons for the younger one or adults during that time. Only for the 8year old.). Rusutsu’s non-ski activities all seem to start only much later in Jan or after (unless I read wrongly), but our dates are tied cos of Dec school holidays.. Am considering club med but they only have ski activities? Don’t have other ‘fun’ kiddy stuff like tubing, sledging, etc….. Do you have any other suggestions for us?

        Like

        • Hi! Not sure if you have been to other club Meds before but they definitely have lots of activities to keep your kids occupied, including the nightly performance. There is also an ice skating rink on site and inflatable boat/raft thing. I would very much recommend it for a first ski holiday, especially with kids around that age – it may seem a bit expensive but if you take all the lessons it really is good value.

          Like

          • I think in the end we going to stay at Rusutsu 😁 I was checking out the packages, not alot of options left cos we’re booking so late! Do you think we should go for just the breakfast+room or the breakfast+dinner room package? Only the website Japanican still has rooms for our dates. But their bkfast+dinner, compared to just breakfast alone, is almost S$100 more per person per day. I don’t think the 4 of us eat that much for dinner.. Or are the buffet dinners and restaurants there that expensive?

            Like

            • Last season the adult dinner coupon was worth JPY4860 and kids dinner coupon worth JPY3402. You can either exchange the coupon for the set menu (usually about 6 courses) or order a la carte. Not sure about you but personally I found the set a bit extravagant, so if I were to go again I would do without the dinner coupon and just pay for whatever I ate (I doubt you will spend as much as the coupon value, esp the kids). It is best to reserve the restaurants when you check in though, otherwise it is a long wait (30min) at dinner times (6-8pm). There are also some independent restaurants about 5-10 min walk from the hotel if you are bored of eating in the hotel (note: outdoors walk in the snow). Also a convenience store within the hotel + 2 convenience stores across the road if you just want a simple dinner like cup noodle or ready-to-eat bentos that you can ask them to heat up and enjoy in your room. You can see my Rusutsu hotel review post for details and pics.

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  5. Hi there! Going to Niseko next month. I’m not skiing as I have a knee injury and am staying with a friend there for a few days after Sapporo. Any advice for what to do there that doesn’t involve winter sports? 😛

    Like

    • Lol… There are a number of nice onsens in the area to check out. Snowmobile could be fun too. Not really a lot of cultural things to do in the area I’m afraid ! Day trip to otaru / yoichi nikka factory maybe?

      Like

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  7. hello! nice blog! very informative. will share to friends that keep asking me about niseko. I just signed up for this blog. How do i get your niseko eat list?

    Like

  8. Pingback: Sample itinerary (6N): Hokkaido self-drive with the family | Beyond Banality·

  9. hi there (i still don’t know your name) -just a tip: Niseko is getting so popular, so if any of your readers are planning to go in mid to end Dec, your bookings (in particular,lodging and ski school) should be finalised by NOW (end June, early July)! Have just been informed by one of the popular ski schools that they are fully booked for morning lessons on 20 Dec!

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  10. hi, how do you rate Hotel Niseko Alpen, and I read it is located on the Upper Hirafu, I hope it is not very secluded from the main or center Hirafu? It will be my family’s first trip to Niseko in Dec. your blog is very helpful Thanks

    Like

    • I have not stayed at that hotel but the location is quite good! It is just across the road from welcome center (<100m) where the airport bus drops you. There are restaurants (eg. Asahikawa ramen, abucha2) and rental shops (eg. .base, rhythm) along that street (all within 500m walk downhill). If you can already ski then Niseko Alpen is perfect- u can use the ace quad lift via the back entrance (ski in ski out) or walk the hirafu gondola (but of course it's easier to use the quad lift to connect to gondola instead of walking). The nearest ski school would prob be NBS operating at Ace family slope- if taking beginner group lessons you will have to walk down c.500m to ace family pair lift, so if this is you then you may want to consider vale or somewhere nearer the ace family pair lift (500m does not sound like a lot but it is a lot in ski boots).

