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With tonnes of the fluffiest champagne powder snow imaginable, beautiful scenery, delicious Japanese and international fare, soothing onsen baths and easy accessibility, the question isn’t why is Niseko so popular, but what took so long for the world to discover it?

Located on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, two-and-a-half-hours’ drive from Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, Niseko ranks as one of the world’s best ski resorts. Developed during the 1960s and 1970s, the resort was discovered by Australian skiers less than 20 years ago, and its global reputation has snowballed since.

Even so, outdated infrastructure has been Niseko’s greatest drawback, though it’s upgrading at speed. New lifts and gondolas have recently opened or will do so in time for the 2017/18 season, mostly servicing lower slopes. Construction of new accommodation is happening at record pace (so you might want to get in quickly in crowds aren’t your thing), and there are general improvements going on like the burying of ugly electricity cables and the paving of footpaths.

Surprisingly, Niseko has less than 50 kilometres of piste trails, 80% of which are classified as beginner or intermediate. The lift base is at 300 metres above sea level and the highest lifted point is 1,200 metres, well below the base of Courchevel in France and sister city St Moritz in Switzerland.

But statistics never tell the full story. Niseko’s snowfall — on average about 14 metres of the finest powder each year — would make Europe’s resort operators weep and send powderhounds into ecstasy.

Annupuri provides great skiing and a beautiful backdrop

Four of the best

Niseko resort is made up of four interlinked villages at the base of Mount Niseko Annupuri. Running east to west, the villages comprise Hanazono, Hirafu, Niseko Village and Annupuri. You can ski and snowboard between all four with a Niseko United All Mountain Pass. The largest and liveliest is Hirafu, where most restaurants, bars and shops are located — the others are much quieter, which might be just what you need.

As the biggest resort, Hirafu is also the busiest, though for good reason, and with a new Family Ace lift, the chronic congestion at the base should be improved. Its groomed runs are fun, but access to glorious off-piste terrain is the big draw. The tree runs off ungroomed Miharashi, at the top of the Hirafu Gondola, are a must, as are the side and back-country runs from the top of the King Lift #4, which drop into powder bowls to Hanazono or Annupuri. Hirafu also boasts the largest night-skiing course in Japan.

Hanazono resort is the smallest in Niseko but is exhilarating

The smallest resort, Hanazono, packs a lot into a little. A good ski school and mellow groomed trails make it popular with families, while three terrain parks attract Niseko’s snowboarding community. Limited pistes may not appeal to advanced skiers, but guaranteed powder and exhilarating tree runs will.

Niseko Village is compact, with a good mix of runs for all levels. It also has the longest series of advanced runs, which can be reached from the top of the Wonderland chair. Annupuri attracts the least crowds and has cruisy open slopes suitable for beginners and intermediates, as well as access to the back-country bowls of Osawa and Kozan-no-sawa.

The onsen at Zaborin, a sublime contemporary ryokan


There’s plenty of deluxe accommodation in the form of boutique hotels, houses and condominiums. The most sublime is Zaborin, a 15-villa contemporary ryokan in Hanazono, each with a separate indoor and outdoor onsen bath. The food is exquisite and the property so lovely, you’ll be tempted to just leave your skis in the locker. AYA Niseko  and Ki Niseko in Hirafu are ski-in ski-out, while Suiboku , also in Hirafu, has exceptional apartments and views in the centre of town. Check out Niseko Central for houses and condominiums.

Kamimura offers fine dining after a hard day of skiing

Drink and dine

Niseko’s restaurants are a joy. On mountain, rustic Boyoso  in Hirafu serves rice dishes with a variety of toppings, including chicken & egg and salmon roe, while Hanazono 308 is rammed at lunchtime, steaming bowls of crab ramen on every table. Fine dining joint Kamimura  has a Michelin star, but the toughest reservation in town is at Ezo Seafoods  in Hirafu, which sources the best fish and shellfish from Hokkaido’s waters. Rakuichi in Annupuri (+81 0136 58 3170) serves just two dozen bowls of soba noodles on a first-come-first-served basis at lunch, and books out months ahead for dinner.

Somoza makes for a cultural apres-ski destination

Niseko’s apres-ski scene is more mellow than wild. Bar Gyu+, hidden behind a fridge door, is an institution, izakaya A-Bu-Cha  is a raucous exception to the quiet, and the Powder Room has ambitions as an upscale nightclub and lounge. For a more cultural experience, Somoza , in a restored thatched-roof farmhouse in Hanazono, is part gallery, part tea house and part cafe and restaurant.

Whichever option you choose, you’re sure to discover (or rediscover) why this Northern resort has quickly built such enduring appeal.

Kee is a discerning type, as you can see. You can follow him @keepicks

Product availability was checked at the time of publishing
Columbia Men’s Ski Jacket
Columbia Men’s Ski Jacket
Moncler Women’s Double-Breasted Jacket
Moncler Women’s Double-Breasted Jacket
Nike Women’s Puffer Jacket
Nike Women’s Puffer Jacket
The North Face Urban New Nuptse
The North Face Urban New Nuptse
Vilebrequin Courchebel Sweatshirt
Vilebrequin Courchebel Sweatshirt