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First Time in Niseko Guide – What You Need to Know

First Time in Niseko Guide – What You Need to Know

Date published: 4 February 2024

First time in Niseko? Here's everything you need for planning your memorable trip. Seasonal activities, accommodations and attractions in one handy Niseko guide.

(Main image: PIXTA)

Table of Contents
  1. About this Niseko Guide
  2. Where is Niseko and why go there?
  3. What are the key areas of Niseko?
  4. When is the best time to visit Niseko?
  5. What else is there to do in Niseko?
  6. How to get to Niseko
  7. Where to Stay in Niseko
  8. Dining and Nightlife in Niseko
  9. What are some essential tips I should know before going to Niseko?

About this Niseko Guide

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

You’re planning to visit Niseko for the first time. You’ve heard so much about the world-class ski slopes, the famous powder snow, and the awesome natural beauty. However, you’ve also seen a wall of “ultimate,” “comprehensive,” and “must-read” guides to Niseko in Hokkaido. You’ve seen many different Japanese terms and location names and feel overwhelmed with suggestions when all you want is to plan a simple, fun, and memorable trip for you and your family.

This first-time Niseko Guide will share what you need to make that plan. It’s an in-depth but easy-to-understand overview: everything you need to know to make the most of your family trip to Niseko in Hokkaido.

Where is Niseko and why go there?

Niseko is at the heart of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. It’s a mesmerizing town renowned for its world-class powdery snow ski slopes, vibrant villages, and awe-inspiring natural beauty. Niseko is a paradise for families seeking outdoor adventures, beautiful mountain scenery, and unforgettable onsen (hot spring) experiences.

What are the key areas of Niseko?

The Niseko area is a haven for exploring the great outdoors, breathtaking scenery, and top-notch ski and snowboarding resorts. There’s a whole range of activities for the family, which are not limited to just one location. So, let's look at some of the key areas within Niseko:

Hirafu

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

Also known as Grand Hirafu village, this is the largest village within Niseko and offers the most choice in accommodations. It features world-class ski and snowboarding slopes, as well as an active and vibrant apres-ski scene (basically, social activities and entertainment at the resort after a great day of skiing or snowboarding). From easy-to-access skiing areas to a vibrant nightlife, Hirafu is a must-visit place that the whole family will love.

Kutchan

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

Serving as the gateway town to Niseko and its ski resort areas, Kutchan is known for its shopping and dining options. This means there’s a wealth of shopping centers, supermarkets, and traditional onsen baths. For culture lovers, Kutchan town supports education and tourism activities for learning about the Ainu, the region's indigenous people.

Higashiyama - Niseko Village

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

For those seeking a more tranquil experience, Higashiyama, also known as Niseko Village, would be a great spot. Located between Annupuri (most hot springs) and Grand Hirafu (largest village), Niseko Village offers a variety of year-round activities, whether that’s mindful walks through the forests surrounded by picturesque landscapes, indulging in a rejuvenating spa treatment or simply enjoying the luxurious resorts. Niseko Village has both high-end hotels and still provides access to its extensive collection of ski and snowboarding slopes.

Hanazono

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

Located in the east of Niseko, Hanazono is for the more adventurous outdoor families.

There are excellent ski and snowboarding slopes in winter, as well as backcountry gates for trying out Niseko’s famous powder snow. In the warmer months, popular activities are hiking, mountain biking, and ziplining. Although accommodation choices are fewer in Hanazono, it can be summed up as a year-round paradise for exciting outdoor activities and adventurous families.

Annupuri

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

A mountain hosting major ski resorts. The name “Annupuri” is derived from the Ainu language, meaning “mountain with a cliff and river.” As its name suggests, Annupuri contains a diverse range of ski and snowboard slopes for all family levels, from gentle beginner courses to tree skiing runs on powered snow.

Annupuri also boasts impressive views of Mount Yotei, also known as Mount Fuji of Hokkaido.
There is a mix of accommodations here for all family types, great for those wanting a more relaxed atmosphere as well as enjoying the onsen (hot springs) and the vast range of slopes.

