A Niseko Guide for First Timers - Part 1

  • By Sirada

An abundance of fresh, powdery snow, breathtaking scenery with hills surrounded by snowy mountains, a haven of onsens (hot springs), and an excellent selection of mouthwatering Hokkaido gourmet restaurants – these are some of the factors that make Niseko famous.

In addition to that, Niseko is close to Otaru and Sapporo, the larger cities of Hokkaido. It's easily accessible from the airport and is situated within a town, unlike many other ski resorts that are secluded and far from everything. This proximity allows visitors to experience the local culture and everyday life of the people, making it more appealing.

Every winter, people from all over make a pilgrimage to Niseko for these reasons. Many choose Niseko as their base for ski holidays, venturing out to explore other famous ski areas like Rusutsu or Kiroro and taking day trips to Lake Toya, Yoichi, and more.

Do not worry if you are new to this town, we’ve got you covered. This first-timer's guide will help you discover where to stay, what gear you need, what lift pass you should get, or whether you need ski lessons.

Where to Stay

The Niseko area encompasses several towns surrounding Niseko Annupuri, a single mountain shared by four distinct ski resorts spanning Kutchan and Niseko Town. Each resort boasts its unique characteristics:

  • Hanazono and Niseko Village offer a secluded ski resort ambiance.
  • Annupuri provides a quieter, more traditional Japanese atmosphere.
  • Grand Hirafu stands out as the only resort with a developed base village, hosting the majority of accommodations and restaurants. Also Grand Hirafu covers the biggest area in the resort with a great variety of terrains and lifts.

Many newcomers to Niseko often gravitate toward the Hirafu area, as it is commonly perceived as 'the Niseko.' It's the preferred choice for most first-time visitors, offering a central location with easy access to a wide range of dining options and activities on foot. 

Setsu Niseko, situated in the heart of Hirafu, provides our guests with the convenience of proximity to all essential ski holiday amenities and comforts.

Best Time to Visit Niseko

The busiest time in Niseko typically spans from Christmas until the end of January, with January often considered the prime month to visit. Locally, January is affectionately known as 'Japanuary,' a fusion of 'Japow' and 'January.' However, the ideal time to visit depends on the year's weather conditions. Even when we locals might deem it a 'mediocre' day, you'll hear enthusiastic cheers and shouts of joy from everywhere. Some years, the powder snow continues falling well into April, providing no respite for anyone.

For beginners, we recommend considering visits before Christmas or during the more tranquil periods of mid-January - April.

To summarise, here are the key reasons to visit Niseko each month:

  • December: Christmas and New Year's make it the busiest period, but for a less crowded experience, consider the first two weeks of December.
  • January: Known for the best snow conditions, with the highest number of snowfall days and accumulation.
  • February: Offers excellent snow quality, along with various winter festivals like the Sapporo and Otaru Snow Festivals.
  • March: Ideal for those who prefer milder weather, March provides warmer temperatures and often offers stunning views of Mount Yotei and the surrounding area. Spring skiing is very fun too (our favourite) 

What is Niseko United?

The Niseko area comprises four resorts collectively known as 'Niseko United,' offering a shared pass system that allows skiers to explore all four resorts. A single day isn't enough to experience everything; you'll want to spend several days exploring different areas to find your favourite slopes. Niseko typically receives an impressive average of over 10 metres of snow each winter, often resulting in knee-deep powder on top of groomed runs.

All Mountain Pass or Grand Hirafu Pass?

Many snow enthusiasts opt for the All Mountain Pass with Niseko United, given the ever-changing snow conditions influenced by factors like wind direction. This pass allows you to access the best parts of the mountain each day.

For beginners, pass selection depends on your experience level. Absolute beginners might not need it, but it's a great idea to consider when weather conditions are unfavourable on one side of the mountain, as it provides the option to take lessons on the other side. 

Moreover, the Grand Hirafu and Hanazono shared pass is an excellent choice for beginners. In fact, many of us, including ourselves, often spend our time on Hirafu and Hanazono. These two areas cover 60% of the mountain and provide a wide variety of terrain suitable for all skill levels.

Even for more experienced skiers and snowboarders, Grand Hirafu and Hanazono share their individual resort passes, making it a convenient choice for those with limited time, such as a day or two.

Do I need a ski lesson?

We highly recommend taking lessons to quickly adapt to Niseko's unique skiing conditions. The resort designates out-of-boundary areas, accessible only through gates placed at various points within Niseko United. Booking a guiding service ensures a safe and enjoyable experience in these off-piste areas.

For Absolute Beginners:
We strongly advise absolute beginners to take lessons, especially during the first few days. Learning to ski or snowboard with an experienced instructor ensures you won't spend precious time struggling just to stand or stop.

For Intermediate or Advanced Skiers:
Even if you're an intermediate or advanced skier or snowboarder, we recommend taking lessons to familiarise yourself with the mountain better. Local schools offer various levels of ski and snowboard lessons and can help you navigate deep powder areas and tree runs.

For Children:
Children can also benefit from lessons, offered either in group settings or as private sessions. They can enjoy fun activities in addition to skiing or snowboarding to prevent fatigue. Some lessons even include lunch, allowing adults to confidently leave their little ones with experienced instructors during the day.

Ski or Snowboard?

If you're planning your debut in the Niseko mountains and wondering whether to ski or snowboard, go with what feels most exciting to you. However, for those with no prior experience in either, skiing might be a slightly easier option to begin with.

One potential challenge for beginner snowboarders is riding chair lifts, as your body faces sideways, and you may have other people on both sides. But don't fret; all four resorts within Niseko United offer gondolas, providing comfortable access to beginner courses. Regardless of your choice, we highly recommend taking lessons to get started on the right foot.

What do I need to bring? 

Pack your bags and leave your ski gear at home, or don't worry if you don't own any.

When it comes to gear, the best choice often depends on the time of winter you're visiting and the current snow conditions. Renting equipment locally can be a convenient option, particularly because we offer a diverse collection of gear perfectly suited for Niseko's unique snow.

Inside Setsu Niseko, you'll find the Rhythm Setsu rental store, offering a one-stop service to get all your gear sorted. Renting everything onsite means you won't have to worry about the hassle of transporting heavy snowsports equipment or the risk of losing them during your flights.

Here's a helpful tip: When you rent with Rhythm Setsu, you'll have the flexibility to swap your gear to better suit different snow conditions each day. Additionally, if you wish to try both skiing and snowboarding during your stay, you can do so without incurring any extra fees

If you happen to own skis or snowboards that are ideal for powder conditions, it's a good idea to bring them, particularly from December to February. While you can certainly ride with your regular gear, having equipment designed for powder snow offers a more comfortable experience during the peak season (from late December to early February). Rhythm can also assist you in tuning your gear.

For those who are absolute beginners, you can find valuable tips to help you decide whether to ski or snowboard below. Additionally, please note that the Setsu Niseko Concierge team is ready to assist you with rental bookings. A helpful tip: booking in advance allows Setsu guests to enjoy an exclusive 10% discount.

We understand that it could be difficult to find all the information or know what to do, what you need, where to go, especially when you are new to the area. We hope this information will be helpful for you and make it easier to plan your trip to Niseko. For Setsu guests, we offer our Concierge services who will be able to answer your questions, and help you with bookings for above mentioned services. We look forward to celebrating the winter holiday with you at Setsu Niseko. 

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