Niseko comes close to perfection in regards to its snow quality, but the lift system is another story. Despite growing into a highly-regarded ski resort on an international level, the lift system is really quite average. There are still quite a few old lifts in operation, particularly in Annupuri, and some chair lifts are covered while others are not. Perhaps the most important thing to be aware of is that the connections between them are a tad haphazard in places. A shining example is linking up to the King Hooded Quad Lift #3 (キング第３クワッドリフト·フード付き) from the Hirafu Gondola (ヒラフゴンドラ), which involves a 600 ft uphill skate, or walk for snowboarders. Another problem connection is the long traverse from the Niseko Gondola exit to reach the top of the runs back down into Hirafu. Luckily there's a quick fix for that, just slide down a little and hop on the Wonder Chair (ワンダーチェア), you can then ride down and keep left to get back into Hirafu without having to stop!
When to Go
The first lifts turn on as early as the end of November and the last one doesn't shut off until the beginning of May, but Niseko's peak season sits firmly between late December to mid-February. If you're here then, expect three or four powder days a week! There is a slight downside to all that snow, namely being that visibility can be particularly poor, but we're happy with the compromise. If you'd prefer a few bluebird days then visiting at the start of March is a good call and a good time to pickup a great deal. If there is any time to avoid going to Niseko, it's around Christmas and Chinese New Year, prices are hiked up and the slopes get packed.
Windhold is a wicked curse with a hidden blessing at Niseko. When all three main gondolas are closed the amount of terrain you can easily access is severely limited, plus you'll be freezing on the chair lifts. So, here's the bad news first. During the prime season, the peak lifts are closed around 50% of the time. If you're here and this happens, fear not, because we're about to share a secret weapon that will make you a hero amongst your skiing and snowboarding buddies.
When wind hold strikes make a bee-line for the Mori-no Chair (森のチェア) in Niseko Village, just get the bus if you're staying in a different area. This little-known gem of a lift closes only in the whitest of whiteouts and provides access to runs that suit all abilities. Green, red, black, along with some tree-lined sidecountry between the marked pistes. There's even a natural half pipe just next to the Enchantment run (エンチャントメント).
If you're lucky enough to have the time to wait out some prolonged windhold combined with serious snowfall, the holy grail awaits you. Once the peak lifts open up again you'll have the otherworldly pleasure of skiing or snowboarding Niseko in its finest form. Epic waist-deep powder blanketing the mountainside. Frothing skiers and snowboarders come out of the woodwork on days like these, so get up early and be ready at your nearest lift station for when it opens.
Crossing Between Ski Areas
Seeing as we're talking about lift tickets it's worth touching on crossing between ski areas, because it could influence your decision on which particular pass to go for. Almost all connections between ski areas involve a lift to the peak, and all the runs from the top are reds and blacks, so intermediate or advanced skiers and boarders need only apply. Beginners should just use the shuttle bus to access the lower slopes at the different villages.
Also, don't just assume that all the runs and connections between ski areas are open and accessible. Remember the dreaded windhold! Keep an eye on the signs at lifts, these will tell you which routes are open and which are closed. Also, pay careful attention to time if you are in a different ski area to the one you're staying in during the afternoon. The lifts wait for no man here, and the Japanese run a tight ship, shutting them down in strict adherence to the stated closing times.
Our advice is you give yourself a solid hour to get home, at an absolute bare minimum, no less. If you don't, you run the real risk being caught out and having to ride down whichever part of the mountain you're on. Sure, the shuttle bus will be there to get you back to wherever you're staying, but it's going to take you an hour if you're lucky, maybe an hour and a half, so dinner plans could be a flop.
Where to ski - Best for Beginners
Stick with the nursery slopes at Annupuri if you're still working on your snow plough and struggling to link turns. Get scooped up by the Jumbo Hooded Quad Lift #1 (ジャンボ第１クワッドリフト·フード付き) and you'll find yourself a couple of green runs to choose from, aptly named Family and Paradise. The terrain is wide, gentle, and the longest for beginners in Niseko. Another option for ski and snowboard newbies is over at Niseko Village, where the Banzai Chair (バンザイチェアリフト) transports you to the top of the Cruiser and Banzai beginner slopes, but these runs aren't as long or wide.
Best for Intermediates
For perfecting your parallel turns or switching edges on your board, what you need is lots of space but not too much steep, so here's where to find it. If you're at Niseko Village, the Namara run (なまら) is going to be your best friend, long, straight, wide, and with an average gradient of 18 degrees. Use the Mori-no Chair then cut across the slope to reach the start. When in Hirafu, your best bet is to head straight over to Hanazono, which is simple enough using the Hirafu Gondola and King Hooded Quad Lift #3. Slide off the lift and onto Youtei Sunset (羊蹄サンセット), a high slope that you'll find dusted with an inch of fresh powder if it's snowing. That alone is enough to keep you riding it over and over again, along with it being more than 3,900 ft long and rarely crowded, especially compared to the main runs on Hirafu.
Best for Advanced/Experts
When you're as comfortable off-piste as on groomed runs, Niseko really does become a skiers and snowboarders paradise. Practically all the runs have easily accessible sidecountry running right alongside them, and the standout of the resort has to be the Strawberry Fields in Hanazono. To get a birds-eye view of the terrain take a ride on the Hooded Quad Lift #1 (花園第１クワッドフード付き) and pick your line! Over in Hirafu, powder turns are best had to the left and right of the Miharashi run (見晴コース), but if you're too late for freshies here try the sidecountry to the right of the Super piste, right next to the Ace Quad Lift #2 (エース第２クワッド). Last, but by no means least, when you find yourself in Niseko Village and you'll accept nothing less than steep and deep, make sure you hit up the Yard Sale slope!
Off-Piste & Backcountry
Now this is what Niseko is famous for! After a fresh dump of powder everything outside of the resort boundaries becomes a backcountry bonanza and access to the best off-piste is conveniently marked with gates for quick easy access! Some of the finest terrain is the easiest to get to, so make sure you're first on the Annupuri Gondola and head straight to Gate 8 before anyone can tear it up in front of you. Speed through, down, and turn left, where it opens up for really throwing up some powder. Get those big turns out the way and prepare for some tight riding through the trees before testing your air game on the natural halfpipe in the last section.
Another backcountry area you shouldn't miss is the huge valley between Hirafu and Hanazono, most easily entered from the top of the Hanazono Quad Lift #2 (花園第２クワッドリフト), through Gate 9. Natural beauty and adventure await, pristine tree runs, deep powder, and face shots every other second! There are also wonderful sights like a cascading waterfall covered with an overhanging mop of ice and snow. The trick here is to stay on the right and as high above the valley as possible, get too close and you won't just be looking at the waterfall, you'll end up in it!
With so much powder to play in terrain parks haven't made a huge impact here, hucks off overhangs and boosting out of natural vert keep most freestylers happy! That said, there are a couple of places where you can get your jib on and hit up a quarter pipe, with Hanazono Park providing both. Over in Hirafu, the King Area Freeride Park features double down rails and a whole a bunch of different-sized tabletops.
Yes! Now, temperatures do plummet, averaging between 5to20 °F, but if you're brave enough add some extra layers and get up that mountain! Hirafu is the best ski area for tearing through powder in the moonlight, not only because it offers the most variety of runs but because the majority of lifts are open there. Take the Hirafu Gondola and venture into the sidecountry if you dare, there's just enough light to see your way through those trees.