Skiing in Japan: Hakuba, Niseko & Rusutsu

Posted by on Mar 2, 2015 in Asia, Featured, Japan, Travel | 0 comments

Skiing in Japan: Hakuba, Niseko & Rusutsu

Skiing in Japan is sublime, there is SO much to like.  The runs are uncrowded, there’s virtually no lift lines, food on the mountain is hearty and reasonably priced, and everyone is super friendly and polite.

The lift network is efficient and more importantly comfortable, with the resorts using gondolas and hooded chair lifts.

The pleasantness of warm toilet seats is only trumped by the decadence of lowering yourself into one of the many onsens (hot spring baths) after a day on the slopes to soothe those tired muscles.  Bathing suits are not permitted in the onsens so it might feel weird the first time sharing a bath with naked strangers, but after a few times you won’t even notice.

Oh, and did I mention the unbelievable powder snow?  This is the stuff dreams are made of, white and fluffy it feels exactly how I imagine clouds would, there’s nothing quite like that floating sensation when you’re skiing (just don’t freak out when you can’t see your legs!)  Coming from Australia where there is more ice than snow, you wait in the lift line for half an hour to do a 10 minute run, and a pie costs $12, Japan is heaven.

In January 2014 we got our first taste of real snow at Hakuba, Nagano.  A year later and we were back for more, this time headed to the north island of Hokkaido to check out Niseko and Rusutsu.  Both trips we booked through Ski Japan which is a really easy way to get yourself sorted as they book your flights, transfers, accommodation and lift passes.

 

Hakuba

Hakuba is located on the the main island of Japan, 270km northwest of Tokyo.  You can take the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano, then it’s about an hour drive to the village.  From Hakuba you have access to 12 different ski resorts which can be accessed off a common lift pass (although they cannot be skied between, you’ll need to take the shuttle bus).

Hakuba gets an average of 11 metres of powder per season, and although perhaps not as dry as Hokkaido powder the snow is still powdery goodness.  Our favourite resort was Iwatake, which had long fun runs, and Cortina which is where to head after a fresh dump.  Cortina wasn’t on out lift pass, but was still good value, we paid about $35 AUD for a lift ticket which included a lunch voucher and entry into the (very nice) onsen.

 

Beth and Em Iwatake

My sister Beth & I at Iwatake

 

There are bars and restaurants, but unlike Hirafu village in Niseko they are not all within walking distance.  However if you make a reservation many of the restaurants will pick you up / drop you off at your accommodation.  Most of the accommodation is not ski in ski out, so you’ll probably need to get a bus to the lifts.

We stayed at the Phoenix Hotel which was great.  They offer western and Japanese style rooms, we opted for the Japanese room which had tatami mat floors and futon beds.  The rooms were a generous size and each room had a toilet and sink.  There is a communal onsen downstairs, although if you prefer there is also a shower upstairs, and of course a dry room.  A western style breakfast is included in your stay.

The restaurant at the hotel “Mimi’s” is really nice for a high quality meal, although more expensive than the local options.  If your body is aching from shredding it on the slopes you can also get a massage at the hotel massage room (need to book in advance).

While in Hakuba we took a day off the snow to visit the snow monkeys at Jigokudani Yaenkoen.  The Japanese Macaque is a monkey species native to northern Japan, and survive in winter temperatures of below -15 °C.  At Jigokudani Yaenkoen you can watch the monkeys take a hot onsen and run rampant.  We booked a tour through our hotel which included transfers, lunch and a visit at a Japanese temple as well.  Make sure you wear comfortable shoes with good grip as you have to walk to see the monkeys and it can get quite slippery!

 

snow monkey

A snow monkey contemplates life

 

Niseko

Straight off the bat let me be clear that Niseko is very popular with Australians, so if you are looking for an authentic Japanese experience this is not the place for you.  In saying that, the Aussies love it for a reason and there’s a lot going for it.

The resort is divided into four main ski areas: Annupuri; Niseko Village; Hirafu; and Hanazono, which are all easy enough to ski to from each other.  Many of runs interlace with each other so you can mix it up each time you come down.

We were unlucky as despite being at Niseko in February we didn’t get any fresh snow over the five days we were there.  This somewhat tarnished our view of the slopes as they definitely needed a fresh coating, nonetheless we could see that if the conditions were right the place would be epic.

We stayed in Hirafu village which I definitely recommend, this is where the majority of the restaurants and bars are as well as supermarkets, ski hire and accommodation.  If you’re looking for a good stretch after a day of skiing Powder Yoga offer a variety of great yoga classes, you can register online and pay when you get there.

We stayed at Lodge Koropokkuru which was basic but more than met our needs.  The rooms are traditional Japanese style tatami mat floors with futon beds, there are shared toilets on each floor and a communal onsen downstairs.  A buffet breakfast is served from 7 – 8.30am and consists of western and Japanese cuisine.  The staff are really friendly and helpful, and the place is kept very clean.

The onsen where we were staying was pretty basic, so one afternoon we also checked out the onsen at the Hotel Niseko Ikoi-no-mura located at Annupuri.  A casual visit was about 1,000 yen each, the onsen had indoor and outdoor baths as well as a sauna.  They had a variety of products available and coin operated massage chairs in the changing area (I love getting my sore calves done!)

