As it is a Sunday, I thought I’d take on a lighter tone from the more serious posts of the last few weeks. It seems that my most popular posts are essentially sarcastic rants about materialistic luxury items (see ‘Favourite Luxury Items‘ and ‘How to Dress Cool‘). This makes me wonder if the reason they are so popular is because it’s;
A) Actually funny
B) People don’t like to see other people with money
C) It’s a momentary escape from your everyday routine.
I’m going to assume it’s ‘C’. Otherwise I can’t really segway into today’s post. So with that out of the way let’s talk about snow. Everyone loves snow. If you don’t, I don’t like you. Fortunately many people agree with me and my Facebook feed is currently filled with people skiing and snowboarding in Japan. The two most popular snow areas in Japan are Niseko and Hakuba. I have been lucky enough to have visited both of them so I thought I’d profile them.
Niseko is located on the northern island of Japan called Hokkaido. Snow season starts in mid December and can last until mid April. To get to Niseko you have to fly into Chitose Airport in Sapporo and take a 2.5 hour bus ride to the slopes. Niseko is essentially one mountain that feeds 4 resorts; one of them being the ski in ski out Hilton at Higashiyama. Even if you don’t stay there, I recommend you ski down there for a buffet lunch which is up there with the best food on the mountain.
The main ski village of Niseko is Hirafu. There are many great bars and restaurants around here. I recommend you go to Barunba. Barunba is one of those hole-in-the-wall bars that you just have to experience. Note that smoking is allowed indoors in Japan (The place can fill with smoke). If you are after something more ‘classy’, head to The Barn. As the name suggests its a barn with a restaurant downstairs and quite an amazing upstairs cocktail bar.
One of Niseko’s best selling points is the night skiing. The sun sets at about 3:00 to 3:30 pm and this means that most families will head inside. As such, you get wide open slopes all to yourself. There’s nothing quite like the experience of night skiing. Tree runs become very interesting at night.
Another drawback may be experienced by more advanced snowboarders and skiers. Whilst there is some great fresh powder right up the top of the mountain (there’s a short hike involved), the general difficulty of runs are relatively skewed towards beginners and fresh powder is harder to find.
Overall, if you’re there with a group of people who aren’t very advanced snow people then Niseko is probably the better choice for you. However, if you’re like me that wants more interesting terrain and less foreigners, might I suggest Hakuba.
Hakuba is the site of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, so you can be assured there is some great infrastructure in place. Located about 3 hours North West of Tokyo you can get to Hakuba via bus (4.5 hours, leaves from Shinjuku) or a combination of Shinkansen and Bus (Approx 3.5 hours). I’d suggest taking the bus, as the Shinkansen option ends up costing you double the price (Approx $100 AUD each way) for only a 1 hour saving. However, if this is your only opportunity to travel by Bullet Train, then it may be worthwhile.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Hakuba. I was surprised that the quality of snow in Japan could be exceeded. Fresh powder was everywhere to be found (something I found less common in Niseko).
The thing I enjoyed the most about Hakuba was the choice of ski resorts (There are 10 to choose from). Happoone is easily the best for all levels of ability. I preferred Happoone to Niseko as there are ‘difficult’ runs that continue all the way to the base of the mountain (Niseko generally graded to beginner runs in the bottom third and therefore became very crowded). I’d also suggest Goryu or Hakuba 47 (Both linked) as alternatives. However, keep in mind you can only visit one resort a day. Also make sure you use the free shuttle bus that services all the resorts and attractions in the village.
Another bonus of Hakuba is the Japanese feel to the place. There seemed to be more Japanese culture around the villages and less foreigners around compared to Niseko. However, be prepared if you are in Hakuba for the weekend or over a national holiday. As Hakuba is very close to Tokyo, it will get over run with locals during these times which you might find a bit off putting.
I may have been a tad unlucky but I found the weather was more temperamental in Hakuba. Whilst you would get patches of magnificent bluebirds, the weather was quite reminiscent of London; i.e. in this case it would be perfectly clear and windless one minute, only to become windy and cloudy the next. This made visibility extremely difficult and I remember being pinned in Goryu for a period of time whilst waiting for the conditions to clear (I didn’t feel like bum shoving down to the bottom).
So overall, I enjoyed Hakuba more than Niseko because of the choice of resorts, challenging runs and larger Japanese presence. However, compared to the snow we get in Australia, either resort is miles ahead. You can’t argue with 12 m of snow over the course of the season, a snow dryness that means you never get wet and a snow softness that means it never hurts when you fall. Make sure you use wider skis or longer snowboards than you are accustomed to. This will make you lighter on all that extra powder. Thank me later and if Japan hasn’t been on your to visit list, I suggest you add one of these places to it.
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