How to ski Niseko

Heading to the slopes this year? Here’s how to hit the snow like a pro, says Carolynne Dear.

The lights come on as the snow clouds move in over Niseko's main slope.

I’m standing on the side of a fairly large mountain, watching multiple, brightly-clad skiers flash before me. My perennially-patient Hungarian ski instructor has planted herself in the snow about ten metres down the slope. So near, yet so far when you’re strapped to a pair of plastic planks on a very slippery surface.

“You can do it!” she implores, as yet more skiers nimbly spring from the chairlift behind us and set off down the slopes. Easy for her to say, she’s been whooshing down mountains since she could toddle and her mother was a world champion slalom skier.

However, this is not Everest, it’s a family run in Niseko, but having only skied once before (and promised myself never again) I am frozen to the spot - and it’s got nothing to do with the sub-zero temperatures.

With a deep breath and a silent prayer to the god of apres-ski, I push off and glide towards my instructor, executing a wobbly turn en route.

“That’s great!” she enthuses. Well, I’m not exactly Mikaela Shiffrin, but it’s a start and as the sun shines down and the snow glistens, I feel myself beginning to loosen up and actually start to enjoy the holiday. Maybe there is something to this skiing lark.

My last brush with the white stuff had been 20-odd years before as a student in France. These were the heady days pre-safety helmet and goggles, and I vividly remember screaming my way down a green slope in a pair of sunnies, small children cutting me up left right and centre, as my French boyfriend shouted unintelligible instructions at me. Out of control, out of my comfort zone and all out of enthusiasm, I vowed never to ski again.

Until, that is, I won a ski trip to Niseko in a rugby club raffle in Hong Kong. And so here we are, the kids and their friends nicely ensconced in an instructed ski group of five and already leaping moguls and attempting black runs. Nothing makes you feel more middle-aged than watching small children learn to ski. Three days in and I am still struggling to get to grips with the - practically vertical - family slope.

The kids were soon skiing like pros under the guidance of their GoSnow Niseko instructor.

But that’s ok, everyone needs to start somewhere and I can feel my confidence rising daily.

If you’re a novice, you need to book lessons. The whole ski-thing can be absolutely terrifying if you don’t know what you’re doing. I signed up with a group on the first couple of days as we navigated the gentle nursery slopes and then moved on to a private instructor as I graduated to the ‘real’ slopes.

The rest of the family were also firmly in the beginner basket, having never skied at all before. The kids, aged from nine year to 14 years, and their two friends, also from Hong Kong, were allocated a friendly young student from Australia who whisked them off in the gondola at 10am and returned them, hungry but happy, at 4pm. A GoPro video sent to us at the end of the week was testament to the amazing time that they’d had. The holiday has since been voted the ‘best ever’.

Six days of solid skiing was enough for me, but I think the kids would have carried on for the rest of the month if we’d let them. After a week, I was proud to have improved enough to take on a green run or two on my own.

Overall, the trip was a resounding success, and we will definitely be back this year for more of the white stuff.

Travel stats

It starts snowing in November in Hokkaido; peak season is considered to be mid-December through to early January, and then from late January to early February over the Chinese New Year period. We travelled in mid-January.

*Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines both fly direct from Hong Kong into New Chitose Airport. Ski resorts can be a long drive from the airport, make sure you pre-book a driver or ensure your accommodation offers an airport transfer.

What to bring

Japan is properly cold. The snowfall is relentless in high season, with fresh powder literally pouring from the sky. It’s unlikely you’ll see temperatures rise above zero at this time of year and blue sky days are rare.

A recommended ‘gear list’ should include a set of thermals (long-sleeved top and long pants), a set of ski gloves or mittens (mittens are warmer as your fingers are bunched together), a snood to keep your neck warm, a warm hat, socks (make sure they are knee-length to provide ‘rub’ protection from the ski boots), a pair of goggles, a pair of soft snow boots, a ski jacket and a pair of ski pants. For good quality, well-priced basics, try Hong Kong’s Decathlon stores.

All other gear can easily be hired at the resorts, including helmet, ski boots, skis and ski poles. Pre-booking is recommended during high season.

Relax those muscles

There’s no better way to soothe ski-weary muscles in Japan than in an onsen. The mountains of Hokkaido are littered with these naturally occurring hot springs.

However, there is a strict code of behaviour when using an onsen. They are not play areas, so there is strictly no splashing or jumping in and the use of mobiles for taking pictures is heavily frowned on. Rinse off in the changing area both before and after using the hot springs.

If you’re hoping to make it a family affair, check before you book as to whether the onsen is same-sex or mixed; children under the age of seven are normally able to accompany a parent of either gender. Nappy-wearing babies and toddlers will not be permitted into an onsen.

*This article was first published in the Winter 2020 issue of Asia Family Traveller magazine. Japan is now open following the pandemic but please check all current travel restrictions before travel.

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