Niseko | The Ultimate Guide for Your First Time Skiing

26 years in my life I've never skied or snowboarded, until a group of friends decided that going to Niseko in Hokkaido, Japan one week prior to a meeting in Tokyo was a great way to catch both the tail end of the ski season as well as the beginning of Sakura (Cherry Blossoms). 

Niseko is a small town 2 hrs west of Sapporo (Capital city of Hokkaido island of Japan). The deep powder snow makes Niseko famous for its ski resorts which run from the end of November to early April. On top of that there are Onsens (hot springs) for relaxation afterwards. And another reason to go is that Hokkaido is famous for its seafood such as King Crab, scallops, and fresh sea urchin sashimi. 

Here's everything you need to know if you are skiing for the first time in Niseko:
↠ Getting there (Plane/Bus/Car?)
↠ Getting around in Niseko
↠ Cost of gear rental and lift access
↠ What to wear
↠ Should you, and where to take classes
↠ Various slopes explained
↠ How to use chairlifts and gondolas
↠ Cost for search and rescue
↠ Where to get basic medication
↠ Bar & Restaurant recommendations
↠ Where to stay
↠ The JAL First Class experience
↠ A day trip to Otaru
↠ Instagram spots

Things I Wish I Knew
↠ The importance of neck warmers and eye masks - I almost went up the slope without one, and trust me those are life changing. 
↠ I packed too much winter clothes, the ski rental place provides thick waterproof jackets and ski pants that are super warm already. 
↠ If you are skiing, your ankle bone and shins will hate you because they've never been so bruised in your life. 
↠ Your knees (ligaments) will be sore within the first hour, and knee compression bands are like a god send. 
↠ You technically could drive in Snowboard boots (but not ski boots!!)
↠ And you also technically don't need sticks for skiing, in fact if you focus too much on the sticks, you won't learn to ski well, because you use your legs to ski! (duh, seems self intuitive, but not when you're out of balance) 
↠ You could bring a small backpack up. Fill it up with water, snacks, and filming gear. 

Getting to Niseko

Airport Access: New Chitose Airport (Sapporo), you can connect on a domestic flight with Japan Airlines (JAL) from any other major Japanese city, or for international flights from Seoul, Shanghai, Bangkok, Taipei,  Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur. 
↠ Bus from Airport to Niseko: you can book the Hokkaido Resort Liner which is about 2.5 - 3hr bus ride, which will drop you off at Hirafu, Annupuri or Niseko Village. 
↠ Driving from Airport to Niseko: this takes less than 2hrs. Please make sure you have rented a car in advance and bring your International drivers license. The GPS is easiest to be operated by phone number guidance. Just enter your hotel phone number, or any number of a business location in Niseko. 

Getting around in Niseko
From Southwest (left hand side of map) to Northeast (right hand side of map) you have these 4 resorts which are combined into "Niseko United":

Annupuri | Niseko Village | Grand Hirafu | Hanazono 

↠ For easiest access and near walking distance from town center is Grand Hirafu area. That's where the Welcome center is, as well as the ski rental spots. 
↠ Busses run within and between these four resorts. The most common ones would be the Niseko United Shuttle (free of charge if you have a lift ticket) and the Grand Hirafu Shuttle for going between Hirafu and Hanazono. 

↠ Lift ticket costs
To access the lifts, you require a ticket. They can be purchased at the welcome center of any resort. Tickets range from 8hrs, to daily and up to the whole season. Nigh Skiing is only during peak season in Dec - Mar. 

The All Mountain Pass will get you access to all 4 ski resorts. If you take lifts to the top, you can cross over to the other ski resorts. 

To give you an idea, an 8hr pass is ¥6,300, a 5 day pass is ¥32,200 and a season pass is ¥115,600. Off season and last season tickets will be cheaper. 

↠ Gear rental cost (with Rhythm Japan)
The reason why we choose Rhythm Japan is because it is right in the center of town, walking distance from everything. Also they do custom fitting for everything. This ensures you the best gear. You can also book online in advance.

Ski/Snowboard Premium Adult rental (Skis + Poles or Snowboard, Boots) 1 day ¥ 6,500 | 5 day ¥24,000

Adult Jacket or Pants 1 day ¥1,500 |  5 day ¥4,700
Helmet 1 day ¥ 1,000 | 5 day ¥ 3,500

**If you are snowboarding, you should absolutely rent wrist guards

So you're looking at around ¥10,500 per day or ¥ 36,900 for 5 days

If you didn't bring your own, you'd also want: thick socks, waterproof gloves, neck warmers, and ski masks (around US $200 each, I got the Smith Chroma Pop ones which fit around my nose better)

As it gets to around -10 to -15C degrees on the top, your gloves should be able to handle that temperature. I bought mine from a specialty shop which are leather with thick inner lining back when I was going on my Trans Siberian trip, and they are your best friend. At Rhythm shops, they also sell 2 layer gloves, the inner one being thin and touch screen and the outer is the thick/waterproof layer. 

