Experience the magic of winter in Niseko, Japan, with these must-try activities. From skiing and snowboarding to enjoying hot springs and savoring delicious Japanese cuisine, there’s something for everyone in this winter wonderland.
Niseko, located approximately a two-hour drive from Sapporo, attracts millions of visitors from across Japan and the world (4.4 million in 2018-2019, to be exact). Most people visit during winter, as the area is famed for its cloud-like powder snow. Coupled with luxurious ski resorts, Niseko stands out as the ultimate winter holiday destination. One iconic feature of Niseko is Mount Yotei, often dubbed the ‘Mount Fuji of Hokkaido,’ which majestically accompanies you as you glide down the slopes.
Niseko is undoubtedly one of the most famous ski resorts in the world, but it is also a fantastic gateway into Japanese culture. So, let’s get into all you need to know about Niseko in winter.
Table of contents
How to Get to Niseko
Driving to Niseko
There are two routes to reach Niseko from Sapporo. The first involves traveling south towards Jozankei, through Nakayama Pass, to Makkari Town—a stunning scenic drive taking roughly one hour and 45 minutes.
The alternative option is to drive up to Otaru and then down into Niseko. This option takes approximately one hour and 30 minutes. It might be a good choice if you want to stop and enjoy some of Otaru’s attractions and seafood.
During winter, the roads are very icy; despite snow tires, it is easy to skid and lose control. Nakayama Pass takes you through windy mountains, which can be a little more dangerous. Going through Otaru and Yoichi uses the highway, which is more convenient and safer. However, please drive cautiously on both routes.
Trains to Niseko
To get to Niseko from Sapporo Station, take the Hakodate Line – Niseko Liner Rapid heading towards Kutchan. The journey takes approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, with a one-way cost of 2,100 yen. In certain situations, you might need to switch trains at Otaru Station.
It’s worth noting that a Shinkansen line is currently under construction, with completion planned for 2031!
Bus to Niseko
Starting from the clock tower, situated just south of Sapporo Station, you can catch the Chuo Bus heading towards Niseko Ikoi no Yujuku Iroha. The journey takes under three hours, and the fare is 2,130 yen.
Within Niseko, regular buses run throughout the ski resorts, hotels, and neighboring Kutchan town during the winter season.
Why is Niseko So Popular
Niseko is known as the go-to place for all things winter sports in Hokkaido, if not all of Japan. It has become renowned for having some of the finest powder snow, attracting visitors from across the globe. But what exactly is powder snow?
Without delving into too much technical detail, powder snow is fresh snow that is dry and airy, making it feel like you are sliding along a sea of clouds.
Niseko is located at the base of Mount Niseko Annupuri and Mount Yotei, receiving plenty of sunlight and low-water content snow. The combination of the northwest Siberian winds meeting the warm waters of the Sea of Japan to the southeast creates a phenomenon known as the ‘Ocean-Effect Snow,’ forming an easterly-moving snowbelt. Additionally, Niseko’s average winter temperature of 25°F (-4°C) means the snow has between 92-96% trapped air, creating its famous powder snow.
World-Class Ski Resorts
Beyond the snow, Niseko also boasts several world-class ski resorts that offer guests a winter stay of a lifetime: Hirafu, Annupuri, and Hanazono. Here, you can find luxury hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton Reserve and Park Hyatt that blend Western and Japanese cultures, cozy cottages, and relaxing condominiums perfect for families. With an abundance of accommodations and slopes featuring beginner, intermediate, and advanced courses, Niseko is accessible to everyone.
However, with all this demand, many luxury hotels quickly sell out and double or even triple in price compared to the off-season. You can find budget hotels and lodges, but they are often a little further away from the slopes. If the hotels are fully booked or a little out of budget, you can still easily make a day trip to Niseko from Sapporo or Otaru.
As Niseko is highly popular among non-Japanese visitors, many hotels, restaurants, and facilities are capable of providing services in English. In fact, you’ll probably hear considerably more English than Japanese when you are there!
Winter Food in Niseko
Niseko is also blessed with fantastic food, from local Hokkaido specialties to fine dining and global gastronomic experiences. Known for attracting people from across the globe, many restaurants aim to showcase Hokkaido’s local cuisine, such as soup curry and jingisukan (lamb barbecue). Thanks to its high cultural diversity, you can also find shops selling various foreign dishes that are hard to find elsewhere in Hokkaido.
A popular spot is Tsubara Tsubara, offering warm and comforting soup curry with various vegetables and toppings. Unfortunately, the shop was closed on the day I visited, but there was a food stall selling Hokkaido’s local curry dish.
Niseko is known for its local produce, particularly the humble potato. The mascot of Kutchan Town and the Niseko area is Jagata-kun [じゃがたくん]. The abundance of nutrient-rich soil, among other factors, makes growing potatoes ideal. As the endless snowfall covers the potatoes, the enzymes that work at low temperatures create even more sugar content. The result is some of the most delicious, fluffy, and sweet potatoes that are sought after across the county.
If you love coffee and organic produce, I recommend heading to The POW BAR. I always stop here on my drive in Niseko and pick up a coffee and some sweets!
Hot Springs (Onsen)
What better way to end a session on the slopes than soaking in a hot spring? Many of the ski resorts’ hotels have onsens where you can enjoy a relaxing soak during your stay, even if you visit Niseko on a day trip.