We hired our skis & boots from Rhythm who we also hired from in Australia and in Hakuba.  These guys have a big range of gear and take the time to find out what you are looking for.  If you’re not happy you can take them back and swap them no problems.

Some of our favourite places to eat in Hiarfu were:

  • Niseko Ramen
    As the name suggests the specialty here is ramen, but they do offer other dishes as well.  This place is really popular and has a line outside every night, so get there early or book a table in advance.
  • Fuji Zushi
    This place serves delicious authentic Japanese food.  There is no English sign, but this is the restaurant located across the road from SeicoMart with a wooden exterior.

    Tempura prawn roll, miso soup and green tea at Fuji Sushi

    Tempura prawn roll, miso soup and green tea at Fuji Sushi

  • Green Farm Cafe
    If you’re sick of Japanese, Green Farm Cafe use quality produce to make western staples like burgers and pasta, and have a cabinet full of brownies and cookies as well.  A great place to relax, many people settle in here with a glass of wine and their laptop, or with their kids and a game of uno.
  • Tuk Tuk thai
    It seems counter intuitive to eat Thai food in Japan, but this tiny place has got the goods.  Freshly made delicious thai food, the place is very very small, and the menu limited, but well worth a visit – the green chicken curry was divine!

A good option is you’re after something quick is the food trucks located next to SeicoMart, there’s fish and chips, Indian, pizza rolls and burritos available.  We also heard good things about Yakitori Yosaku, but they were fully booked out when we were there.

If you’re looking for a cool bar to hang out at Half Note is a lesser known gem.  A relaxed setting complete with a ping pong table, pool table, and live jazz music on Saturday and Sunday nights.

Wayne working on the T puzzle at Half Note

Wayne working on the T puzzle at Half Note

 

Rusutsu

About an hours drive from Niseko is Rusutsu, although still popular it is relatively quiet compared to it’s noisy neighbour Niseko.  The only real option for accommodation is the big Rusutsu Resort Hotel and this is usually booked out by third parties, which is another reason why we booked through Ski Japan.  The resort is, well, strange.  It’s like a 1970s cruise ship meets disneyland.  As you approach the hotel you drive past the theme park complete with roller coasters and water slides, however it’s closed during winter.

Upon entering the resort you’re greeted by a singing tree and a carousel.  Nearby is a games arcade, and further down is Daniel’s Street which sells hot dogs and burgers and has human size plush dogs playing in the bandstand.  There are also various restaurants and bars, onsens, an indoor swimming pool and a small and disappointing “gym” with “indoor rock climbing”.

An old monorail connects the Resort and the Tower, which we used to go to the onsens at the Tower as they were much nicer and had both indoor and outdoor onsens.  Sneaky tip – there is no one on the door of the onsens, so even if you are just visiting for the day, BYO towel and head in for a free onsen (most hotels charge around 1,000 yen).

Rusutsu resort 1  Rusutsu resort 2

The runs at Rusutsu are classified pretty conservatively, so although there are mostly intermediate runs they are long, wide and groomed, and in Australia would probably be classified as beginner.  There are black runs but they are shorter and mostly ungroomed, and as we didn’t get much fresh snow we found they were pretty mogulled out when we were there.  There are three mountains: West Mountain; East Mountain; and Mount Isola.  The Resort is located closest to West Mountain, and to get across to the others you need to take a connecting gondola.

Although advertised as ski in ski out, it’s not really as you need to trek across from the hotel to get on the ski lift.  We found the best method from the north end of the hotel was to get on the West No. 2 chair, have a warm up run down Eva and then head across the East Mt and Mt Isola, where we would spend the rest of the day.  Isola Grand is a leisurely 3.5km long run, East Vivaldi is quite good and often forgotten, and Steamboat A and B are pretty fun.  Heavenly View is very flat and boring, although we found when there had been fresh snow (on our last day!) Heavenly Ridge was left ungroomed and was a delight to make fresh tracks down.

 

View of Mt Yotei from Rusutsu, with Niseko on the left

View of Mt Yotei from Rusutsu, with Niseko on the left

 

As mentioned there are restaurants inside the resort, but if you walk five minutes down the road there are a couple of small authentic places which are much cheaper and have way more character.  Our favourite bar and place to eat was Rodeo Drive, a tiny place with only three tables and bar seating.  They have a wall full of whisky and sake, the place is run by a girl behind the bar and a guy in the kitchen serving up western favourites like ribs with potato wedges and smoked chicken.

A small Japanese place a few doors up from Rodeo Drive called Izakaya Tomekichi is also good for something quick and tasty.  We had read good reviews online for the Pirateman, but this was closed while we were there.  Within the resort we tried the “Italian” restaurant, which was not bad but not great, and the Japanese restaurant right down the end called Kakashi which was much better.

If all else fails there’s always SeicoMart or Seven Eleven across the road, which in Japan are legitimate dinner options with hot food like chicken karagge and fresh sushi rolls.  It’s also good to stock up on cheap beer from the supermarkets and keep in the fridge in your room.

 

The Verdict

Overall Niseko cannot be beaten in terms of the village and night life, but ultimately the skiing was better at Rusutsu.  Hakuba is a good option if you’re pressed for time and don’t want to have to fly to Hokkaido, and is more of an authentic Japanese experience.

Click here to read about our skiing adventures in Italy!

 

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