      Liked by 1 person

  11. thanks – i don’t think i will need to swap out anything since I am a beginner! !Even if they don’t store over night, are ski shops usually happy to store your apres ski boots for a couple of hours while you ski?

    Like

    • yes they will store your shoes if you rent from them or alternatively there are lockers you can use for a small fee (for storing valuables, rental shops won’t store your valuables)

      Like

  12. Any recommendations on which ski hire place is the most friendly and offers equipment storage at Hirafu? Thanks! I think i need to make some reservations for dinner for my trip in Dec and your restaurant list is helpful!

    Like

    • Hi! Most of the shops listed in my post (except NBS) offer free overnight equipment storage (as stated on their websites). I don’t rent these days as I have my own gear, but when I used to rent I just went for the cheapest one (I am a snowboarder though). However my friend who is a skier always rents the deluxe/premium package cos they allow you to swap out different skis within the day (e.g. powder skis in morning and carving skis in afternoon)- he usually rents from NBS as it is ski in ski out at Ace Family lift.

      Like

  13. Hi there, your post was so informative and helped me so much with my planning! Your blog is very interesting and I envy how often you travel!! Heading to Niseko in Jan 16 and I was wondering if you could kindly share your Eat list! yknow singaporeans, must have good food hahaha

    Like

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  17. Hello again! Please can I ask how far is Kutchan away from Hirafu Village? Is it worth a visit? Thanks! Where are u off this season to chase some snow?

    Like

    • You have to take a bus (about 15min). In the day the buses to Kutchan are run by Donan and Chuo (take a ticket when you board and pay when you alight). In the evenings there is a JPY100 night bus to Kutchan. You can check the bus stops with your hotel when you are there. There are some gd restaurants in Kutchan and also gear shops (cheaper than buying in Niseko). I went to Hakuba / Nozawa in dec and going to Club Med Hokkaido next month!

      Like

  18. Hey mate, just wanted to say that this blog post is amazing! it’s helped me so much. Am heading to NIseko for the first time next month, can’t wait. Great stuff 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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  20. hi, thank you very much. the information that you shared helped a lot in my DIY planning (we are a beginner/first timer to Ski and to Hokkaido).
    however can you advise how to go from Hakodate to Niseko? (can we alight between to visit Lake Toya and Noboribetsu)

    I am looking for a budget accommodation (pension house), you mentioned Hilton and Green Leaf – excellent hotel but expensive…

    thank you and waiting
    choy

    Like

    • Hi! sorry I haven’t been to Hakodate but you can post your question in the tripadvisor forums and someone should be able to help you quite quickly there.

      For accommodation you can just do a google search on Niseko pensions or lodges. A popular one is Pension Berg which is very centrally located in Hirafu village, I have not stayed there myself but I heard good things about it from friends.

      Like

  21. alamak – I very swakoo – how to pm u on wordpress ah? anyway, yes u r right – Sekka is in hirafu but is at least nearer to Hanazono(or at least i think it is on the westend of hirafu– we decided to take lessons from there and also hanging out at Hanazono Park). We are travelling only next year, so it’s ok – I will wait for your Eat List. We just want to take lessons and doubt we will have the nerve to go skiing on our own. Thanks again for being so helpful!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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    • Hi again, how’s it going? Hope all is well on your end!

      Just to give u heads up that we have chosen J-Sekka instead of Ki because of room size and proximity to Hanazono. Still wanna try Ki some time- maybe when we come again in summer. Btw, I am researching on where to find good food in Niseko- waiting anxiously for your Eat list. Coming soon I am crossing my fingers? Thank again for the great blog.

      Like

      • Hey sam ! Isn’t j sekka in Hirafu and not hanazono? Have not stayed there but it is VERY close to the Hirafu pair lift (beginner). Like one min walk.

        Hahaha yes I have been a bit lazy about the niseko eat list…busy organizing a club med Hokkaido trip for my beginner friends ! PM me your email and I’ll send you the the names of the places I frequent there.

        Like

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