Japan has been high on my list of places to visit for years. From its beautifully breathtaking landscapes to how their culture remains rich in respecting tradition, it’s no wonder why I have been so obsessively drawn to Japan. As a teenager, one of my favorite books to read repeatedly was Memoirs of a Geisha. Not only did the story capture my attention and imagination, but so did the lengthy descriptions of Japan’s landscape and culture. When the film came out, it sealed the deal that I needed to visit this remarkable country sooner rather than later. While I always assumed my first destination inside Japan would be either Tokyo, Osaka, or Instagram-friendly Kyoto, I decided to make my first Japanese travel experience to be in the north where snow would surround me and give me an inside look at Japan in winter. With my eyes (and heart) set on Hokkaido, I set off for a week of winter bliss.
With a week to spend in wintery northern Japan, I decided why not take advantage of one of Hokkaido’s most famous winter sport – skiing. While I am not an advanced or even an intermediate skier, I still felt adventurous enough to want to spend time in Hokkaido’s up and coming ski spot – Niseko. Settled directly across from the impressively dominating volcano Mt. Yōtei, Niseko reminded me so much of my first visit to Whistler, Canada nine years ago.
A small little ski village, Niseko boasts highly rated restaurants (most within walking distance) and several luxury hotels. More hotels are currently being built in the area, with construction sites abundant during our visit. For many years, Niseko was a hidden gem amongst locals with no hotels present. Niseko was a day trip for avid skiers, with buses flowing in and out bringing snowboarders and skiers to the base of the mountain before returning back to Chitose. Niseko’s popularity continued to grow, especially since its famous powder hits its peak around February. Over time, a few hotels began to pop up to encourage locals to stay for the weekend. Word about Niseko spread, and suddenly more Japanese citizens were flying in from Tokyo or Osaka to give their shot at skiing. Nowadays, Niseko is a big ski spot for Japanese and Australians. A majority of the fellow visitors we encountered either called Japan or Australia home, with a few being from Hong Kong, and me being the rare American.
How To Get To Niseko:
I flew into New Chitose Airport / Sapporo from Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. Some Asian airlines have direct flights to Chitose, such as Cathay Pacific, but a majority of visitors will have to fly into Tokyo and connect on a flight to Chitose. The direct flight from Hong Kong was about 5 hours, and a flight from Tokyo would be under one hour.
After landing at Chitose airport, we rented a car (I recommend 4WD from December – March) and drove the 2.5 hour drive to Niseko. If you’d rather not drive, there are some tour buses that can bring you to Niseko from the airport.
The drive is absolutely beautiful, since you will spend most of the drive winding through snowy forests and snow covered mountains. If your drive is during the day, you’ll also get a romantic glimpse of Lake Shikotsu.
Where To Stay:
With skiing being the primary reason for a visit to Niseko (as well as getting to roll around in snow for this happy snow lover), choosing the right hotel came easy once we discovered which hotels were closest to the lifts and ski rental. Our hotel couldn’t have been any closer – AYA Niseko is literally located at the base of the mountain. A ski-in, ski-out hotel, this spot has its own ski valet where you can store your ski gear so you don’t have to bring any of it back to your room. Both contemporary and modern, AYA Niseko is the area’s newest luxury hotel that boasts both hotel rooms and apartments with floor to ceiling windows that overlook the mountain, the forest, or Mount Yōtei. Our apartment for 2 nights had a full kitchen, although sadly we never used it since we were eager to try as many restaurants as possible. Our apartment also overlooked the mountain, which meant I got a prime view of watching little ones learn how to ski from their parents on the bunny hill directly across from the hotel. I originally wanted a view of Mount Yōtei, but my fear of volcanoes made me change my mind even though Mount Yōtei has been sleeping since 1050 BC. AYA Niseko also boasts an amazing spa, with onsens at the ready to soak those tired, sore muscles after a day of skiing. Private onsens are available if reserved in advance, which is great for couples or friends. I’ll be talking more about onsens in a future blog post.
Where To Eat:
After a long day in the snow, the first thing you’ll want to munch on is something warm and delicious. From hot pots of shabu shabu to hearty bowls of ramen, there is no shortage of Japanese comfort food in this ski village.
For dinner on our first night, we weren’t quite sure where to go. We had checked in just before 6 pm, and we were a little unsure of where we wanted to dine for our first night. The concierge warned us that since it was a weekend, getting last minute reservations might be tough. He had told us that he had just made a reservation for another couple earlier in the day at A-Bu-Cha 2 izakaya nearby, so we decided to try our luck and just walk in. We were prepared to be turned away but they actually had room for us! Clinking our glasses of sake, we dined on wagyu beef izakaya, vegetables, udon, and fried chicken. I’d still recommend making a reservation in advance with your hotel just in case.
For lunch the next day, our concierge told us that Tozanken Ramen boasted probably the best ramen in all of Niseko. We decided to visit just before most skiers would be descending the mountain for lunch, hoping it would be an easier time getting a table. Nope. It’s that popular! We entered the lobby and had to take a number, and then we needed to wait for our number to be called. You’ll see people standing in a line in the lobby, but those are people who already collected their number. Just make your way to the front to take a number. We waited for 20 minutes before being seated. We immediately selected two bowls of ramen – pork for him and vegetarian for me – and some sake. Arguably this was the best ramen I’ve ever had. It was so authentically delicious and so perfect for a snowy day. But since this spot is popular, I wouldn’t linger too long. Once you’re finished, I’d pay at the front and let someone else take your table.
For our final night in Niseko, we decided to make a reservation at The Barn by Odin, a delicious Japanese steakhouse. The Barn is literally a restaurant in a glass barn, which makes the setting extremely romantic especially with freshly fallen snowflakes dancing around the restaurant. I was extremely excited to see they had one of my dad’s favorite wines on their wine menu (Gnarly Head), so we ordered a bottle to share while dining on authentic Japanese cuisine.
Our stay in Niseko was short and sweet, but we are already considering making it a yearly routine to visit for some good skiing. While our trip happened in December, our friends just returned from their own Niseko visit and took some of our suggestions for their trip. They raved about Niseko as much as we have been, which was pretty exciting to hear.
Next time you’re considering a trip to Japan, consider a trip to the north as well to kick up some powder.