Post and photos by Philippa
Having spent several years living in Morzine, France, it’s fair to say that I love to ski. I have long wanted to ski in Japan but we decided to wait until our little boy was three-years-old before taking the family. All I can say is that it was worth the wait!
There are some 500 ski resorts in Japan of varying sizes. We decided to go to Niseko, one of the larger and more popular ski resorts, located in Hokkaido in the north of the country. Niseko is dramatically colder than any European resort I have experienced and, with March temperatures plummeting to -10C degrees, we needed to wrap up warm. The upside was that there was a vast amount of fluffy snow, which was replenished every other day. This made for brilliant powder skiing on empty slopes. We were as happy as clams digging ourselves out of the powder, navigating through the spindly local trees and watching our little girl progress from snowplough to parallel turns with her bubbly Australian instructor.
Our group soon developed a daily ritual of skiing followed by onsen bathing and an evening meal at one of the many delicious restaurants in town. The seafood in Niseko is the best I have ever tasted; thick slices of fresh sashimi, hot bowels of pork and shrimp ramen, pink wagyu beef steaks, seasoned yakitori (meat skewers) and endless glasses of plum wine and Sake. Whether dinning in a snug Izakaya or 5* renowned restaurant the quality and service was impeccable – we were in skiing and culinary heaven!
Skiing in Niseko
Our trip to Niseko was the first time on the slopes for my two children and, as enthusiastic skiing parents, we wanted the little ones to have a great time. We booked Maya (7-years-old) two half-day and three full-day lessons and Gillan (3-years-old) five half-day lessons. This was the perfect arrangement and both children loved it. All credit goes to the ski school GoSnow for recruiting the most energetic, kind, safe, friendly and youthful instructors.
Each child received a little passport where they could tick off their accomplishments as the week progressed. The children went at their own pace and, if needed, they were fast-tracked to a more experienced level. During the lessons the children stopped a few times for hot chocolate breaks and during the full-day lessons the school provided lunch.
After the kids’ lessons we were able to leave their kiddie skis at the hire shop before strolling home. The children loved pulling icicles off walls, making snowballs and snowmen. Maya spent hours outside the house constructing her giant snowman until it was time for dinner.
While the kids were at ski school we explored the mountains. The slopes are wide with occasional forest outcrops. There was plenty of snow and often it was difficult to navigate due to white outs. Skiing in Japan is, as you might imagine, very safe and very controlled; if skiers cross the boundary ropes they have their lift passes confiscated. There are safe designated back-country ski areas and everyone follows the rules. The other big difference between skiing in Japan and skiing in Europe was the loud speaker on the slopes that repeatedly broadcast ski rules, disturbing the otherwise peaceful mountain slopes. I’m not sure if this is the same for all Japanese ski resorts but it did become rather annoying.
The ski area is small compared with the European resorts we are used to and is spread over three hills, Hirafu, Annupuri and Hanazono. Despite this, we were only able to explore half the terrain since we couldn’t drift too far from the kids due to Gillan and Maya’s pick up times.
On our last day the weather took a turn and it began to rain. We decided to forego skiing for a family fun day in Hanazono, located just a 15-minute bus drive from Lower Hirafu. Hanazono is where many of the other snow-based activities are. We tried the Tube Park, which involved sledging down a slope on a huge tyre. The slope had become really slippery due to the rain and made for a thrillingly fast descent. As well as skiing and snowboarding, Niseko also offers snowmobile tours, Weiss Cat Skiing (private backcountry ski tours), Powder Guides (backcountry guiding service), terrain parks (half pipes, rails, and jumps for advanced skiers and boarders) and snowshoeing tours.
When in Japan…Onsen
When in Japan it’s a liberating right of passage to go au natural at the onsen baths. Embrace your natural beauty, and go local! The healing properties of the baths will sooth and heal your tired limbs and rejuvenate your spirit. There are even Onsen sommeliers who study the thermal minerals and properties of each bath.
The onsen bath was the ideal way to unwind after skiing. These local baths are filled with piping hot natural spring water. You can usually smell an onsen before you see it as it has a distinct sulphur perfume. The baths are divided into male and female sections and insist on nudity, quietness and cleanliness; children are welcome so long as they behave. We preferred the local Yuroro Onsen, which had an outdoor and indoor bath, as opposed to the hotel onsens that have a distinctive spa feel. My favourite was the out of town Yukichichibu Onsen (an $80 return taxi ride fare from Lower Hirafu), for its mud baths and several outdoor pools. I took my daughter one evening where we both scrubbed off, had a mud bath and soothed ourselves in the mineral pools. It was a lovely moment of mother-daughter bonding.
Where to Stay in Niseko
We booked our trip through Powderlife.com, which was a great way to organise the often overwhelming task or renting ski kit, booking ski lessons, arranging ski transfers and securing ski passes. Powderlife paired us with the perfect property and provided us with a comprehensive information pack.
Our home in Niseko was a Neyuki town house that we shared with four friends and our children’s nanny. The house was very comfortable with contemporary design and perfectly located, just five minutes walk from the slopes, restaurants and Onsens. It was a welcome joy for tired legs to return to the shelter of a cosy sofa after a day bashing the slopes!
