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  • Writer's pictureMaureen Pfaff

White powder: my drug of choice - Niseko, Japan

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

Ever since moving to Singapore it's been my dream to go skiing in Japan, and specifically powder skiing. Paradise doesn't have to be tropical and this was the most amazing week I've ever had in the snow. Trip Plan here.

Season & Accommodation

The ski season in Japan is pretty much from December to April, and we decided to go in March, which means not peak season anymore, but still great snow. Due to Covid-19 it ended up being completely empty (to the point where we would just walk into restaurants rather than reserving 3 months or a whole season in advance). The slopes were deserted and the supermarkets still stocked. Perfect timing.

We had booked a chalet for 4 people, walking distance to the main gondola in Hirafu, which gave us access to 4 ski areas (Hirafu, Niseko, Annupuri & Hanazono). Those areas were definitely enough for our 5 days of skiing, but we could have taken the free ski bus to any of the other areas that were not directly accessible.


First things first, we got our ski rentals, lift passes and groceries sorted (all walking distance) and, after going for a quick bite, settled in for a cozy night with this view from our window:


That’s Mount Yotei at 1898m high, the volcano that will be your constant backdrop whilst skiing in the Niseko area. It’s an active volcano (well...last eruption was 3550 BC) and resembles the famous Mount Fuji. Just beautiful!


Next morning, early start as lifts open at 8:30am, and off we go exploring with the all mountain pass. Skiing again after a bit more than a year felt incredible. That moment when you click into your skis marks so much excitement for me that I was behaving like a little kid on Christmas Eve.


The Ski Resort in Niseko

In Niseko prepared pistes are divided into green, red & black, with a good variety of each, although most blacks are a lot higher up. Now, what struck me first was the amount of trees that go all the way up to the top of the highest lifts. Reason being that the ski resorts are a lot lower than in e.g. Switzerland or Austria. The second thing that surprised me was the type of trees. When skiing in Switzerland I’m used to seeing pine trees (green all year) covered in snow, but here in Niseko they were birch trees covered in snow (without leaves of course) and even bamboo peeping out of the snow here and there. These trees give skiing a very different experience, less colourful but more “Winter Wonderland” like.

The slopes were lovely, well prepared, and after a huge snow dump on our second day it was as perfect as we could have hoped for. After every lift ride we were greeted with a dutiful “Arigatou gozaimasu” and during lunch we got some hearty Ramen, Katsu curry and other Japanese delicacies.


Après-ski

Skiing is definitely the priority here though, and night skiing continues until late in the evening. Lukas described the ski experience quite well as “no frills skiing”, and I have to say the loud speakers on the slopes with continuous Japanese announcements gave it a bit of a North Korean vibe (as I imagine it). So, if you are looking for lots of après-ski, music, and dancing in mountain huts, Niseko is not the place. But we did find a very cute bar for a little bit of après-skiing called Bar Gyu+ in the centre of Hirafu village. You enter through a fridge door and find yourself in a wooden chalet like living room with lots of little tables. The sake tastings are definitely worth trying, and their cocktails are unique and delicious. They even had mulled wine!


Heli Skiing

After a few days of trying different types of skis, from the sharp carvers to wider off piste skis for the famous backcountry deep snow gates, Lukas and I were ready for our Heli Skiing adventure with Hokkaido Backcountry Club. We were very excited but also a bit nervous, as 1.) it was snowing a lot on the morning of, and visibility was zero, so we were worried the helicopter wouldn’t be able to fly and 2.) even if the heli was able to fly, would we be able to handle this much snow...


Ready with all of our equipment we walked into the hangar and there it was, a beautiful (looked like new!) white helicopter. Just for us.

Before we had lots of time to admire it, we got to work on preparations, which included an avalanche drill. With our individual radio beacons, probe and shovel we had to find and dig out a backpack that was buried in the snow. It made us realise how real a chance of an avalanche was on this adventure we were about to embark on. No pressure! However, without visibility - no flying. So we made the decision to do some backcountry skiing in the morning with our guide, and were off to the ski lifts around the corner that had been opened specifically for Hokkaido Backcountry Club, which meant no one around but us - bliss! Honestly looking back now I think it was great we got to try our new very wide skis on those completely untouched slopes first before flying up the volcano, as it gave us a lot more confidence.

Come midday and sitting at lunch I started to get worried that we wouldn’t be able to fly, and our constant staring at the clouds and our guide’s assurance of “It’s trying to clear up” definitely didn’t get us anywhere. So we decided to head back to the hangar and wait for a window.


Ready to fly?

When we arrived at the hangar we were thrilled to see the helicopter outside, which made us believe that there was at least a chance of flying today. When I mentioned that I wanted to use the toilet, our guide looked at me in despair and said “no time, we need to fly now!” Oh wow, my stomach did a small hop, but without further ado, we got on and seconds later felt like we were sitting in a drone. The phrase “uncomfortably excited” doesn’t quite explain how we felt, as I was about to burst with giddiness!

In the heli, our guide pointed at the side of the volcano, and we could see an avalanche plummeting down. Seeing the shock in our faces, he quickly added with a smirk “I guess we are not skiing down that side!” We managed to take a photo of that area though, so have a look.


I hadn’t yet gotten used to seeing the world from above, when we landed at the summit, were asked to jump out and duck next to the heli, whilst our guide would pass us the equipment. Ducking in the snow at 1,200m whilst looking at a fully rotating helicopter that was creating a small snow tornado around you, felt out of this world cool. And then the helicopter took off, literally from 3m next to us. It was breathtaking.

After a quick hike, we clicked into our skis and were greeted with the most beautiful (and slightly scary) view down the side of the volcano. Our main guide would ski down and then radio up whether the route he had taken was safe, so we could join in after him. The powder under our skis literally felt like butter, and the cool thing is that going down a powder run makes almost no sound at all (a very different experience from the constant edging and scraping on prepared slopes). The best way to describe it is that we were floating on top of knee deep powder snow into the valley.

But watch out for death cookies and glide cracks! Death cookies are snowballs that form on trees, fall to the ground and freeze solid. So they look as if they are all nice and soft(covered in snow) but skiing through them is not fun… but then again we’d fall into fluffy powder snow, so not too bad anyway. It took us about 45min from being dropped off by the heli and skiing all the way down, to fly up again. It felt incredible, and we were all smiles on our way home back to the chalet.


In Summary

Skiing in Japan, as I mentioned, is different to Europe, but nothing tops the onsen, which are part of a ski day there. Lovely traditional jacuzzis you can use publicly or privately are just the best end to an exhausting ski day, and that’s exactly what we did the evening after heli skiing.


It really was one of the most amazing holidays ever, and I have to say that I never experienced powder like it before. I was quite sceptical the first day we arrived, but after the huge snow dump on the second day, the snow really did not disappoint and lived up to years of built up expectations!

"You can't buy happiness, but you can buy a lift pass"
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