Satiety with Snow in Niseko
A magical winter wonderland like no other, Niseko sits aloft on Japan's island of Hokkaido, famed for its onsen, cows, summer golf and, of course, winter recreation.
Niseko is a region of particularly heavy snowfall, which makes for an increible destination for winter sports; snowboarder or skier, it is certainly not to be missed. Annually, there is about 15m of snowfall, which can pile up three metres or so. The season begins in late November and continues, usually, through to late May. Niseko United comprises four ski resorts: Niseko Annupuri Ski Resort, Grand Hirafu, Hanazono and Niseko Village. There are all-mountain passes and shuttles or taxis between resorts, which are all worth exploring, given more than a few days.
The Niseko Annupuri Ski Resort tops them all off, from about 300 to 1,308m above sea level, and hosts approximately 60 runs, which amount to nearly 50km, fairly evenly distributed between beginner, intermediate and advanced. The longest run cruises to about 5.6km, set against a backdrop of incredibly and insanely beautiful scenery. There are plenty of lifts and gondolas that whisk you up on high, with little trouble of queuing for hours, as with many other typical, popular international ski resort locations.
Heading into the backcountry here is a wild and powdery experience that Niseko is renowned for. Before setting out, however, it is wise to be properly equiped and to know where you are going, or take a guide, since navigating the sheer expanse of backcountry can be overwhelming and, at times, trecherous, should you get caught off-guard. (Noteworthy is that Niseko stretches across some 2,800 skiable acres.)
The resorts and lifts at the two main resorts of Annupuri and Grand Hirafu generally operate from 8.30am until 9pm, and the night skiing is some of the best in the world. The network of floodlighting, once it starts to get dark, is second to none and can even make for better visibility than during the day, when everything can just appear blindingly white. The light and shade, shadows, lumps and bumps, all sharpen into focus, and the slopes become completely transformed into a different animal than in the daytime. The picture above, borrowed from the Annupuri Lodge website, hardly does it justice. (I was too busy having fun to take my own pictures after dark.)
The Annupuri Lodge may not be the largest or grandest accommodation in the area, but what they may lack in size and stature, they make up for in warmth and welcome, as well as prime location. The image above shows just how close the lodge is nestled to the foot of the mountain - a mere two-minute walk to the main gondola, (To download a trail map, click here.)
With a friendly vibe, accommodation is clean and well-appointed, with a mixture of shared bunk rooms and private rooms, to suit families, single travellers and groups. Communal breakfast is included in room rates and the lodge has highly organised wet and dry rooms, to store gear. Whether you bring your own or rent from just up the road at the ski resort, there is ample space to fit in everyone's equipment, even if there is a full house. They also have a dining room and a small bar.
Waking up to this spectacular view every morning never gets old. Piles of snow layer during the night, as if a brand new winter wonderland is reborn each day. Locals can then begin the task of digging out their vehicles and warming their rooftops from inside, to ensure the heavy weight of the fresh snow slides off to the ground, rather than crashing to the living room floor.
Getting to and from Niseko is easy. Private transportation can be arranged, but there are regular shuttles from Sapporo airport, which take about three hours, through picture-perfect snowcapped vistas. Regular visitors nap on the bus, while newcomers marvel at the splendour. There is a railway station in Niseko, but it can be hard to spot (below), after a blizzard.
If you aren't convinced by the photos, then take a look at the video below, which shows just how wonderfully chilled (pardon the pun), snowboarding in Niseko can be. You can see that there is literally no-one else on the slope, we chose, after lunch on one of the days - you can have your own private playground! Enjoy!
One final tip, in closing: be sure to check out the 'onsen' in Niseko - the natural hot spring water will do wonders for aching muscles after hours of daily snowboarding and skiing... You're welcome!
*First six images are courtesy of Annupuri Lodge