Those are Niseko's key areas, ranging from adrenaline-pumping outdoor adventures to serene retreats. Niseko offers a unique blend of experiences that cater to every family member's interests.

Plan your visit to this fantastic destination and create unforgettable memories in Niseko.

When is the best time to visit Niseko?

Niseko offers a range of activities throughout the year beyond skiing and snowboarding. The time of your visit will depend on what you and your family want to enjoy. To help you plan your trip, here's an overview of Niseko's year-round weather.

Winter (December to February) – Skiing and Snowboarding Prime Time

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

If skiing and snowboarding are your family's main interests, the best time to visit Niseko is from December to February when the snow conditions are perfect. That’s no exaggeration too; Niseko winters are when snowfall is heaviest, which means you can experience Niseko’s world-famous powder snow. The powder is the perfect consistency and depth, creating fluffy snow that blankets the Niseko slopes. The snow gives a 'bottomless' powdery experience, for which Niseko is renowned.

If your family loves winter sports and you’re mainly here for that purpose with optimal conditions, this is the best time to visit Niseko.

Spring (March to May) - Cherry blossom viewing, hiking, and cycling

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

As the weather in Niseko gradually warms up, it becomes an ideal time for outdoor activities such as cherry blossom viewing, hiking, and cycling.

Niseko has stunning cherry blossoms which usually reach full bloom at the end of April, creating picturesque landscapes and serene walks that are ideal for photography enthusiasts.
One amazing location would be Makkari Shrine at the base of Mount Yotei. The unique contrast of pink blossoms against the snowy white mountain and a Japanese shrine is what you will find here. Niseko's cherry blossoms are also less crowded than other famous spots in Japan, adding to a more peaceful and relaxing viewing experience for the family. There’s a Japan Cherry Blossom forecast available, if you are keen to see when and where the Sakura will blossom.

For hiking, the temperate weather of Spring provides both melting white snow against lush, vibrant green trails, allowing access to Niseko's breathtaking natural beauty. Niseko’s diverse hiking trails, such as those on Mount Yotei or Mount Annupuri also cater to all levels, from the leisurely family walk to the adventurous mountain climber. A list of hand curated trails for Niseko can be found here.

For cycling, the clearer roads and scenic backdrops offer perfect conditions for cycling enthusiasts to explore Japan’s countryside. The clear, smooth cycling paths come with panoramic views of Mount Yotei, and weather-wise, the cool, crisp air and minimal rainfall create ideal conditions for long-distance cycling whilst exploring Niseko’s natural beauty. There’s a bike rental at JR Niseko Station Tourist Information and also various locations in Niseko with Rhythm Japan bike rentals.

Summer (June to August) - Golfing, fishing, and exploring nature trails

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

Niseko summers see lush green landscapes and pleasant temperatures. It's an excellent time for golfing, fishing, and exploring the region's stunning nature trails.

Niseko’s courses, such as Hanazono Golf, Niseko Village Golf Course and Niseko Golf Course, offer stunning views of Mount Yotei and the surrounding natural landscape, further elevating the golfing experience. On top of this, longer daylight hours in summer allow for extended playtime, allowing you to make the most of Niseko’s well-maintained and diverse courses.

For people who love fishing, the area’s crystal-clear streams and rivers are abundant in fish, especially trout. It's perfect for fly fishing and enjoying nature. Niseko Flyfishing and Tenkara provides guided tours with all rental gear included.

Niseko's nature trails wind through lush forests with diverse wildlife and plants. You can hike alone or take a guided tour to learn about the local ecosystem and volcanic geography. The area is a great spot for bird-watching, especially in the spring and summer when migratory birds are present.

Autumn (September to end of November) - Autumn foliage viewing and photography, scenic drives and onsen baths

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

The crimson autumn foliage in Hokkaido is already a huge tourist draw, but Niseko is truly a sight to behold. Between mid-September and November, the mountains and forests are covered in vibrant red, orange, and yellow hues. This creates a perfect backdrop for autumn foliage viewing, photography, scenic drives, and relaxing hot springs.

