To the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido, it’s Nisey ko an pet or ‘cliff jutting over a river’. In modern Japanese, it is Niseko. And to winter sports lovers, it’s a winter wonderland, powder paradise, and more.
Japan’s biggest and wildest island and the northernmost part of the country, Hokkaido, has become the top ski and snowboarding destination in Asia, and Niseko is its Mecca. Such is the size of the area of Mount Niseko-Annupuri, that Niseko in fact comprises three resorts—Grand Hirafu, Niseko village, and Annupuri—and winter sports lovers can ski between them at the summit.
Skiing in Japan
On a trip to Japan, I once told a Japanese friend that I still remembered the winter Olympics in Nagano. He smiled and answered, “The best skiing in Japan is in Hokkaido. You should go there if you have the chance.”
I have never really taken to skiing, mainly on account of spending more time on my bum than upright on my skis every time I try. But I wanted to see Hokkaido.
Where most who visit Hokkaido for the winter sports would fly to New Chitose Airport, I took a ferry from Nagoya to Sapporo. (You could also take a road trip through Japan’s wild north to get there.) And I would be able to visit some of the resorts before they became blanketed in snow.
Skiing was not introduced to Hokkaido with the advent of ski resorts. The original settlers of the island, who call themselves Ainu (simply, humans), used skis for centuries to get around during the long months of heavy snowfall.
With its national parks and stunning interior, Hokkaido would lend itself perfectly to cross-country skiing. But it seems the pleasures of Grand Hirafu, with its steep, wide courses and abundance of restaurants and nightlife to round off a day on the slopes, are too great, and going cross-country through the backcountry has not really taken off in Hokkaido in the same way as in Europe or North America.
There are notable exceptions though—Asahi Dake is nature’s gift to cross-country, telemark and backcountry skiers, who are basically free to roam and experience their adventure-skiing dreams.
Although Hokkaido attracts visitors from all over the world, the huge success of winter sports resorts like Niseko, Furano, and Rusutsu is in no small part thanks to the large percentage of Australian skiing enthusiasts who return faithfully to the island year after year.
One consequence of this international atmosphere is that it is easy to get by in English, and the language barrier is rarely a problem. There are English-speaking ski instructors, winter climbing guides, and helicopter pilots. (If you have the opportunity to go on an aerial tour, the Rusutsu Resort tour, which takes in views of Mount Yotei and Lake Toya, is one of the most scenic and highly recommended.)
Part of the magic of Hokkaido is the short transition from one season to the next. Summer gives way to autumn, and the Daisetsuzan National Park becomes a blaze of gold, bronze and fiery red.
Furano, meanwhile, is a town that undergoes one of the greatest metamorphoses of any once the first snows come. In winter, with more sunshine and colder temperatures than Niseko, it is, on good days, possibly the best skiing venue in Japan. But in summer and the fall, it is a dazzling spectacle of color. Its vast fields of lavender and meadows brim with flowers before up to 26 feet (eight meters) of snow per season render it monochromatic.
Winter sports away from the slopes
While it is quite difficult to get ‘off the beaten track’ simply by exploring ski resorts, there are two that are picturesque, a little atypical and that I have a soft spot for—alas, not for the skiing, as they are not for novices such as myself, but certainly for the wild landscapes.
Sounkyo village to the north east of Asahi Dake has a mid-winter snow and ice festival that is one of Hokkaido’s main winter attractions. Visitors might be taken aback by the slightly European feel to the village, but they come, of course, for the off-piste or the mountains in Daisetsuzan, not the architecture. In contrast, Nukabira is a very Japanese town, old-style, and conditions are cold and dry throughout the season, making the hot springs the town is built around particularly welcome. If you’r keen on more festivities, visit the Sapporo Snow Festival—which is so spectacular it has to be seen to be believed.
To really head out into the wilds, snowshoeing is the best option, and gives access to long wilderness hikes in the depths of winter. Many places rent out kanjiki (oval snowshoes criss-crossed with ropes), a centuries-old design that enables trekkers to get a feel for what it was like for Ainu hunters and gatherers to make their way across the snow as they went about their business.
Tobogganing and even sleigh rides are on offer in many resorts. And for those who are not averse to motorized thrills, snow rafting, snow tubing, and snow mobile rides are also on offer. But for me, what makes Hokkaido unique is the call of the wild. The huge expanses of wilderness, the spectacular scenery, the unspoilt landscapes give the place an almost mystical feel.
Coming to Hokkaido in the winter means coming to commune with nature. Speed, the great outdoors, adrenaline rushes, all these can be experienced at any ski resort in the world. But in Hokkaido, the wilderness beckons.
At any resort, it is right there, on the doorstep, the immensity, the danger of the unknown, the harsh conditions, but also the hot springs, the forests and the plains. This is why most resorts have a lenient (but common sense) approach to off-piste, as no winter trip to Hokkaido is complete without venturing at least a little out into the wilds.
It is the great playground of nature, in which the ski slopes nestle, that makes Hokkaido truly unlike any other winter sports destination in the world.
Whether you’re looking for powder on the ski slopes in winter or chasing cherry blossoms in spring, our Japan Travel Guide will help you uncover the best of the Land of the Rising Sun.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.