Finally checking off a major item on my bucket list, we flew from Denver to Tokyo, followed by a short flight to the Sapporo/New Chitose airport. Whatever anxiety I had about traveling to Asia with a child was erased as soon as we loaded the spacious Boeing 788, where she relished her Asian airplane meal and watched all six Star Wars movies on her very own touch screen LCD. The iPad we brought was worth its weight: It occupied her for at least an hour as she took multiple pictures of us using Photo Booth while we nodded off so that we wound up looking like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings.
Sub-20 hours of traveling later, we arrived at the Sapporo/New Chitose airport. From here, you can access Niseko in two to three hours by rental car, train, shuttle or bus. A private shuttle picked us up, organized by Ross and Jill Matlock, owners of International Mountain Adventures and our guides for the nine-day trip. It’s certainly possible to navigate Niseko without a guide, however, there’s something to be said for a turnkey trip where people who know the area well carefully choose transportation, lodging, restaurants and ski runs for you.
Notes on Traveling to Niseko
Access: Flights from the U.S. and Canada will go through Tokyo (either Narita or Haneda airports), where you will connect to New Chitose Airport/Sapporo. From there, you can get to Niseko in under three hours by car, train, bus or shuttle from the New Chitose Airport or from the city of Sapporo. Check out niseko.ne.jp/en/access for more information.
Time to Go: Niseko’s average snowfall hovers just below 600 inches. You’ve heard the term “Japanuary,” and that may be the most reliable time for powder. If you go in December, you beat the crowds, but you may be on the early side of the storms. Watch out for Chinese New Year when Niseko is over-crowded. Springtime may bring heavier snows but still plenty of it.
Lodging: Some lodging in Niseko is slopeside or within a short walking distance of the lifts (Bring cat tracks to save your ski boot soles.) Many hotels have an onsen (hot spring pool), a delightful way to relax after skiing. Hotels often include breakfast, including the Niseko Park Hotel, where we stayed.
Onsens: Japanese people have rules for their hot springs, which help keep them clean and pristine. They are usually segregated by gender, restrict bathing suits and require showers. Hotel rooms and spas will offer yukatas, or robes.
Bring cash: Make sure to bring yen as some shops and restaurants don’t take credit cards.
Reservations: Make reservations for restaurants at the start of your trip. There are so many great options but typically groups book them up.
Alcohol: Beer is available from vending machines for about 280 yen or a little over $2. Beer drinkers should try Sapporo Classic beer, brewed nearby and available only in Sapporo. Hot sake warms you up on a cold, winter’s night. Nigori—unrefined, or “cloudy” sake—is tasty, but you may feel as cloudy as the sky the morning after.
Bar Scene: There are some great bars in Niseko. Our group’s favorite is the Fridge bar, where patrons have to climb through a tiny fridge door before entering a beautifully-renovated and romantically-lit bar, complete with craft beers and sakes, creative cocktails and a picture window filled with snow-covered Japanese birch trees.
Night Skiing: Save enough energy to go night skiing one night; it’s beautiful and the slopes are less crowded. Bring goggles with clear lens to see between the lights or during stormy days.
Niseko Rules: Japanese culture has certain expectations on following the rules. “Niseko Rules” are featured on the website and on the trail map, explicitly stating, “crossing boundary ropes is prohibited.” Many North American skiers find themselves in a quandary here, but know that Niseko ski patrol is watching and will pull you over.
Backcountry Skiing: Niseko has multiple backcountry gates that open depending on snow and weather. Go with a guide or bring your avalanche gear, check Niseko’s avalanche information website and follow patrol’s rules.
How to Dress: Almost like New England, if you don’t like the weather in Niseko, wait a minute. Best to layer with a waterproof/breathable shell, down jacket, and neck warmer as it can get cold and windy.
Renting skis: Why fly with skis? Australian owned Rhythm Niseko Ski and Snowboard Shop has all the powder skis you need and allows you switch out each day. You’ll find skis from Armada, Atomic, DPS, Head, K2, Rossignol, Salomon, Völkl and more.
Tools for Travel
Traveling for turns? Consider these three tried-and-true travel items for your gear.
Patagonia 120L Black Hole Wheeled Duffel, $349
What do you need when you’re traveling for more than a day to one of the snowiest resorts on earth? A highly weather-resistant ripstop bag that protects your gear. The Back Hole Wheeled Duffel has an easily accessible U-shaped lid, a pair of zippered mesh pockets and an exterior pocket. Big wheels and a telescoping handle help you maneuver over rough areas. Following Patagonia’s sustainable mission, the fabric is bluesign approved.
Dakine Boot Pack, $65
If there’s one thing you don’t want to rent on a ski trip, it’s ski boots. The Dakine Boot Pack is small enough to use as a carry-on. Helmet and accessories fit in the upper helmet pocket, while a front pocket suits other accessories. The tarp-lined boot compartment isolates your wet boots and the padded shoulder straps ease strain.
Armada Longhauler Double Ski Bag, $299
You want your favorite pair of skis to slay the powder? The Armada Longhauler not only provides prolific padding to protect your boards, but it has burly wheels and straps to make hauling easier. A bonus detachable duffle with backpack straps can double as a daypack or boot bag.