Fancy a Japan snowboard holiday in Hokkaido? Then read this Sapporo Kokusai and Niseko review to find out all about the snowboarding, hotels, food and powder I experienced in December 2019.
Aged twenty one – half a lifetime ago – I nearly moved to Japan to teach English for a year. Ever since it has been high on my bucket list of destinations to visit. But despite a lot of travelling I had never made it to Japan.
After getting into snowboarding and hearing about the legendary japanese powder – Japow – my desire to visit grew! Japan regularly gets more snow than anywhere else and is known to have the lightest fluffiest snow on the planet.
Finnair flight to Japan snowboard holiday
So when I was invited by Finnair to experience their new Helsinki to Hokkaido route it is safe to say I was rather excited. Not only would I get to fulfil a two decade long desire to visit Japan, but I’d hopefully get to ride Japow.
I have already written a detailed review of the Finnair Helsinki to Sapporo flight. Flying business class there and back was a real treat and another first for me! I loved the extra space, fully reclining seat, large screen and the incredible service.
The Finnair food was exceptional, and served on a real plate with proper knife and fork. Drinks were in real glasses and the bubbly before take off was a lovely way to begin this Japan snowboard holiday in Hokkaido.
From London Heathrow to Sapporo via Helsinki took just over 13 hours, including a 90 minutes stopover in Helsinki. Going via Tokyo from London takes two to three hours longer. So if you want to fly to the island of Hokkaido Finnair offers the quickest route.
Although I was travelling in business I had a look at economy. Obviously you do not get as much space, but the seats looked comfortable with good legroom. I spoke to some people in economy who were happy with the food, personal entertainment and seats.
Finnair flies from Heathrow, Manchester, Dublin and Edinburgh to Sapporo, via Helsinki. Return fares cost from £600 in Economy and £2,800 in Business. To book go to www.finnair.com or call +44 208 001 01 01 for more information.
Review of Japan snowboard holiday in Hokkaido
From Sapporo Chitose Airport it was around a two hour drive to Niseko.
We stopped along the way for lunch at Somoza. It’s both an art gallery and a
restaurant serving Japanese fine dining. The meal included infamous Japanese sea urchin and octopus babies… The food was incredible, the views stunning and as a first taste of Japan it was an amazing experience.
We also visited the Yukichichibu Onsen. An Onsen is a naturally heated pool that the Japanese traditionally bath in. All onsens have separate male and female pools and you clothing is prohibited.
Review of Hotel Niseko Alpen
It was dark by the time we arrived in Niseko and checked into the Hotel Niseko Alpen. My room was big and very comfortable, although slightly dated. Looking at the hotel website it seems they are part way through redecorating the rooms.
It is a big hotel with both a seafood and a local produce restaurant serving a seasonal menu. We ate a huge sushi feast in the seafood restaurant that was far better than any sushi I have had in the UK.
Breakfast was a mix of western and Japanese cooked dishes with a vast selection. I had chicken katsu curry, eggs and a range of japanese food I have never tried before. There were also continental options, fruit and cereals.
Downstairs is an Onsen area which is worth a visit. There are both indoor and outdoor baths plus a sauna. There is also a fairly large swimming pool.
Night snowboarding Niseko review
It was dark when we arrived for this Niseko review. But they have night skiing! As my first opportunity to snowboard this season I got changed in record time. I then hit the slopes for a couple of hours.
Usually there are a large range of slopes open for night skiing in Niseko, however it was early in the season and snow cover was not great. So there was just one lift and one main run with a couple of offshoots open.
But snowboarding is fun no matter what the conditions. I had a blast lapping the piste at least 10 times. There were a fair few side hits to play on and do tricks. Plus the slope was wide and quiet enough to get carving. It was great to be back on the snow.
Snowboarding in Niseko review
We only had one full day snowboarding in Niseko and unfortunately the weather gods were not very kind. It was raining in resort to about midway up the mountain, above that is was windy and snowing with poor visibility.
The highest lifts to the top were closed. This meant we could not reach the Annupuri area (far left on the piste map). But we explored the rest of the mountain. There are excellent slopes with plenty of variety and long runs. The vertical from top to bottom is just under 1000m.
Of course a Japan snowboard holiday in Hokkaido should be all about the off-piste and powder. But unfortunately snow conditions were not great so freeriding was out of the question. Some pistes were closed due to lack of snow. And lower down grass and rocks were showing through the snow.
This is always the danger with an early season trip and Japan is just as susceptible as anywhere else. We were there mid-December and while conditions would usually be better it’s safer to book a Japan snowboard holiday in Hokkaido for after Christmas.
Different areas in Niseko ski area
There are four zones in Niseko of which we explored three. We accessed the Village Ski Area from outside our hotel and it has a good amount of slopes. Most of our time was spent on a couple of runs in this area. In places it was really cool to be skiing through a kind of bamboo.
To the right of this – on the piste map – is the Grand Hirafu area. It’s a bit larger that the Village area with more slopes. There are good options for all levels with a big beginner area at the base.
Even further right you’ll find the quiet area of Hanazono which includes a small freestyle area. Huge hotels are being built at the Hanazono base plus there is an excellent beginner area. Despite poor conditions we made the most of the day and had a lot of fun.
There was no obvious apres near our hotel so we walked into town for a drink at Mick’s Bar (next to Niseko Pizza). They have some very good beers on tap but prices are more than £10 a pint.
