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International (Europe/Japan/Southern Hemisphere) Niseko Advice - early January

Sugarbowler

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I could use some advice on trip planning. I'm planning a trip to Niseko for the first week of January 2024 for my wife and I. It's our 10 year anniversary. Ten years ago we did our honeymoon at St. Anton and this time we want to experience some of that famous Japow!

Here's our rough plan...
  • Fly in from Tokyo and arrive in Niseko in the late afternoon.
  • Stay a few nights in Hirafu?
  • Stay 5 nights in Hanazono (staying on points, so can't beat the free stay).
  • Fly out and see more of Japan
Questions/seeking recommendations:
  • Hirafu: How many days should we stay in Hirafu? Any recommendations on where to stay? I'm considering the Midtown Niseko, but open to any suggestions.
  • Guide/instructor: We plan on hiring a guide/instructor for a day or two. We'd love to do some slackcountry. Any recommendations on a guide/instructor? Anyone have experience with White Room Tours or Hokkaido Ski Club?
  • Food: Any restaurant/bar/après/onsen recommendations?
  • Anything else I should consider? The only thing we're locked into is the stay in Hanazono. Other than that, I'm open to checking other resorts as well, so we don't have to be in Hirafu.
A little about us... I would consider my wife and I advanced skiers. We've been skiing since our 20's. We're in our late 40's now, so we don't often ski bell to bell anymore. Our home mountain used to be Sugarbowl (hence my username), and now we're at Mt. Rose. Our powder experience is limited to the occasional 1-2 feet deep storm days. Even so, the snow is heavy so we don't have any experience in skiing in super dry/deep powder.

Thanks in advance!
 

BMC

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I could use some advice on trip planning. I'm planning a trip to Niseko for the first week of January 2024 for my wife and I. It's our 10 year anniversary. Ten years ago we did our honeymoon at St. Anton and this time we want to experience some of that famous Japow!

Here's our rough plan...
  • Fly in from Tokyo and arrive in Niseko in the late afternoon.
  • Stay a few nights in Hirafu?
  • Stay 5 nights in Hanazono (staying on points, so can't beat the free stay).
  • Fly out and see more of Japan
Questions/seeking recommendations:
  • Hirafu: How many days should we stay in Hirafu? Any recommendations on where to stay? I'm considering the Midtown Niseko, but open to any suggestions.
  • Guide/instructor: We plan on hiring a guide/instructor for a day or two. We'd love to do some slackcountry. Any recommendations on a guide/instructor? Anyone have experience with White Room Tours or Hokkaido Ski Club?
  • Food: Any restaurant/bar/après/onsen recommendations?
  • Anything else I should consider? The only thing we're locked into is the stay in Hanazono. Other than that, I'm open to checking other resorts as well, so we don't have to be in Hirafu.
A little about us... I would consider my wife and I advanced skiers. We've been skiing since our 20's. We're in our late 40's now, so we don't often ski bell to bell anymore. Our home mountain used to be Sugarbowl (hence my username), and now we're at Mt. Rose. Our powder experience is limited to the occasional 1-2 feet deep storm days. Even so, the snow is heavy so we don't have any experience in skiing in super dry/deep powder.

Thanks in advance!
So my answers!

  • Hirafu: How many days should we stay in Hirafu? Any recommendations on where to stay? I'm considering the Midtown Niseko, but open to any suggestions.
So you’re staying in Hanazono for 5 days, presumably at the Park Hyatt? It’s the other period you’re worried about?

Mid town is clean and comfortable and I certainly wouldn’t recommend against it, but it’s modest. If you’re looking at modern hotels, it’s probably the most budget of them in Niseko. There’s nothing wrong with that, as I say it’s clean and comfortable and well located for the bus shuttle service to Hanazono. But if you’re looking for something closer in standard to the Hyatt you might look into places like Setsu, or Skye Niseko. Both will be considerably more expensive. Another alternative is to look into the rapidly diminishing number of traditional Japanese Pension Hotels left in Niseko. There’s few left though. Half note? Grand Papa? I’m not across what survives.

