Editors Note: One of the perks of The Mountain Collective Pass is the freedom to chase the powder, where ever it may be. Matt McDonald shares his knowledge from Niseko United in Japan. Take it away!
Being at times a people-phobic. powder hunting skier, my first inclination when I visited Hokkaido, Japan was to write Niseko off. Too western, too built-up, too crowded, I thought. But I was sold on the vast off-piste side country and the reports of daily snow and deep powder skiing enough to check the place out. Gotta be popular for a reason, right?
Indeed. Three runs into my time exploring Niseko, I straightlined open powder faces in snow up to my thighs. The next day I slashed powder turns that sprayed enough snow in my face to blind me and send me crashing through skeletal shrubbery. The immediate satisfaction of my powder lust juxtaposed with random statues of dinosaurs, vending machine cans of Sapporo, and multicultural mountainside cuisine had me hooked on Niseko in a day. And compared to many North American ski destinations, the crowds are laughable.
Japan may sound far away, but with Niseko on the Mountain Collective pass, you’re already halfway there. Here’s some help getting started.
Wrapping the slopes of Mt. Annupurri, a 1,308-meter stratovolcano, Niseko United consists of three separate ski resorts—Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village, and Annupurri—plus a fourth smaller area, Hanazono. The larger three have their own gondolas, base villages, and accommodations, while Hanazono shares a lift ticket with Grand Hirafu.
If it sounds a bit overwhelming, here’s the silver bullet: The Mountain Collective pass gives you access to all four areas from open to close. For two days. And with extensive night skiing, even on some off-piste terrain, this means enough turns to fry your thighs.
The kicker? Niseko’s relatively high elevation and proximity to the coast puts it square in the path of near-constant storms, especially during the first half of winter. The resort averages about 15 meters of snow annually, most of it the light, dry riches that put the place on the map.
Ski flicks and Instagram feeds present Japan as a powder-skiing utopia. The rap, though, sounds something like this: “Deep but not steep.” To an extent, it’s true. Many (but certainly not all) of Japan’s 500-plus resorts seem a bit tame next to places like Jackson Hole.
While Niseko probably won’t make you pucker, there’s plenty of pitch to blow cold smoke in your face when you slash at Mach 5. You can also find open trees and pillows on just about every slope angle from 15 to 40 degrees. Gate-accessed sidecountry borders much of the upper mountain, especially at Annupurri and Grand Hirafu, while the Niseko Village gondola boasts access to some of the steepest on-piste skiing on the mountain.
More importantly to most skiers than steeps, Niseko offers interesting terrain. To the uninitiated: Skiing a volcano is about more than sniffing sulfur and wondering what your buddy ate for breakfast. Wide-open faces above treeline give way to rolling gullies, mellow trees, and winding beginner trails. Wind-sculpted ice features, cornices, and drifts populate the playground. Ridges connect and diverge, giving you a bevy of lines to choose from. And it’s all skiable 360 degrees from the summit.
How to Ski it
First up: explore. You’ve already paid for two full days, so see how much of the mountain you can cover. Lap pow shots in Miharashi and the surrounding trees off the Hirafu Gondola. Cruise the Strawberry Fields at Hanazono. Lay down soul turns on the winding, low-angle tree runs at Annupurri. Hit vending machines at the gondolas for hot tea, soup, and coffee.
Beginner-to-intermediate skiers will enjoy the quieter learning environment at Annupurri. Several open trails twist back to the gondola, offering few crowds and a mix of lines. Out Gate 8, expansive trees invite you to take your skiing to the next level.
Intermediate-advanced skiers should hop on the gondola at Niseko Village and push their limits down Superstition and in the Gate 11 area. The open faces off Hirafu’s Ace Pair Lift and King Lift bring a sampler of above-treeline terrain. When the trails below the lift get bumped up, cruise the gullies and trees out Gate 5 into Hanazono.
Skiers willing to hike for fresh, steep lines will quickly notice where they need to be: hiking the summit out Gate 3. The bootpack can be crowded, but people disperse on the descent. Push further, and you’ll link steep ridges and gullies down to a hike-out cat track in Hanazono. Steep, deep, open—here you’ll find some of the best turns on the mountain on a powder day.
You can also access the summit via bootpack out Gate 2 from the top of Annupurri. Dropping off the backside of the mountain gives you short, big-mountain lines through small frozen trees that lead into a long, multi-fall line gully. It’s next to impossible to get lost back here, making it a worthwhile escapade.
Once you’ve sampled the goods at each resort, buy partial-day lift tickets to your favorite zones. Admire the mountain by night from the inside/outside onsen at the Niseko Prince Hotel, or walk to the locals’ choice onsen down the hill from the middle of Hirafu. A ski vacation here without onsens is as bad as visiting Japan and not eating sushi.
Whether you soak pre- or post-dinner, you won’t be disappointed with Niseko’s food offerings. Food Truck Row would fit in from Boulder to Bend—and it’s even more authentic. At two Indian trucks, cooks straight from Dharamsala pack naan and curry in to-go boxes. Boisterous Australians hold down the pool table at divey Bar Moon, and drink specials keep you warm throughout downtown.
For dinner, options abound beyond food trucks. But if you start with reasonably priced noodles and spicy miso broth at Niseko Ramen, you may have a hard time eating anywhere else.
As always, ride safely!