The most northerly of the country’s main islands has become a byword in Asia for a life lived at a relaxed pace, closer to nature, with abundant fresh produce, clean air and water – and heaps of snow.
It’s incredible to think that just 20 years ago, the most famous of all Asian resorts was barely known outside of Hokkaido, let alone Japan. The intervening years have seen it almost singlehandedly spark a moribund industry to life – and switch its focus from flagging domestic demand to an international scene eager for fresh winter playgrounds. The Aussie sand Kiwis were the first foreigners to arrive, and in such numbers that they soon dominated the hill. Since then, they have been joined by expats from across Asia, Asians themselves and, increasingly, Europeans put off by unpredictable powder back home. They come here for some of the lightest powder to be found anywhere, wafting in from Siberia in prodigious quantities. Most years they get more than 16 metres of the stuff, with half-metre overnight dumps not uncommon. Annupuri mountain is the focus of the action, with four linked areas: Hanazono, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu and Niseko Annupuri, handily all accessed by a single pass. Accommodation is everything from the traditional tower hotel favoured by locals and families, to ryokan and no-frills bunkhouses. But it is the condo-style options, similar to those found in American skifields, that are Niseko’s trademark. Perfect for families and groups that want to ski and socialise together, this approach has fuelled a real estate boom and got resorts across the country thinking.
On initial impressions, this place is quite different to Niseko, oriented around the giant tower-style Rusutsu Resort that indicates a more familycentric approach. If you like that style, you have here a one-stop solution to all your needs for the hotel has multiple dining options and heaps for the kiddies to do on and off the slopes. There’s a quieter up-market Westin Hotel nearby too. As for the skiing, there’s more here for advanced riders and backcountry fans that you might suppose. Besides the mountain behind the resort, a gondola also leads across the main road to access a series of ridges that mix swooping piste with plenty of inviting sidecountry. It profits from basically the same weather patterns as Niseko, meaning almost as much snow. That means many people do Rusutsu as a day-trip from there – you could of course reverse the logic, basing yourself in Rusutsu and access Niseko when you want a change of scenery.
Teine is the pick of the resorts that ring Sapporo, allowing you to combine the slopes with city sights and vibrant Susukino nightlife. Kiroro is midway between Niseko and Sapporo and offers good sidecountry, as well as lots of beginner pistes. For ungroomed runs and an old-skool feel, try Kamui Ski Links, in the heart of Hokkaido, often combined with the greater facilities of Furano.