I usually set up camp for at least 3 weeks so for me the longer stay the better! I’m not the best person for that advice.
  • Guide/instructor: We plan on hiring a guide/instructor for a day or two. We'd love to do some slackcountry. Any recommendations on a guide/instructor? Anyone have experience with White Room Tours or Hokkaido Ski Club?
I have no experience with either of them sorry. I can recommend Michael, an Aussie L4 out of NISS at Hanazono, or Lenny, and English guide/instructor.
  • Food: Any restaurant/bar/après/onsen recommendations?
Lucky Fingers out near Annapuri is very good. Makarina near Makkari is good. Kutchan has a number of great Izakaya bars. White Rock BCC for pizza..

Onsen? I can’t remember the name of the place but out at Annapuri there’s a good outdoor one.

Bars? The Park Hyatt does a bottomless gin thing of a Wednesday (?) which is a hoot, but I’m otherwise not a big bar person. The benefit there is you are already home so the walk is short!
  • Anything else I should consider? The only thing we're locked into is the stay in Hanazono. Other than that, I'm open to checking other resorts as well, so we don't have to be in Hirafu.
Kiroro. Rusutsu. Even make sure to try Annapuri and Higashiyama and get a guide.

It does snow consistently in Niseko in normal weather conditions. If you plan to ski powder come geared up for that. If you have avalanche transceivers etc, bring them, as much of the skiing is outside gates. If bringing one pair of skis, a “one oh something” is a good compromise. You may be able to book hire skis ahead (Rhythm is far and away the biggest hire operator).

There‘s normally a daily bus from Niseko welcome centre to Rusutsu but it didn’t run this year. I’m sure it will next season.

Cabs used to be easy to get but nearly impossible to do so now. You can’t plan to rely on cabs, sadly. There’s a number of resort bus services though and many hotels run their own buses so no lack of transport. Frankly Niseko needs to pool its resources and develop a more integrated transport (ie bus) system but hey… Japan. maybe in 50 years.
 
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Sugarbowler

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Thanks @BMC for the advice!

I've got a few days before my Park Hyatt Hanazono stay, so you've given me some ideas on how to spend them.

I'll follow your advice and hire a guide for a day trip to Kiroro or Rusutsu or both. The rest of the time we'll spend exploring the 4 mountains of Niseko. I'll definitely reach out to Michael and Lenny and see if they're available/interested in showing us around the mountain.

The Skye Niseko looks fantastic. I'll definitely check it out. Although if we stay at the Midtown, perhaps I can use the savings on extra more guided days. Hmm... tough decision.

We're only planning on bringing boots, so we'll need to rent the rest. Even if I wanted to, the widest ski I have in the quiver is a Kore 93. Thanks for putting me onto Rhythm, looks like they rent avi gear as well.

One last thing... the last time we were in Japan was a decade ago. I remember it being primarily cash based. Is it still that way?
 
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BMC

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Thanks @BMC for the advice!

I've got a few days before my Park Hyatt Hanazono stay, so you've given me some ideas on how to spend them.

I'll follow your advice and hire a guide for a day trip to Kiroro or Rusutsu or both. The rest of the time we'll spend exploring the 4 mountains of Niseko. I'll definitely reach out to Michael and Lenny and see if they're available/interested in showing us around the mountain.

The Skye Niseko looks fantastic. I'll definitely check it out. Although if we stay at the Midtown, perhaps I can use the savings on extra more guided days. Hmm... tough decision.

We're only planning on bringing boots, so we'll need to rent the rest. Even if I wanted to, the widest ski I have in the quiver is a Kore 93. Thanks for putting me onto Rhythm, looks like they rent avi gear as well.

One last thing... the last time we were in Japan was a decade ago. I remember it being primarily cash based. Is it still that way?
Most of Japan remains largely cash, but in Niseko you rarely need it. A credit card or debit travel card gets you by in pretty much any location. Nowadays you only really need cash as a back up. Kiroro will be different though.

incidentally you should be able to book or contact Michael through NISS, and Lenny through pure Hokkaido. https://purehokkaido.com/?fbclid=PAAaanZeDdsD5HpXrtG0Y6IpSMxE-knsqOp2ecqjKfpV3sKKIlbC-IFfR-f30
 
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markojp

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Bang Bang in Hirafu for food. The owners' are great people! Local guides, check Toyru in Hirafu. I'm sure they'll gave English speaking staff at this point.
 

Rainbow Jenny

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Toyru has English speaking staff, go for the real Japanese experience w/them.

Onsen in Annupuri @BMC referred to is probably Yugokorotei. Taj Mahal Indian restaurant nearby is quite good.

I finally went to the famous Goshiki Onsen further away in February, only recommend if you’re ski touring and end up in that direction especially if you don’t have a car.

