With snow on the I-70 corridor falling at the same rate you might expect in the Sahara, we went in search of powder elsewhere. Our search took us from the Pacific Northwest (shout out Crystal Mountain and it’s 30” of December snow) to Crested Butte to Park City to Whistler-Blackcomb.
But despite great skiing in each of those locations, nothing held a candle to Niseko. The snow started and never stopped. It was apocalyptic. Except it wasn’t that abnormal.
When Colorado had 36”, Niseko had 180”. When we got there in February, there was nowhere left to put it. Trucks came empty and left the city filled to the brim with exactly what we came for – that sweet sweet Japow.
You are in Japan. You are 16 miles from the ocean. EAT SUSHI. Hate fish? Don’t care, eat sushi. But that’s standard advice for Japan.
If you are like us, you’d rather spend to get somewhere and then figure out how to live cheaply once you arrive. Sometimes flight costs are unavoidable but there are always things you can do to mitigate the cost of living.
Food trucks – the food truck scene in Niseko is real. With everything from oysters, to sandwiches to pizza you really never have to set foot in a restaurant. But the best – in our humble opinion – was Taj Mahal. It was cheap. It was quick. The dudes were friendly. And the Taj Roll – think butter chicken smothered burrito – was exactly what you needed after a long day of laps in waist-deep snow. It was also easy finger food on the way home from the bars.
Asahikawa Ramen Tozanken – right in town, you’ll recognize this ramen place by the line that either winds out the door (weather/snow permitting) or all the way up the stairs into the shop above. It’s a quick, cheap eat and you can be in and out in less than an hour without dropping more than $20 for ramen and beer.
Izakaya – if you want to get a little more upscale, hit up an izakaya. They are typically low key settings where you cook your own food on a charcoal grill set up on your table. You can either sit at a traditional low table (depending on how sore you are) or at a standard western-height table. You can get by for $40-50/person including beer and sake.
If you are like us, ski trips are almost as much about the apres-ski as it is about the ski. And Japan is full of too much good booze to not partake.
As mentioned below, drink in the onsens. It’s the equivalent of the hot tub scene in the US with one major difference (keep reading).
Once you’ve finished up with the onsen and are looking for your bar for the night, find Bar Gyu. You literally enter through a mini-fridge door built into a rock. The bar is set partially underground which gives it an awesome vibe. Drinks are on the pricey side but it’s a good scene and the massive windows look out into the forest. Definitely worth a stop.
Go to the onsens. Onsens are a hot spring and Japanese bathhouse. You’ll be kicking yourself if you don’t go – both for the experience and for how sore you will be the next day. Is it weird to get totally naked with your buddies? Yeah, we’re not going to pretend otherwise. It’s even weirder when you factor in the 30-40 strangers around you too. But at the end of the day, it’s a Japanese custom and if you want to get any culture out of your trip, this might be your chance. And the difference in how your legs will feel the next day is worth all the awkwardness.
Make a quick stop by the convenience store on the way and snag yourself a few beers. Cheaper and barely policed and everyone is drinking in the onsens, especially in town.
If you are traveling with anyone of the opposite sex, prepare to onsen separately. The entire bathhouse is split into two sections, one for men and one for women.
The further you get out of town, the more chill the vibe. The one in town is more a party scene with many of the foreigners (lots of Australians go there for the winter to ski bum) hanging out.
Ski. Ski you’re a** off. The snow is unreal and unlimited. You can lap the same run without every feeling like it’s repetitive. A different line means different trees, different bumps and different drops. The weather changes on a dime so you may lap it as a bluebird and 20mins later lap it in a whiteout.
The ski area of Hirafu is split into 4 sections. When the weather is particularly nasty, the top lifts can shut down, stranding you in whichever section you are in. If your home base isn’t at the bottom of the area you are in, you might get stuck taking the bus back home. It’s not the end of the world, it’s just long, hot and not particularly comfortable.
The gourmet food that has made it’s way to the top of every major resort in the US has not made it’s way to the ski lodges of Hirafu. Food is expensive ($8 for a cup of coffee) and bad. Don’t plan to eat on the mountain. We skied until we couldn’t anymore and then went back to town for beers and Taj Rolls.
The weather changes constantly. From whiteout to bluebird and back. Dress for the worst and prepare to be changing clothes frequently.
Night skiing is actually cool. In Colorado it feels like a single file line down an icy green run. In Japan it’s well lit, the snow is plentiful (running theme) and there is lots of terrain available. We got off the bus, ditched our bags and went straight for the snow. Worth it.
AirBNB - If your main goal isn’t boozing, get an AirBNB (since the writing of this blog, Japan has implemented laws that have cut available AirBNBs by 80%) outside of the central town can give you extra space & access to some sweet amenities. Lots of the options come with a rental car and the roads are so meticulously maintained that there’s nothing to worry about. We’ve seen AirBNB options with their own private onsens in the yard. And if you don’t go on a major holiday, you can find them for cheap.
If you’d rather be in the middle of the action, hit up somewhere like Mountain Side Palace. 2 bedroom (4 beds total), 3 Bath with ski storage and a 5 min walk from the lifts & on the bus line was about $175/night. Don’t be afraid to book through somewhere like Holiday Niseko which makes life easy on you, will pick you up from your bus and help arrange your return trip to the airport.
Don’t go on Chinese New Years (mid Feb). It’s easy to overlook the holiday if you don’t celebrate it yourself but prices will be higher & lines will be longer*. Niseko is a hotspot for Hong Kong and eastern Chinese skiers.
*Long lines for veteran Japanese skiiers don’t compare to a Vail, Whistler or Park City line. Our long line in Niseko was 10mins.
Restaurants are often cash-only. They’ll tell you when you walk in but save yourself an embarrassing walk and stock up before you head out for the evening.