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Late season skiing: Hokkaido

It may be March in Japan, but while most people are on the lookout for pink blooms of cherry blossoms (the sign of spring), Hokkaido is still very much in ski season. The ski resorts here are still deep in powder, but what it doesn’t have now are the crowds and prices usually associated with the classic ‘ski season’.


Road through Niseko

The ski season in Hokkaido officially stretches till May, although prices for accommodation start to drop (up to 30%) by early March, with some places throwing in free gear rental or even free nights. It’s a great option if you’re able to book last-minute deals on airlines and save big time on the slopes – provided you checked the weather to make sure the snow isn’t slush.

Hokkaido’s snow is a powderhound’s wet dream – this incredibly deep (up to 18m annually) dry soft powder is excellent for carving up virgin slopes, and especially beneficial for those learning to ski or snowboard (not only does falling not hurt as much, it’s less slushy than manmade snow).

View of Mt. Yotei

View of Mt. Yotei

Mention ‘skiing in Hokkaido’ and you’ll probably hear ‘Niseko‘. And while it’s a name that’s thrown around a lot, there’s good reason. Clustered around Mt. Higashiyama, Niseko’s ski area consists of 4 ski resorts – HANAZONO, Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village and Annupuri – each with its own identity. At just 10-20 minutes apart they’re all easily accessible via the Niseko United shuttle bus. Picking your resort depends on what you’re looking for.

The most popular is undoubtedly Grand Hirafu, which has the most choice in terms of accommodation (from high end apartments to backpackers’) and apré ski activities (ie. bars, restaurants, shops, etc). This area attracts a lot of visitors particularly from Australia, although recently there’s been a rise in visitors from Asia (Hong Kong, Singapore, etc). Ski instructors come from all over the world, and speaking Japanese is not a necessity. The accommodation and shops are all spread around this relatively small town, with ski lifts and gondola accessible on foot or by free shuttle bus.

Ski lift with views of Mt Yotei

Ski lift at Hirafu with views of Mt Yotei

Neighbouring Niseko Village is grounded by 2 major hotel chains: Niseko Green Leaf (run by YTL Hotels) and Hilton. The benefit here is that the ski lifts are accessible directly from these 2 resorts, plus gear rental and storage racks are in-house. If pure skiing is what you’re looking for (it also has the longest trails in Niseko), this gives you the ease to do so, with in-house bars and onsen (hot spring) the only aprés ski options.

HANAZONO‘s flatter terrain and magic carpet (travellator) makes it easier for beginners to learn skiing or snowboarding, while further up the hills there are exciting tree runs for more experienced riders. The recently-built Hanazono 308 offers some aprés ski activities next to the slopes.

Annupuri is a low-key resort, due to the fact that it’s not as convenient to those who don’t have their own transport. The ski lift is not quite walking distance from the rest of Annupuri – itself pretty spread out – but the up side is quieter slopes. Plus, it’s the only resort area that’s close to many local onsen in Niseko.

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