Hanazono and Hirafu… you’re essentially at Niseko United land and can ski from one to the other. I would second Kiroro and Rusutsu day trips.

Fine dining at Lupicia was memorable a few years back.

If you decide to take a day off from skiing, Nikka whisky distillery in Yoichi and seafood in Otaru are fun worthwhile.
 

dwlighting

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Hi! My son and I may be going to Niseko the second week of January. I have a reservation held at the Hilton at the base of Niseko VIllage.

@Rainbow Jenny - when you mention Toyru - you mean https://steep.jp/en/shops/toyru/ ? We'd love to find a solid guide. We've never skied back country or side country but would love to have the new experience.

Can anyone in this thread speak to:
1. Crowds - I know it's peak season - but am wondering if we're in for any *hours long* lift lines. I've seen a few crazy photographs that leave me wondering.
2. Restaurant suggestions - esp sushi / seafood. Before the pandemic I was interested in visiting Ezo Seafoods - which is, sadly, now takeout only though still looks amazing.
3. Rentals - Is Rhythm the only outfit in town? Any choice on demos? The website only shows STANDARD and PREMIUM. Seems gear choice or even a list of skiis they demo is not available.
4. Furano - worth the day trip? It's a hike from Niseko.
5. Anything else we should know?

Thanks in advance!

Best,
David
 

Jim McDonald

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Day trip to Furano from the Niseko area would be a waste of time, 3~5 hours by car depending on weather. If you want to go to Furano (great resort!) go for at least three days.
Plus 1 on Rainbow Jenny's suggestion of Maharaja.
Difficult to forecast, but I am expecting massive crowds for the first time in four years.
Quite a few gear rental providers, but Rhythm is the largest with the most.
 

Rainbow Jenny

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Just message or call Toyru for info. They may not have a slick website, but you'll get an authentic local experience.

Congrats, @dwlighting, Hilton Niseko is great a ski-in ski-out place. Friends just stayed there last year and absolutely loved the convenience. I've enjoyed its onsen in the past. The base of Hirafu is a total zoo in the morning, so you're at a good spot.

I wouldn't call it peak peak season. Christmas to New Year and around lunar new year are the busiest. We usually go to Kutchan to grocery shop for great seafood and decent sushi, so I'm not helpful in that regard. I wonder if they have a dining app, equivalent of Yelp. I encourage you to try seafood you cannot get elsewhere rather than just your usual favorites.

How many days are you in Niseko? Check out Rusutsu for a day, it's worthwhile. A public bus runs between the two areas, I thought in the past years, Rhythm posted their demo gear list, is it still too early for their website update? Black Crow seemed popular in Niseko. They'll have condition-specific gear, you'll be fine. I've always brought my own so don't have any suggestion.
 

BMC

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Hi! My son and I may be going to Niseko the second week of January. I have a reservation held at the Hilton at the base of Niseko VIllage.

@Rainbow Jenny - when you mention Toyru - you mean https://steep.jp/en/shops/toyru/ ? We'd love to find a solid guide. We've never skied back country or side country but would love to have the new experience.

Can anyone in this thread speak to:
1. Crowds - I know it's peak season - but am wondering if we're in for any *hours long* lift lines. I've seen a few crazy photographs that leave me wondering.
2. Restaurant suggestions - esp sushi / seafood. Before the pandemic I was interested in visiting Ezo Seafoods - which is, sadly, now takeout only though still looks amazing.
3. Rentals - Is Rhythm the only outfit in town? Any choice on demos? The website only shows STANDARD and PREMIUM. Seems gear choice or even a list of skiis they demo is not available.
4. Furano - worth the day trip? It's a hike from Niseko.
5. Anything else we should know?

Thanks in advance!

Best,
David
The main Gondola in particular can get very crowded of a morning. Similarly, but I think slightly less so, the quad next to the Welcome Centre. Oh and the hooded “Harry Potter” quad chair on mid to upper Hirafu can get quite the line. (Harry Potter because the seats are the colours of the Houses at Hogwarts).

I tend to have my sushi at Izakaya Bars, and there are plenty of them.

Rhythm is far and way the biggest. I’m sure they’d have demos but I’ve never used them to rent gear (I bring my own) them so can’t help there. Bizarrely though at least last season, and generally, there’s not all that much retail ski stock in Niseko. Most stores stock only one or two brands (excepting Rhythm, and one or two others whose names have escaped me).