What I'm wearing in the photo below:

♦ Head: helmet, ski mask, neck warmer
♦ Top: Uniqlo extra warm heattech undershirt, Columbia Omni-heat fleece jacket, Rhythm rental jacket, BlackDiamond Spark gloves

♦ Bottom: Uniqlo extra warm heattech leggings, Columbia Omni-heat snow pants, Rhythm rental ski pants, thick football socks (protects the shins), Rhythm rental ski boots and skis.  

Should I take classes?
↠ If you can ice-skate comfortably, or you can surf, then skiing and snowboarding respectively will be relatively easier. In that case, you don't really need to take classes. I have ice-skated for 2 years and it took me around 15 min to get the hang of my skis, and by the 4th day I was able to ski on the Diamond expert slopes. 

↠ If you have never tried any of these sports before, then an intro class is highly recommended. Go Snow is the best school in Niseko area. Adult haft day classes (2.5hrs) cost ¥ 8,000 and full day (5.5hr) class cost ¥ 10,000. If you prefer private lessons, they range from ¥ 19,200 to ¥ 42,400

Let's talk about the slopes
If you look at the numbers on the various runs on the map, you see 3 numbers. For example on Grand Hirafu's peak is the "Large" run, with 32/19/650m. 32 is the maximum decline, 19 is the average decline, and 650m is the length of the run. This will help you determine the difficulty, other than just the colors green, red, black. 

↠ For beginner access, you can go to Annupuri's Junior slope via the Dream Quad Lift #1, Niseko Village's Final Fling slope via the Community Chair, and Grand Hirafu's Boyo via the Holiday Pair lift #1 

↠ The "Beginner Access" on the top of Grand Hirafu's Ace Quad Lift #2 Center 4 is DEFINITELY NOT BEGINNER LEVEL. That was where I started on day 1, with zero experience on skis. 

A little bit more on Grand Hirafu's 2/3 up the mountain "beginner access". I have no idea why they marked it that, that is by no means beginner access. Thank god I have 2 years of ice-skating experience, but even with that, it took me 1.5hrs to the bottom of the mountain (versus 15min on the 4th day after I got the hang of it). This is because after the beginner access, you have the "Green slopes", however if you look closely at the numbers, the maximum slope steepness is around a red advance slope difficulty. That being said, no one will stop you from going there with no experience, you do see a lot of kids with instructors up there. Just make sure you have enough energy to keep picking yourself up after every fall, and making it to the bottom. 

But the good things is, from the green slope you get a gorgeous view of Mt. Yotei:

↠ A personal favorite: Grand Hirafu's "Rinkan" (which means In The Forest). This an un-groomed slope just near the top of the mountain. I'm not entirely sure what un-groomed means, I supposed it's that there are more trees and they don't flatten out the snow. There are more bumps, but that make it all more fun. Make sure your knees can take the bumpy impact! 

↠ If you would like to practice jumps, you can use the King Pair Lift #1 A & B at Grand Hirafu for continuous bumps down a slope. This can be used for both snowboarders and skiers. 

Using the chairlift and Gondolas
↠ When using a chairlift and Gondola, you usually share, anywhere from 2 - 8 people. There are single person chair lifts only at the top of the mountain. 
↠ Beep your card at the turn stall entry, and then proceed to the first line where you wait for the operator to signal you to the second waiting line. The second waiting line is where you look back and sit your butt down when the chairlift comes. After you sit down, put down the safety guard or hood (for windy conditions) so you don't fall off the chair. 
↠ With Gondolas you can store your skis and snowboards on the box attached to the door of the Gondola as these are long journeys up the mountains. 
↠ The chairlifts typically start operation at 8:30am if the conditions are good, and during peak season they operate at night until 8:30pm. If it is cloudy or windy, the chairlifts will close, especially the single chairlifts at the peak. You can check on Niseko United's website or app for the live chairlift status. 

(Above: Ace Quad Lift #2 at Grand Hirafu, this takes you 2/3 up the mountain to the "beginner access" and "green" area)


(Above left: still Ace Quad Lift #2. Above right: King Hooded quad lift #3)

(Above: Ace Family Quad Lift #1 at Grand Hirafu, takes you up the mild slopes)


(Above: King Hooded quad lift #3 in bad weather conditions with visibility of 3-5m)

Cost of Search and Rescue
If you go out of bounds into backcountry land and need to be search, it costs you ¥50,000 for the first 2hrs of cost (additional costs over 2hrs), and if it si strictly off limits area it will cost you ¥100,000 for the first 2hrs. 