Best Time to Visit Niseko in Winter
Light snowfall typically occurs between mid-October and November, drastically increasing from late November. Most ski resorts will start to open during this time and in early December, so if you want to experience the season’s first snow, this is the best time to go.
However, the heaviest snowfall occurs between January and February, marking the peak season to enjoy the exuberant powder snow. Keep in mind that around this time, many of the hotels will be expensive and limited in availability, and the slopes will be busy. I recommend booking several months in advance if you plan to go during this time.
If you visit in February, be sure to check out the Yukitopia Festival in Kutchan (held on the 17th and 18th in 2024). You can enjoy various activities such as ice skating and rubber tube racing, marvel at the snow sculptures, and indulge in the food market.
From March to April, and even early May in some years, you can enjoy early spring skiing. While you may not find powder snow, you can still enjoy the slopes with fewer people, slightly warmer weather, and lower accommodation costs!
Ski Resorts in Niseko
There are four main ski areas in the region known as Niseko United: Hirafu, Niseko Village, Hanazono, and Annupuri. These four resorts surround Mount Niseko Annupuri, where you can find some of the finest hotels, condominiums, and food while enjoying all the snow.
While you can buy your lift pass specifically for where you stay, you can also purchase an “All Mountain Pass” on Niseko United’s website. This grants you access to the ski lifts at all four ski resorts, including shuttle bus rides. They also offer various bundles, discounts, and deals with transportation to and from New Chitose Airport, so it is worth checking their website when planning your trip. If you plan on staying in Niseko, check with your accommodation, as many places offer transport for staying guests.
The hub of Niseko is known as Hirafu, divided into Grand Hirafu and Lower Hirafu. The former is the ski resort, housing the Hirafu Gondola and various other ski lifts that grant you access to boundless terrains, off-piste, backcountry, and night skiing. From the slopes, you can enjoy a panoramic view over Niseko and a stunning sight of Mount Yotei. Even if you don’t plan on skiing, you can ride the Hirafu Gondola (return trip priced at 2,800 yen for adults in 2024) and relish the snow from early December to early May.
Grand Hirafu is also home to countless luxury and budget hotels, condominiums, and lodges, as well as a plethora of restaurants and cafes to keep you fueled during your stay. I love to visit Green Farm Cafe Deli as they have great coffee and a whole range of food, from sandwiches to hot dishes.
Being from the UK, I had to pick up a sausage roll because it’s been a while since i had one!
The area is drastically different from the off-season, as you’ll find many non-Japanese enjoying their winter holiday.
Head to Rhytmn to buy or rent all the ski gear you need and lessons and tours.
Lower Hirafu mainly consists of lodges and condominiums, with many staff houses scattered around. In these narrow streets, you’ll find some pubs and bars filled with staff and locals, so it’s a great place to enjoy the nightlife.
Hanazono Ski Resort is located on the eastern side of Mount Niseko Annupuri. The ski season typically runs from early December to early April, with plenty of courses for beginner and intermediate-level skiers and snowboarders. For the more advanced, there are many off-piste tracks alongside wide-open powder bowls, banks, kickers, and a jib park, making Hanazono a fantastic option for thrill-seekers.
There are several chalets, lodges, and hotels, the largest of which is Park Hyatt, a luxury ski-in ski-out mountainside hotel. The luxury hotel has everything you need for an indulgent winter stay, including eleven restaurants, lounges, bars, spa and onsen facilities, an indoor swimming pool, a fitness center, and more.
Just outside is Hanazono 308, a cafe and ski shop, where you can buy or rent all the equipment you need to hit the slopes.
Right next to the ski lifts is Hanazono EDGE, a restaurant and bar overlooking the resort, a perfect spot for taking a break after enjoying all the powder snow.
Next is Annupuri, located on the western edge of the Niseko United area. Annupuri is famous for having a fantastic mix of terrain for all skill levels, long groomed runs, and four gates for backcountry access. The ski season typically runs from early December to early May.
At the base, you’ll find various chalets, hotels, and places to stay with a more Japanese style.
While it is much less hectic than Hirafu, the slopes have just as good quality snow and courses to keep you entertained throughout your stay.
The last ski resort in the Niseko United group is Niseko Village. Nestled between Annupuri and Hirafu, Niseko Village has several well-established “ski-in ski-out” hotels, including Hilton Niseko Village and the renowned Ritz Carlton. The area is perfect for families as there is an abundance of winter activities, such as snowmobiling, snow rafting, snowshoe tours, and reindeer sled rides.
The slopes also have plenty of beginner courses and some of the longest and steepest runs for experienced skiers. The winter season typically runs from early December to early April.
Close by is Niseko Takahashi Dairy Farm MILK KOBO. If you’ve read my Niseko Autumn Travel Guide, you may remember I visited the farm and enjoyed the seasonal flowers, greenery, and some ice cream. Well, in winter, it’s a different scene—nothing but snow!
Of course, I had to get my customary ice cream!
Other Winter Activities in Niseko
Aside from skiing and snowboarding, there are many other winter activities you can indulge in. If you head to NAC (Niseko Adventure Centre), you can participate in snowshoeing and cross-country ski tours to soak in the magical winter weather at a leisurely pace.
As mentioned, I recommend checking out Niseko United to book any ski lift and winter activity tickets in advance.
Niseko is a winter paradise for all skiers and snowboarders. Even if you are not keen on hitting the slopes, it’s still a fantastic area to visit and appreciate the sheer amount of snow and the stunning scenery.