I can’t comment on Furano

Any other comment? Enjoy! I’ll be there
 

dwlighting

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I've always brought my own so don't have any suggestion.
Thanks for all the great information @Rainbow Jenny and @BMC!

I have a pair of new QST 98's that I could bring, but am concerned that they are not wide enough under foot for the powder. (Wish I had bought the 106's - lol). Hence the rental question. Do you think the 98s would be OK at Niseko?

Thanks again.
 

BMC

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Thanks for all the great information @Rainbow Jenny and @BMC!

I have a pair of new QST 98's that I could bring, but am concerned that they are not wide enough under foot for the powder. (Wish I had bought the 106's - lol). Hence the rental question. Do you think the 98s would be OK at Niseko?

Thanks again.
I think they’d be fine. Possibly great even. If you get the absolute deepest days, say mid thigh and up, maybe you’d wish for something wider but Niseko snow is very light. Mostly the snowfalls are consistent, but knee deep or less (oh the horror! ;) ). The QST is a great ski, and skis “wider” than many wider skis anyway.
 

markojp

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Thanks for all the great information @Rainbow Jenny and @BMC!

I have a pair of new QST 98's that I could bring, but am concerned that they are not wide enough under foot for the powder. (Wish I had bought the 106's - lol). Hence the rental question. Do you think the 98s would be OK at Niseko?

Thanks again.

Toyru will have vector glide (local brand, great skis) demos.
 
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Lauren

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@dwlighting - It's been a couple years since I was there (2020) but hopefully this helps a bit in your planning...

Re: Guides. I had a really good experience with Hokkaido Backcountry Club. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them, or hire them again. They were great for tailoring the day to your group, and finding the goods :)

Re: Restaurants. Sorry, didn't spend much time in Hirafu, so can't comment on food suggestions there. But I stayed in Annupuri for a couple days. I believe it was mentioned up thread, but I'll second the Taj Mahal...really good. Karabina was also really good in that area. I'll also second @Rainbow Jenny recommendation to visit Otaru for seafood, and the Nikka whiskey distillery was pretty sweet (if you're into whiskey)...provided you're planning a day off from skiing. Best sushi I had was from a place in Sapporo...but no idea what it was called, or how I would go about finding it again (not helpful...I know).

Re: Furano day trip...I'll echo other responses, that's a LONG day trip. I spent a week in the Furano area, then a week in the Niseko area...probably best to stay in each area rather than trying to day trip between the two. Day trips from Niseko...Rusutsu and Kiroro were both worth a day.

Re: Rentals. I rented a splitboard from Rhythm for a day and was very happy with their service and selection available (unsure about ski selection though but would guess it's pretty good as well).
 
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Sugarbowler

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@BMC - I couldn't get privates with Michael or Lenny, but did end up with a few days of privates (including a day trip to Rusutsu) from the schools they're affiliated with. Thanks again for the recommendations.

What's the etiquette for tipping our guide/instructor in Japan?
 
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BMC

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@BMC - I couldn't get privates with Michael or Lenny, but did end up with a few days of privates (including a day trip to Rusutsu) from the schools they're affiliated with. Thanks again for the recommendations.

What's the etiquette for tipping our guide/instructor in Japan?
No tipping necessary in Japan but I’m sure they’d happily receive it, particularly the western instructors.
 

dwlighting

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First off - thanks to everyone who has replied and provided me with such great information. I have a real sense of this now.

A few last questions: I have been rethinking the itinerary slightly for the 6 days I have on the ground:

Day 0: Arrive - drive to Furano
Days 1-2: Furano ski
Day 3: Drive to Niskeo, stop in Sapporo / Otaru
Days 4-6: Niseko ski

Considering I have never been, does this seem like a better plan than spending the whole trip in Niseko (with likely side trip for a day to Rusutsu)? I'm keen to get a taste of some less westernized areas and Furano seems to be less than Niseko from what I can tell.

Terrain question: How do these resorts compare to the Cottonwoods? The videos make them look pretty tame. I ski Alta and Solitude a lot and for many years. While I don't ski much of the hike to terrain at these resorts, I have skied Catherine's at Alta last year for the first time and I definitively don't stick to the groomers. I like the soft snow and bumps and medium to widely spaced trees. I consider myself an advanced (btwn intermediate and expert) skier.

Thanks again!
 

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