Japan’s powder paradise is still an amazing place to ski, primarily because of the snow quality, but it is getting more crowded than ever.
The snow is everything you’ve heard of and more. Through December, January and February it dumps 10 metres or more on Annapuri peak above the village of Hirafu, meaning the ceaseless paranoia about global warming and parched seasons in the Alps or the Rockies is moot. Sheer volume doesn’t tell the whole story though. The snow is the lightest, purest, crystalline powder you can possibly imagine. The precise microclimate that creates this is something to do with Siberian cold and the nearby Sea of Japan, but I promise, there’s nothing like it. The first time I went in 2011 it was love at first sight…a weekend in Tokyo preceded 5 days of discovery in beautiful Hokkaido, culminating in a run off the peak in fresh powder and bathed in bright sunshine that I will never forget.
The well-known negatives of Niseko – a town dominated by the loud aussies who first popularized the place, expensive accommodation and shockingly bad transport within and between the resorts – pale when you get your first few turns in.
This famous excerpt from ski movie Reasons in 2008, featuring Chris Benchetler and the late great JP Auclair shows Niseko as it actually is, and should be seen if you are thinking about going. Unlike in most ski movies which visit heli-ski places in Alaska and Canada, the runs that they were skiing are right in the resort and accessible via lifts to pretty much anyone.
Niseko is a small resort – a maximum 700m vertical from peak to village, and at best 50kms of marked slopes served by a poorly planned aging lift system. Surrounding this is an accessible, and mostly gentle mix of backcountry and sidecountry which used to be shared by 300-400 of the better skiers while some 2,000-3,000 others pootled around on the piste. The big problem is now that the numbers have started to even, meaning it’s gets tracked out like a European resort. On January 21st 2015 over 2,000 skiers went through the peak gates. It was pretty much tracked by midday, a situation that would have been unlikely 5 years ago.
So what to do? Well I certainly wouldn’t put anyone off going to Niseko, but bear in mind you’ll have to earn your turns in the powder with early morning queues at the lifts, some eager hiking and some investment in guiding.
Hirafu itself is gradually being civilized by its sheer expense, with the richer older Australians gradually pushing out the tattooed backpacker bogans that infest the bars. There are burgeoning dining and accommodation options and all in all I would say the area is on the up, despite the crowds in the powder.
But if you want the dream turns you have seen on movies and on Instagram, you might need a different strategy. Accommodation with dedicated transport that can shift you to nearby resorts is probably advisable and that will send your costs up.
For a more detailed look at Niseko the 2013 Outside magazine article that has helped popularize the place with Americans is a good place to start and even includes some rather frank Aussie bashing, with Outside’s intrepid correspondent having the misfortune to time his visit with the absurd “Australia Day”, celebrated annually on Jan 26. Last piece of advice is to never make that same mistake!