Niseko was little known internationally a decade ago but has rapidly gained cult status as one of the world’s ‘must board’ destinations.
For a Japanese snowboarding holiday in Niseko, the resort has very many attractions that take it above and beyond your regular snowboarding holiday destination, but is of course most famous for its abundant powder snow.
It’s not just the quantity of snow, which at an average of around 15 metres/50 feet each season (and over 20 metres last year) is the second greatest in the world, it’s also the quality of the powder. Some of the driest and most weightless snow in the world.
So a Japanese snowboarding holiday in Niseko becomes a particularly special experience as you float through the soft light snow – it’s unlike anywhere else on earth.
To be fair, others, in North America, do do half the job. In Utah there is some almost as light powder but not so much of it. While at Mt Baker in Washington State there’s actually more snow each year (the only resort to be able to claim this!), but it’s more likely to form heavy slab snow having come moisture laden straight off the Pacific a far cry from Niseko’s light fluffy powder.
The snow on a Japanese snowboarding holiday in Niseko is different because the air currents responsible for it travel for thousands of miles across the largest land mass on earth. Getting toasted ultra-dry, then moisture is scooped out of the comparatively narrow Sea of Japan before the air is forced to rise rapidly as it hits the mountainous Japanese coast. The cooling air then deposits the amazing snow in abundance.
There are other Japanese resorts nearby that receive similar snowfalls, but Niseko capitalises on the powder by allowing boarders to enjoy it. Other resorts strictly limit slope usage to the groomed slopes – head off into that wonderful powder and you risk ticket confiscation and potentially trouble with the local police.
In Niseko’s case the freeriding terrain is gated off from the groomed slopes and access to it is only allowed when the local avalanche safety control deems it safe, but thanks to slopes that are generally below avalanche steepness, and thanks to that abundant light powder, you can usually find powder most mornings through the winter, and from the moment the first lift opens you’ll find a polite queue building up for the main lift to the top, above which people will be hiking to the top of the mountain, a line of black dots through the white above.
The boarding covers all levels with open powder fields at the top of the mountain and gladed woodland slopes lower down. Good boarders can also enter the steepest terrain by signing up for a special safety demonstration in a mountain restaurant organised several times a day. You then head down the steep slopes in a guided group once it has been made avalanche safe – this is a unique option in Japan.
There are also a number of international companies dedicated to taking you to the best powder and providing tours to the less well known sweet spots of Niseko and the wider region, with lifts out as required if you leave the lift-served terrain.
Snowboarding in Niseko is, as mentioned above, a relatively new opportunity. Although Japan is one of the world’s leading nations for snow sports, developing more than 500 areas during the last century, these were largely unknown outside the country.
Snowboarding was not popular here when it boomed worldwide in the 1980s and 1990s, partly as Japan was experiencing economic boom times and its slope were crowded with skiers. Where boarding was allowed at all, resorts insisted the boarder took a competence test before they were allowed on the snow.
That all changed first with an economic collapse in Japan in the early 1990s which halved the numbers of skiers on the slopes in just one season, leaving resort managers suddenly keen to have boarders visit. Then the arrival of the Aussies, who found that Japan was easier for them to reach than Europe or North America and that the snow was better anyway – there was just the language barrier.
Fortunately the Japanese are the politest people on earth so the language barrier was quickly overcome and in the subsequent years the influx of international travellers from around the world has changed Niseko in to a kind of ‘Japan-lite’, with English widely spoken and international hotels, restaurants, bars and shops mixing with the traditional Japanese establishments. But in short there are no language barriers in Niseko.
I’ve already mentioned that snowboarding in Japan means visiting a country where the language, spoken and written is entirely alien to most of us. The fact that the snow is so deep and abundant and indeed that the local people are so polite and friendly – these all make a boarding holiday to Japan feel very different to the ‘usual’ trip to Europe and North America.
But there’s much more, the spectacular volcanic scenery under the snow provides stunning backdrops to your days on the slopes. And an alternative après ski ritual, the public Onsen baths, natural hot springs with communal naked bathing, are very special, very different and very enjoyable.
Of course Japan is also famous for its earthquakes and a few years ago the devastating tsunami and the ongoing issues at Fukushima. These issues do not arise in Niseko where radiation levels are actually lower than those throughout the UK and the earthquakes of the mainland do not reach this far north. Water is pure and straight from the mountain and the resort is hundreds of miles from Fukushima itself.
A Japanese snowboarding holiday in Niseko is of a higher standard than can be offered in most resorts. Facilities and service are all of top notch quality throughout.
HT Holidays (htholidays.com) have the widest range of accommodation in the village. All with free wifi, and offer exclusive access to the Gondola Ski Valet, a service only available to HT Holidays guests. This unique service allows guests to leave their boots and snowboards overnight in heated rooms at the base of the high speed gondola. Meaning that they don’t have to take stuff back to their accommodation.
HT Holidays also operate a great in-resort guest benefit program – the HT Holidays passport card. It gives unique discounts for their guests around the village in restaurants, shops, onsens, rentals and other snow activities.
So book your accommodation with HT Holidays to create the best Japanese snowboarding holiday in Niseko. And remember you may be going there for the powder but you will also get to experience a very different culture – albeit in a ‘Japan lite’ version, beautiful scenery, top quality services and facilities and the politest people on the planet.