Aching to ski in Japan but not sure where to go? With over 600 ski resorts across the country, it can be daunting to narrow it down to only one. Luckily, the two most popular resorts, Niseko and Hakuba, fit the bill for most people in their size, international offerings, and ease of access. But how to choose between these two resorts?
To help you pick, we have put together a list of the top considerations when selecting a ski resort, and how Niseko and Hakuba each measure up.
One of the biggest reasons why people travel to Japan to ski and snowboard is the reputation of snow quality. And it does not disappoint. Cold air streams which originate in Siberia and travel across the Sea of Japan pick up moisture and eventually hit the mountain ranges located on the northwest side of Japan. The result is some of the driest and most consistent powder snow in the world. Both Niseko and Hakuba experience amazing powder conditions, but because of Niseko’s northern location, the resort’s annual snowfall tends to be that much more (on average 16 metres vs Hakuba’s 11 metres) and snow tends to be drier, and thus lighter and powdery. Niseko therefore wins out on this one.
When contemplating a ski holiday holiday, most people seeking out powder destinations think that higher up is better, but due to Japan’s reliable snowfall, this becomes less of an issue. Hakuba resort is situated in the “Japanese Alps”, the series of mountain ranges which divide the main island of Honshu. This makes Hakuba the steeper resort – with the highest vertical drop at 1071 metres and the longest run about 8000 meters, in contrast to Niseko’s 5600 meters. Hakuba is also larger – made up of 9 separate resorts in contrast to Niseko’s 4 interconnecting resorts. For those seeking a larger resort with more challenging steeper runs, Hakuba wins out.
Accessing off-piste terrain has been a long-time grey area in Japan, with some resorts forbidding the practice completely, some turning a blind eye and some others encouraging via backcountry gates accessible from the lifts. Historically, Hokkaido ski resorts (eg. Niseko) have had a more relaxed approach to backcountry tree skiing than mainland Honshu resorts (eg. Hakuba). Niseko resort has 11 accessible backcountry gates, which are strategically placed throughout the four resorts and nearby resort of Moiwa. Skiers and boarders can take the lifts up the mountain to access the gates, which are open to everyone when conditions are deemed safe.
There is a small amount of allowable tree skiing in Hakuba, however mostly it is strictly forbidden and is heavily patrolled. This does not mean that there is not excellent backcountry to experience, but you will need to do so with a tour company who specialize in this.
If you are after easily accessible backcountry skiing and snowboarding, Niseko wins this one.
Ease of Access
Both Niseko and Hakuba resorts are relatively easy to get to from Tokyo. To Hakuba just hop on the bullet train to Nagano city then take a short bus ride. Otherwise there are taxi companies who offer door to door transfers from Tokyo Narita or Tokyo Haneda airports. To get to Niseko you need to take a separate domestic flight up to Sapporo New Chitose airport and then it is about 2.5 hrs by bus or taxi from there to resort. Situated closer to Tokyo and accessible by public transit, Hakuba wins this one.
Both Niseko and Hakuba offer a range of accommodation options from lodge-style backpacker right up to high-end luxury condominiums. Niseko is the more developed of the two, with hundreds of 1 – 5 bedroom western-style apartments and chalets. Hakuba has more hotel and inn-style accommodation as well as its share of western-style apartments and condos. If you are looking for a lot of variety in modern, western style accommodation, Niseko is the winner.
Both Niseko and Hakuba have some top-notch dining options, such as the Michelin-starred Kamimura in Niseko and the delectable Mimi’s in Hakuba. If you are a fan of soba noodles, nowhere beats out Nagano prefecture for some of the freshest, tastiest noodles around. But if you are looking for all-out international dining then Niseko is the winner here.
Hakuba resort is the clear winner here. It is located in Nagano prefecture, an area steeped in Edo-period history. On the route between Nagano city and Hakuba you can catch site of 300 year-old farmhouses peppering the hillside. Hakuba resort itself has a lot of western influence and new, modern builds, including retail shops, western-style restaurants and luxury chalets and condominiums. But you will still find many little traditional restaurants run by locals, Japanese-style inns, natural hot springs and the odd temple or shrine.