Skiing Japan for Dummies

Because it’s not all hot sake and deep pow

Welcome to your new home, Never Never Land, Japan. PHOTO: Eric Dyer/@ericdyer
Welcome to your new home, Never Never Land, Japan. PHOTO: Eric Dyer/@ericdyer

It snows a lot in Japan. We get it—enough already, guys. With Low Tide sweeping across most of North America (except for the lucky dogs in the Northeast Kingdom), it seems like everyone and their grandma is reminding us of that fact, going into credit card debt and sending it to the Land of the Rising Sun.

But while our Instagram feeds are jammed with blower pow and kimono pics, do we actually know where people are skiing in Japan? Save for some solid beta from the guys and gals at PowderHounds.com, it’s hard to get a feel for the skiing without feet on the ground. On a recent trip, our ‘planning’ was obliterated after the first day, and well, we kind of just wung it.

I put together a short guide of the resorts around Niseko on the island of Hokkaido to kick some reality into trip planning. Good luck and happy pow hunting.

Grand Hirafu

Australians. Lots and lots of Australians. The most popular of the four resorts under the Niseko United Umbrella, Grand Hirafu is the landing zone for anyone coming to Niseko and the crowds certainly reflect that. With a village that serves burritos, pizza, and Indian food in addition to the more traditional on-slope ramen, Grand Hirafu is probably not the “authentic Japanese experience” you were banking on. That being said, it still gets dumped on. Catch an early box, hike to the top of the knoll at the gondola unloading station, and pick your way down well-spaced tree lines and pillow poppers before the party crowd rolls out of bed. Oh, and powder night skiing? Don’t mind if we do.

One Day Pass: ¥5,100 or ~$44USD (Includes night skiing)

Annupuri

The Alta to Grand Hirafu’s Snowbird, Annupuri is where Hokkaido’s original hardcore ski crowd gathered for high alpine and deep snow. Located on the western flank of Mount Annupuri, the resort accesses amazing back bowls through a collection of backcountry gates and some of the only big mountain turns you’ll get in Niseko. Because storms roll in so frequently, this access is often limited, but if you play it right, the long descents will push your trip into overdrive. Time it wrong and expect lots of ABS pack traffic and more than a few low traverse compressions. Also, pretty much every lift tower in Japan bumps a strange mix of Japanese, French, and American music, but for some reason Annupuri’s seemed the loudest.

One Day Pass: ¥5,000 or ~$42USD

Skiing Rusutsu is as bizarre as it is fun.
The outdoor light show is just one of the oddities at the base of Rusutsu, but the real playground is just a few thousand vertical away. PHOTO: Kade Krichko

Rusutsu

Once you get past the talking tree at the ticket booth and the shopping mall base lodge, this place is pretty amazing. Seriously though, Rusutsu is weird. It turns out that Japanese destination resorts need to have a good deal of off-hill distractions, and Rusutsu might hold king of that court. If you find your way through the mall, outdoors lightshow, and sledding park, the skiing at Rusutsu does not disappoint. While most of the skiers get trapped around the base, grab the gondola over to East Mountain and take your pick of untracked tree lines. Drop any of the ridges off Mount Isola, and chances are you’ll get your daily dose of stoke. Hit 7Eleven for après, that is unless you like riding indoor merry-go-rounds in your ski boots—your call.

One Day Pass: ¥5,500 or ~$49USD (Includes night skiing)

Moiwa

This is Niseko’s Cinderella. Unassociated with Niseko United’s four step-sisters, Moiwa is a beautiful two-double, one-quad gem that is just far enough off the beaten path to keep the mountain empty. It’s only worth skiing when the quad to the top is open, but when it does pop, powderhounds seem to rush the gates (backcountry access from Moiwa is pretty stellar and the hill offers one-ride lift passes), leaving the resort deserted. The trees on the far skier’s right offer abundant snow and sneaky fall line, giving the whole area a very lift-serviced backcountry-type feel. There aren’t any crazy steeps, but all that pow and lift tickets under $35 make Moiwa the best ticket in town. Oh, and the Wifi is arguably the best in Niseko—perfect for obnoxious social media posts to get the coworkers jealous. You know what I’m talking about.

One Day Pass: ¥3,800 or ~$32USD

Goshiki Onsen

Okay, not a traditional choice by resort standards, but this onsen and backcountry ski combo can’t go unmentioned. Tucked neatly along the backside of Mount Annupuri, the Goshiki Onsen accesses a multitude of backcountry zones ranging from low angle trees, to high alpine, to steep pillow lines. Assess avalanche danger using the region’s surprisingly accurate and easy-to-follow snow report, Niseko Snow, and tee up line after line from the onsen parking lot. Once you get your fill of untracked, drink it down with a cold Kirin and a hot soak in the traditional Japanese hot springs.

One Day Pass: Free and ¥700 for the onsen (~$5.50USD)

Twilight powder skiing at Kiroro Resort.
Off piste and in deep, Eric Dyer does the twilight dance at Kiroro Resort. PHOTO: Kade Krichko

Kiroro

This is the resort you passed on your way from Sapporo’s Chitose Airport to Niseko. Just 45 minutes from the big city, Kiroro gets a little less much snow than the Niseko region, but with a fraction of the crowds and almost zero foreigners, the snow stays undisturbed for longer. Film crews have started to figure it out (in a 24-hour period we saw a Smith Optics group and Salomon FreeskiTV in the lift line), so it won’t stay secret for long, but nowadays the area remains relatively untapped. Inbounds is small, but off-piste runs are considered illegal, so the woods are completely untracked if you are stealthy enough about it. The real deal at Kiroro is the access to an endless array of backcountry ranging anywhere from steeper spine lines to wide-spaced tree pow. The light from the area’s night skiing is even bright enough to light a few of the low angle backcountry slopes, providing some legendary schussing for the nightcrawlers. Kiroro’s only downfall is its lodging options—there is no town and only a few expensive hotel options—so keep that in mind if you are doing a multi-day.

One Day Pass: ¥51,000 or ~$44USD (Includes night skiing)

Japan Travel Tips:
Buy the hourly ticket. If you get to the resort a little late or leave a little early, look into purchasing an hourly ticket and save some serious cash. For example, instead of paying nearly $50 for a day ticket at Rusutsu, buy a six hour ticket (that’s 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.) for $40 and spend that extra $10 on a delicious curry and beer at the Steamboat Lodge.

Rent a van. Yeah it seems obvious, but it’s the biggest expense of the trip, and we met too many people that skipped out and paid the price. Having a van gives you options if lifts don’t open (which was pretty much every time a storm rolled through). Moiwa closed down because of wind? Head over to Rusutsu or do a mellow tour over near Goshiki. Don’t waste precious days to wind holds. Hop in the van, and get after it.