The house is spread over three levels, with floor to ceiling windows framing a picturesque view of a forest backdrop. The kitchen is stocked with everything you need to self-cater including a toastie machine, coffee press and dishwasher. The welcoming bedrooms enjoy comfortable beds and lots of storage. A big bonus is the boot room with separate entrance, which meant you can avoid lugging your gear through the main house.
There are three double bedrooms and one bunk room in the basement. One of the doubles has an ensuite with a shower and the other two share a bathroom with a deep bath. The bunk-room is ideal for the kids; spacious with carpeted floors, two bunkbeds, floor to ceiling windows, a couple of cosy bean bags, lots of storage space and a large flat screen TV.
The open plan kitchen/diner and lounge areas are spacious and could easily accommodate us all. The lounge area also had a desk space, ideal for charging all our gadgets. The breakfast bar provided a social space in the morning where we regrouped and planned the day ahead. All rooms are neutrally decorated with contemporary soft furnishings in grey, cream, white and brown. There is also a private sit-out balcony area where Gillan safely made dozens of snowballs
The basement also housed the washer/dryer and heated boot-room. The apartment was cleaned daily by the Ski Japan team and towels were replenished on request.
If you’re looking for a hotel in Niseko then there are a couple of beautiful central hotels in Lower Hirafu Hanazono and Annupuri including The Vale, AYA Niseko (which have ultra modern apartments right on the slopes), and The Hyatt. If you can blow the budget stay at The Glasshouse.
Where to Eat in Niseko
Unexpectedly for me, this holiday was as much about the food as it was the skiing. The restaurants on offer in Lower Hirafu are incredible with a huge choice of culinary wonders. We ate out most evenings and enjoyed huge plates of sashimi, fresh oysters, clam soup and mouth-watering wagyu beef. The resort is only an hour’s drive from the Sea of Japan and therefore has access to a delicious array of fresh seafood. I developed a serious addiction to plum wine while in Hirafu although my husband favoured the Japanese beer. The following are some of the restaurants that we enjoyed in Niseko with kids.
Izakaya – Izakaya translates as grill-house. For a local experience visit a traditional izakaya. You can spot them easily since they are usually small establishments with little lanterns outside. Try the cute tucked away Koharuya Izakaya for fresh sashimi, mouth watering yakitori, delicious plum wine and moochi balls (ice cream in sticky rice).
Ezo Seafood – I love restaurants where the menu is what is in the fish tank! What you see is what you get at Ezo Seafood as fresh oysters, crabs, fish and clams inhabit the tanks inside this bijoux eatery.
Bang Bang and Bang 2 – We experienced an opulent night out at Bang Bang 2, which serves huge platters of fresh sashimi and melt-in-the-mouth wagyu beef.
Niseko Pizza – The best pizza in town and an easy option for the whole family
Green Farm Café – Best for an organic après ski bite or the perfect breakfast before hitting the slopes.
Ramen on the slopes – All of the mountain retreats offer hot bowls of Ramen to thaw out frozen skiers.
The Food Trucks – If you are looking for an easy take-out, then visit the quirky Indian food trucks that are parked in the main town of Hirfau offer a great range of curries, naan breads and kebabs.
The best part
Aside from soft powder skiing and phenomenal cuisine, the best part of the holiday was watching the children become such confident little skiers and embrace the cold despite their tropical heritage (we have been living in The Philippines for the last five years). This was all thanks to the slick organisation and wonderful personalities at Go Snow. Our kids loved their teachers and they are now eager to return. By the second day our daughter was riding the chair lift, before confidently and safely navigating down the slopes. I never expected to be able to ski alongside her so quickly.
When to go to Niseko
The best time to for families to visit Niseko is the beginning of March when there are promotions and accommodation is cheaper. We travelled on 3rd March and benefitted from free kids ski pass and free kids ski hire. The ski season generally runs from late November to early May.
How to get to Niseko
You can fly from any major Asian city to New Chitose Airport in Sapporo (cities that fly to New Chitose include Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo, Singapore and Taipei amongst others). From here it’s a two-hour bus ride to Niseko.
Niseko is located on the nothern island Hokkaido, which is separated from the mainland by the Sea of Japan. Train travel would include a journey to Aomori port, followed by a ferry crossing to Hakodate, followed by numerous train connections before reaching Sapporo. Its infinitely longer and more expensive than air travel.
What to pack for a ski holiday in Niseko
• Adult Ski gear (although it is available to hire/buy at a cost)
• An extra pair of gloves for the kids (just in case they lose one or they need time to dry out)
• Sun cream, moisturiser and lip balm (the air is very dry)
• A snood/balaclava – it’s freezing on the mountain!
• Very warm clothes – temperatures can plummet to -10C even in March, which feels even colder with a wind chill factor
Three things you should definitely do
1. Eat out at a traditional Japanese Izakaya. If ordering Japanese seems a little overwhelming ask for ‘Omakase’ which translates as ‘whatever the chef recommends’ or ‘I leave it up to you’
2. Bath in a traditional Japanese Onsen in the evening to sooth ski aches and pains.
3. Sign the kids up for group lessons at GoSnow while you explore the mountain.
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