That being said, stay within the lines. Do go wandering off somewhere off track with no people. 

Where to get basic medication - Hirafu 188
There is a supermarket with pharmacy just on the main street of Hirafu (just up the hill from Rhythm). This is where you can find pain killers, muscle pain relief sticky pads, knee compression bands..... etc. Go get this and start using it on day 1, you'll thank yourself once the muscle pain starts to kick in on day 2. 

Restaurants and Bars
Before you start reading this section, note this: Niseko is BUSY, always book restaurants in advance, especially for dinner, or you'll be stuck waiting for 30-60min at a time. 

For the steak lover: Steak Rosso Rosso
They serve luxurious cuts of wagyu steak, but seafood and other meats also available. Excellent selection of wine and dessert to follow. 
Call to book: +81 136-21-7100

↠ For the big group that wants to booze: ABuCha 2
This is a large Izakaya style restaurant with a full bar and many 6-8 seat tables. They are almost always full as it's on the main street in Hirafu. Here you can find all kinds of gilled meat, grilled seafood, sashimi cuts, grilled sausage, and lots of booze. 
Call to book: +81 136-22-5620



↠ For the sushi and seafood lover: Fujizushi
Fujizushi was my go to lunch/late lunch place for a break between skiing. It is on the main intersection in Hirafu, just across from Rhythm. They serve the best Hokkaido seafood - king crab, scallops, fresh sea urchin (uni), sashimi rice sets... you name it! But they also have great ramen for those who don't eat seafood. 
Booking? They have loads of seats, I haven't had to wait for more than 5 minutes. 

↠ For the small group cozy restaurant lover: Ebisutei
This is a stand alone family restaurant owned by a Kendo player and instructor. The restaurant has a cozy and friendly feeling, and is very popular. They serve Oden (kind of like a hot pot dish with lots of boiled food), sashimi, fried tempura... etc. Kind of like Izakaya style food. They have very limited seats, so book at least 2 days in advance. 
Call to book: +81 136-22-6544


Vending machine outside Ebisutei lights the night

Bonus - Hidden bar: Bar Gyu+
Man, do I love this hidden bar. It's got this fridge door full of stickers on a stone wall beside this snow covered tree. You open it and see an old organ piano on the left. Inside is a full bar and a large back window facing the woods. You can see the snow falling as the bartender makes drinks and people chatter in the background. They also play jazz remakes of popular songs. 

Where to stay?

I was traveling in a group of 4 and we stayed at this beautiful 3 floor house. This is a series of properties in Lower Hirafu, Niseko called "Konkuriito", literally meaning concrete. On the ground floor is the parking garage, the laundry room, shoe storage, and a small bathroom. The second floor is the main living and dining area which comes with a balcony and suspended fireplace. The top floor is 3 bedrooms with 2 bathrooms. 

Minimum stay is 5 nights and you are looking at somewhere around ¥65,000 per night during peak season and ¥36,000 per night during off peak. Christmas and New Years will be around double the peak season price. 



(Left: you can see the road with a row of Konkurito Houses, there's blocks A-H. Right: This was the view outside of our window)

The JAL First Class experience: HND - CTS

I'll have to say, this is my very first time flying First Class. With such a short flight, it is actually affordable! But everything from the seats to pillows, slippers, and the food is just amazing. Feels more like being in a hotel. I'm happy to say I've checked off a bucket list item as I don't think I'll realistically be flying first class on any International flights. 

Look at the JAL domestic flight ticket though, it's too cute! 


A Day Trip to Otaru
Last I was in Otaru in 2016 August, in the height of summer. This is a seaside town around 40min by train from Sapporo. It is famous for its canals and music box museum. If you are visiting Otaru in Summer, you can check out my blog from summer here:

Here is a slightly different view from Winter times: 

↠ Music Box Museum & Shop


↠ Otaru's Canal:

↠ Yotei National Highway seaside just west from Otaru

Looking for an Instagram shot?

These adorable food trucks are just beside the Seico mart on the main intersection in Hirafu (right beside Rhythm). Catch it early morning after a night of snow for fresh powder!

Honestly, anywhere with lots of snow will get an amazing: 

Next up: Business trip to Tokyo with a splash of early Cherry blossom! 

Don't forget to follow me on instagram for more travel tips and updates. 


  1. Thank you so much for all this great info!
    A big help in planning my upcoming trip to Niseko :)

    1. Sorry for the late reply, I hope you enjoyed your trip to Niseko! Powder was amazing too for this past winter season!

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