The clear autumn skies and comfortable temperatures mean you won’t be too cold whilst on outdoor photography sessions in the fantastic scenery.

Niseko’s scenic drives, particularly on the Panorama Line, offer stunning views of colorful leaves against volcanic mountains. This 45km route, taking around 50 minutes, winds through vibrant leaf tunnels and features stops for restaurants, cafés, onsens, and farm stands. Note that the road closes from November to April, making September and October ideal for scenic drives and foliage viewing.

Onsen is a Japanese term that refers to natural hot springs. These mineral-rich waters are believed to have healing properties, making them a perfect way to relax after a day of hiking and photography in Niseko's beautiful autumn scenery. Many onsens in Niseko offer open-air baths, where you can soak in the hot springs while enjoying the vibrant autumn foliage and fresh air.

Some of the most notable onsens in the area include the Niseko Grand Hotel, which is known for its two types of hot springs with rejuvenating properties for the skin. The Yukichichibu Onsen is another popular choice, offering a variety of indoor and outdoor baths with therapeutic sulphuric waters. Finally, the Goshiki Onsen is a hidden gem, praised for its traditional Japanese atmosphere and wooden construction.

Whether you're a first-timer to Japan or a seasoned onsen enthusiast, the onsens in Niseko provide a quintessential Japanese hot spring experience, blending relaxation with the captivating beauty of autumn foliage.

Quick summary of seasons for different activities in Niseko
  • Winter: December to February is ideal for skiing and snowboarding.
  • Spring: March to May is for cherry blossom viewing, hiking, and cycling.
  • Summer: June to August is best for golfing, fishing, and exploring nature trails in Niseko.
  • Autumn: September to November are for Autumn foliage viewing and photography, scenic drives, and onsen baths.

Now, you can plan your visit to Niseko according to your family's interests and experience the diverse range of activities Niseko has to offer throughout the year.

What else is there to do in Niseko?

Aside from skiing, snowboarding, and the seasonal activities above, Niseko offers a range of other activities. Here’s a quick overview:

Local attractions and cultural experiences

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

Niseko offers a rich cultural experience. Sample fresh produce and traditional Japanese snacks ata roadside local market such as Niseko View Plaza. Immerse yourself in the history and culture of the region by visiting the Kutchan Museum of Natural History or exploring the tranquil temples and shrines scattered throughout the area, such as Daibutsu-ji or Kutchan Jinja, both located in the town of Kutchan.

Depending on the time of year, you can also participate in or observe local winter festivals with ice sculptures and seasonal celebrations.

Snow and nature related activities

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

There are many other activities beyond skiing and snowboarding for those looking to enjoy Niseko in other ways.

Snowshoeing through the Hanazono forest in March and April allows you to hike through snow-covered trails with snowshoes, an excellent activity for nature lovers. Hot air ballooning in Annupuri from June to September, offered at Setsu Niseko, where you can see the Niseko landscape from above, weather permitting.

For the more peaceful, there’s ice fishing between January and March, a serene and unique experience. This can be booked online or at your resort. Sledding and tubing are ideal for families and those who want to enjoy the snow at a more leisurely pace.

For the more adventurous and thrill-seeking, there are snowmobiling tours through the winter landscape, ice climbing on frozen waterfalls, and horseback riding through the snow-covered fields.

Please have a look at the following resources for additional fun things to do in winter in Niseko!

Related articles

How to get to Niseko

There are many ways to reach Niseko, and here we’ll suggest some more popular routes.

Flying to New Chitose Airport

If you're planning a family trip to Niseko from the United States, Europe, or outside of Japan, you may be able to find a flight to Hokkaido’s New Chitose Airport (airport code CTS) near Sapporo. If there are no direct flights from your city, anticipate doing a stopover in Tokyo before connecting to a domestic flight and continuing on. Flights from Tokyo (Haneda) take around 90 minutes.

While you can conceivably use a Japan Rail Pass to get from Tokyo to Niseko by train, the journey will take between 7.5 and just over 8 hours.

