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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 Grand Hirafu, Niseko.

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. We booked our kids, aged from nine year to 14 years, and their two friends, also from Hong Kong, in for a week's worth of lessons with local ski school, GoSnow. After a couple of group classes, we moved them into a private group and they 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’.

Three days of solid skiing later and I needed a break. My husband and I hired a car for the day and hit an in an onsen neighbouring town for a couple of hours, followed by a lazy lunch. But I think the kids would have carried on whooshing down the mountain 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.

Niseko is one of the best locations in the world for powder. The ski area of Niseko comprises four resorts on the mountain of Niseko Annapuri. Seasonal winds pick-up moisture over the warm currents of the Sea of Japan to form snow clouds that dump some of the driest, lightest powder in the world. The resorts of Niseko include Hanazono, Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village and Annupuri. We stayed just outside of Hirafu, a five-minute ride to the base of the mountain at Grand Hirafu. All areas offer fantastic powder runs from beginner through to more advanced skiers, with stunning scenery and whether you're boarding or skiing.

In the evenings the kids loved the food vans parked up in Hirafu, with heaps of pizzas, katsu curries and kebabs, often following a night ski under the stadium-style lights that illuminate the slopes after dark. Niseko also boasts heaps of great restaurants but you need to get in early to secure a table. Pre-pandemic, it was not unheard of for families to start booking the best tables in town in September.

Niseko is without doubt a great destination for a family ski trip. Even for parents slightly wary of those slippery slopes.

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 are both back flying direct from Hong Kong into New Chitose which is the nearest airport to Niseko. We flew with Hong Kong Airlines. Do note that the ski resorts are more than an hour's drive from the airport, so ensure you pre-book a driver to meet you at the airport or book an airport transfer through your accommodation provider.

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 prior to the pandemic. Japan is now open but please check all current travel restrictions before travel.

More travel news

Hoping for a ski trip to Japan this winter? Hong Kong Airlines has revived its Sapporo service.

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