Amazing Japanese food and drink
That evening we ate at Kanpai a shabu shabu (hotpot) restaurant. It is an all you can eat meal where each table has two big bowls of heated stock in which you cook meat, fish and vegetables. It is tasty and very sociable – I give it top marks in this Niseko review.
The next day we fitted in some cultural experiences on route to Sapporo. First stop was the Nikka Whisky distillery, the oldest in Hokkaido. I am not a whisky drinker so I didn’t expect to enjoy tasting the spirit before 11am. However it was very tasty, particular the single malt.
Next stop was lunch at Sapporo Beer Garden. An all you can eat and drink Japanese BBQ and brewery. You cook meat and vegetables yourself on a big hot plate whilst wearing aprons. Tasty food, very sociable and excellent beer that was a cross between lager and stout. I was in my element!
Overfull of beer and meat we headed to the Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium and Winter Sports Museum. It is a good museum with lots of interactive exhibits. We took a chairlift to the top of the Olympic ski jump. In better weather there are great views of Sapporo city.
Review of Resol Trinity Sapporo
For the next two nights we stayed in the stunning Resol Trinity Sapporo. It is a four star hotel located close to the city centre.
The rooms were very plush and modern with plenty of space. There are Onsen baths on the roof which I didn’t have time to visit. Breakfast was not as impressive as in Niseko. But there were options for all tastes including fruit, cereal, western continental and hot Japanese dishes.
Opposite the hotel is Odori Park where they have impressive winter illuminations. It is also home to a Munich Christmas market. It was very similar to Christmas markets I have been to in Germany and the UK. Although some of the stuff they sold was quite different.
That evening we ate in a Tempura bar. The food was delicious. We tried snow crab, sea urchin and various other delights.
Review Sapporo Kokusai snowboarding
The next morning we drove half an hour out of the city to Sapporo Kokusai ski area. Following the poor conditions during the Niseko review the temperature had dropped and it had snowed on and off for 36 hours.
On arriving in resort it was clear it had received plenty of fresh snow. Eager to play in powder we got up the mountain as quickly as possible. In Kokusai they do not have much choice for rental gear. It is more suited to beginners so if you bring your own – particularly boots – if you have it.
It is not a large ski area with just seven pistes and five lifts. However the main cable car and chairlifts are quite new and it has clearly had some investment. The longest run is a 2.4km beginner slope but there is also a 2.2km advanced piste that is used for downhill competitions.
Sapporo Kokusai snowboarding in Japow
With around 25 to 40 cm of fresh snow it wasn’t the pistes that interested us. Having said that at the side of the pistes there was untouched powder. It was very light and fluffy.
At one point I was following another snowboarder – I was 5 to 10 seconds behind her. However I could not see where I was going because the snow she had sprayed was still in the air. I have occasionally experienced snow like this in Europe but usually it is heavier.
The pistes are all below the treeline and you can easily pop off-piste to ride through the forest. The powder here was amazing and weaving through the trees a lot of fun. The trees are quite tight so you need a maneuverable board and quick decision making.
We also followed under the main gondola for some more open off-piste. This route was so much fun with powder up to 50cm deep in places that we did it twice. At the end there is a short uphill section so you need to unstrap and then scoot for a while to get back to the piste.
It was quite an adventure and included a stream crossing. You could easily unstrap to cross on foot, but we jumped it instead. It wasn’t 100% successful but as least I didn’t get wet…
This was the last day of the Japan snowboard holiday in Hokkaido, so we really pushed ourselves to make the most of it. It may be a small resort but in good snow it was excellent fun with plenty of off-piste to explore.
Last night in Sapporo
Feeling high from a great day on the slopes it was inevitable that our last night would end up being a late one. We started with Yakiniku (grilled meat skewers) of varies types. I tried chicken heart, quail eggs and plenty of standard meats. It was all very tasty.
We were having a great time, so after dinner hit a Karaoke bar. We had a private room and could sing to our hearts content. Or in my case be persuaded to get up and embarrass myself (sorry Freddie for what I did to Bohemian Rhapsody). But it was all a lot of fun.
Following this we had more beer in a traditional Japanese cafe bar. Finally we finished up in a tiny whisky bar that was in a tower block. At 3am we called it a night and I headed back to my room to pack!
Of course I just passed out instead and woke up about 45 minutes before our transfer to the airport. Cue a mad hungover rush to pack… The flight home was just as lovely as on the way out. I caught up on sleep and watched lots of films.
Japan snowboard holiday in Hokkaido: Conclusion
It has been a dream of mine to visit Japan for so long that there was a danger it would not live upto my expectations. However Japan over delivered in many ways.
The people are very friendly and super polite. The food is delicious and hugely varied. And of course the snow was incredible. I always enjoy snowboarding whatever the conditions but the Niseko review was a disappointment due to poor snow.
But we got some Japow on the last day so snowboarding in Japan lived up to the hype. My first visit to Japan was two decades in the making, I am determined not to leave it anywhere near that long before I return.
I hope you found this Sapporo Kokusai and Niseko review useful. If you’d like to plan a Japan snowboard holiday in Hokkaido visit the tourist board website: www.japan.travel/hokkaido. For flights head to: www.finnair.com or call +44 208 001 01 01 for more information.
Huge thanks to Antti Hentinen for the excellent photos of me snowboarding.