A SKI INSTRUCTOR'S VIEW: Niseko vs. Europe and North America
The Author: Max Balmford
Originally from the UK, Max is an outdoors enthuiast who, as well as skiing, enjoys football cycling and travel. He has spent his past winters working as a ski instructor in resorts across North America, the European Alps, and Japan. Having fallen in love with Niseko powder, he is perfectly positioned not only to compare and contrast resorts in these vastly different parts of the world, but also to provide expert tips on skiing in Niseko powder (apologies to snowboarders as Max is a skier, but we hope you will enjoy the article too!).
A local celebrity, Jagata kun is Niseko area’s mascot; a small, round potato boy who loves to ski and sports a Mt. Youtei shaped beanie. As I spent my time in Niseko charging through bottomless snow, laden with a stomach full of potato broth ramen, I found him surprisingly relatable. And you will discover as you read on, that if you have loved skiing and snowboarding in Europe and North America you should pick Niseko next time around, and you’ll soon find yourself wearing the same contented smile on your face as Jagata Kun.
Niseko hosts a type of skiing that is so infrequent in other resorts around the world. This article will reveal how it does so in ways you might not imagine, highlighting the characteristics that make Niseko so special while exploring its terrain, snow, ski culture, and the town itself.
Starting with terrain, Niseko gifts you the opportunity to explore what feels like the entire mountain. Unlike the structured, cordoned nature of a European piste network, Niseko feels much more like an imagined playground, with unlimited opportunity. Shooting between trees, through gullies and even below frozen waterfalls, its unpredictability can make every run feel like the first run of the day.
Niseko’s snowfall goes some way to explaining this too. The snow is lighter than its cross-continent competitors, it is more abundant and accumulates in a way that makes it hard not to feel giddy. The end-of-season snow total came to 14 metres the season I was there, considered ‘average’ by Niseko standards. That’s nearly 8 metres more than average snowfall in Val D’Isere. Noteworthy here is how great the environment is for first-timers. The plentiful snow means falls are soft, the lack of ice means skis are less inclined to skid out from underneath you.
Skiing in Austria
Skiing in Niseko
Gates, designated entry points for lift-accessed side-country skiing, allow you to challenge yourself in wilder terrain. These are littered across the four resorts that make up Niseko United and are for the confident, experienced and prepared individual, a must-do. Here you’ll find the deepest snow, and harder, more technical skiing. This is maybe Niseko’s most unique feature and greatest differentiator.
Tree runs are a staple in Niseko. The Shirakaba trees are sparsely distanced, deciduous and a little bendy, so I’m told. In Europe and North America, navigating the evergreens can feel entombing. In Niseko, you can nearly always see the route out; great for building confidence in beginners, and fantastic for advanced riders looking to get performance from their equipment. Importantly, it means you can chart your own path down the mountain, not that of the previous skiers.
Evergreens in French Alps
Niseko Silver Birch
On-mountain food ranges from utilitarian to exquisite, so choose your venue carefully. Hirafu’s Bo-Yo-So is a local gem, while the Lookout Cafe in Annupuri offers a cosy respite from the conditions outside. The mountain however is definitely about the skiing and snowboarding, not the dining experience. In Europe, partying, sunbathing and lunches that stretch into the final run of the day are common right on the slopes. You won’t find this in Niseko.
Off-mountain, it’s a different story. The culinary options are second-to-none. Observing a Soba Master toil away at Rakuichi is priceless and emblematic of the detail infused into Japanese food. And there are numerous more restaurants, clubs and bars in Lower Hirafu willing to listen to you talk about the powder you skied today.
Taking a Break in Oregon
Lunch in Niseko
Niseko, for all that it offers, does have shorter runs. It is a smaller mountain, peaking at 1308m. It’s unlike the glacier skiing of some European resorts, or gargantuan Rocky Mountain landscapes, where runs seem endless. Owing to its very terrain though, runs don’t feel brief or stinted. The mountain is tiered like a wedding cake, and with every layer, a new camber or pitch presents itself. To service this amusement park-like ski experience is an expansive but basic lift network. You won’t forget the ‘pizza-box’ lifts, which transport riders individually to the summit, aptly referred to for the size of their single seats. Lift lines are noticeably short throughout the season, excusing the period around Chinese New Year.
Leave sun-tan lotion at home, Niseko isn’t known for bluebird days. The months of January and February in particular are predominantly overcast with constant snowfall. Stories go that regular visitors to Niseko over these months can go years without seeing Mt. Yotei, the 1800m volcano that rests opposite Niseko’s slopes. When it does emerge, the impact is something no image can prepare you for. Low-light lenses are a wise purchase.
Single Chair Lift Grand Hirafu
Hardpack corduroy snow is fleetingly found, perhaps on the first laps of the day. Piste skis should be left at home in preference for wider all-mountain or powder gear. Rental shops will give you a confused look if you even mention a race ski. A word of warning for first-timers, don’t be disheartened if the skiing feels odd, initially. The snow is fluffier, and there is more of it which can take a run or three to get used to. Insider tip: ski a little quicker and elongate your turns.
Powder Skis from Rhythm Japan
Race Skiing in Canada
It’s time to wrap this up. I hope to have shed light on what makes Niseko so unique. As an instructor who has worked seasons across the world, I have found it’s skiing like no other and is better summarised as an experience like no other. The only downside? After Japan, because your skiing will soon be defined as pre and post-Japan, your blissful ignorance is now shattered. On your next holiday that voice in the back of your head will be there, nagging you, saying – ‘it’s not quite Niseko, is it?’. And just like me, as you depart New Chitose airport, you might think back on Jagata kun and wonder, whether as the town mascot of the World’s powder mecca – whether he’s got the best job in the world.