When you think of ski destinations, your mind may go to the Rockies or the French Alps. But way over on the other side of the world is the paradisaical snow globe of Niseko—home to the best skiing in Japan and some of the best snow conditions in the world. Tucked away on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, this area offers some of the deepest champagne powder on the planet, world-class tree runs, and some of the most flavorful après-ski eats anywhere.
Let’s start with the main attraction: The snow. Over the last ten years, Niseko has averaged over 35 feet of fresh snow per season. Owing to the area’s unique topography, this tends to be light, fluffy powder, and it’s not uncommon for it to be chest-deep. If you have fat skis or a wide-nosed, swallow-tailed snowboard, this is what they’re made for. The region is famous for its impeccably-spaced trees, giving you the type of off-trail experience you’d typically have to hike, helicopter, or snowmobile to in the U.S. In Niseko, much of the best stuff is lift-serviced—and this alone makes it a powder hound’s dream trip.
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Niseko’s resorts and ski pass
Mt. Niseko Annupuri has a surprising number of things in common with Aspen. In Colorado, there are four individual resorts operated by the Aspen Ski Company. In Niseko, there are also four resorts—Hanazono, Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village, and Annupuri—all operated by the Niseko United Ski Resort. And as with Aspen, you can access all of the mountains on one pass (though here you can actually ski from one to another), and Niseko United is also a part of the Ikon Pass. In other words, if you already have an Ikon Pass, you already have five (or seven) days of lift tickets at Niseko United, just waiting for you to cash them in.
Each of the four resorts has its own unique personality. Grand Hirafu is by far the largest, occupying 60 percent of Niseko United’s total area. It has a wide variety of terrain, with everything from beginner slopes to the best access to the Peak of Mt. Annupuri. The base at Hirafu is by far the most developed, with more restaurants, bars, and nightlife than anywhere else nearby. When you think “ski town,” Hirafu fits the bill. Hanazono Resort is probably the most rugged of the three, but in a good way: It has everybody’s favorite tree zones, there’s a lot of amazing backcountry—through some well-marked gates—and also an excellent terrain park.
Toward the other side of the mountain, the Niseko Village resort is a bit smaller and quieter, but still packs a lot of thrills. This resort is probably best for more advanced skiers and riders, as it features more red (intermediate) and black (advanced) runs. It’s also the only resort that offers skiing in an avalanche-controlled backcountry location, called Mizuno Sawa at Gate 11 (albeit somewhat weather dependent). Annupuri is known as “the most Japanese” of the resorts—which owes mostly to the less touristy base-area with more traditional style lodging. Annupuri is a great place for beginners because the slopes tend to be wide and crowds are usually much thinner, but there’s still a lot of good side-country if you’re chasing powder.