From New Chitose Airport to Niseko

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

・By train
There are no direct trains from New Chitose Airport to Niseko. The trip involves riding three different trains to the final destination of JR Kutchan, JR Hirafu, or JR Niseko and then a taxi or local bus to reach your final resort or accommodation. The ride time on the different trains totals approximately 3.5 hours, although this excludes changing and waiting times.

・By shuttle
Shuttles offer an easy way of getting to Niseko, with online booking on websites such as Hokkaido Access Network and Resort Liner. You can also book through travel agencies, especially if you plan to purchase a ski package or similar. Also, if you're staying at a hotel in Niseko, ask if the hotel can arrange shuttle bus transportation.

The shuttle bus journey from New Chitose Airport to Niseko typically takes approximately 2.5 to 3 hours, depending on weather conditions and the specific drop-off location in Niseko.

The cost can vary depending on the provider. Typically, for a shared shuttle service, the price can range from about 3,000 to 5,000 yen per person, one way.

・By airport transfer
If you are traveling with a group or with family and do not feel comfortable driving on snowy roads, you may wish to consider hiring someone else. Private and shared transfers are available from New Chitose Airport, with rates roughly around 40,000 yen per vehicle.

・By rental car
If your family prefers the freedom of driving, renting a car is a great option. The drive also offers stunning views of the Hokkaido countryside and takes around 2 to 3 hours, depending on the weather.

During winter, driving conditions can be challenging due to the snow, so renting a car equipped with snow tires is advisable.

Car rental agencies are available at New Chitose Airport and booking in advance is advisable, especially during peak seasons. For documents, you’ll need an international driving permit, passport, and credit card.
The cost of the rental car will vary based on the car model, rental duration, and insurance options. However, you’ll be looking at a range of 5,000 to 20,000 yen per day. Learn more about renting a car in Japan and driving in Hokkaido.

Where to Stay in Niseko

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

Niseko boasts diverse accommodation options, catering to different preferences and budgets. Selecting the right stay from cozy lodges to luxury resorts can significantly enhance your family's comfort, convenience, and experience. Careful consideration of location, amenities, and access to family-friendly activities will ensure your trip to Niseko is memorable for the whole family.

With so much choice, here are some main categories to help you plan.

Top Hotels and Luxury Apartments in Niseko:
For those seeking a luxurious stay, Niseko offers several high-end hotels and luxury apartments. Establishments such as AYA Niseko and Higashiyama Niseko Village offer top-tier amenities and personalized services, making them ideal for those seeking a pampered experience. They're usually located close to key attractions and provide breathtaking views, adding to your luxury experience.

Other luxury hotel and apartments include:

Mid-Range Hotels: Options like Ki Niseko and Hilton Niseko Village balance affordability with a range of convenient facilities, suitable for families seeking both comfort and value. Their locations offer easy access to ski resorts and local attractions.

Other mid-range hotels include:

Budget-Friendly Accommodations:
If you’re conscious of budget, Niseko offers affordable accommodations like backpackers hostels and pensions (essentially Japanese bed and breakfasts). These options provide a cozy and economical stay, with the essential comforts but without high price tags. Places like M Hotel Niseko and Niseko Freedom Inn are great for travelers conscious of their spending and great for longer stays.

Other budget-friendly accommodations include:

Traditional Japanese Accommodations (Ryokan):
For a truly authentic Japanese experience, consider staying at a traditional ryokan in Niseko. These traditional inns offer a unique blend of Japanese hospitality and cultural immersion. For example, you'll often sleep on futon beds laid out on tatami floors, wear yukatas (casual kimonos), and can enjoy communal hot spring baths. It's a culturally rich experience, as well as being situated in scenic areas that allow you to appreciate the beauty of the Japanese landscape.

Some popular Ryokan options include:

Dining and Nightlife in Niseko

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

After a day of adventure, you can unwind with Niseko's vibrant nightlife and dining scene. Niseko offers a wide variety of options, from bars and clubs for adults to family-friendly Japanese and international restaurants.
For foodies and those looking for gourmet dining experiences, you can find recommended local izakayas and restaurants here on Live Japan and Gurunavi.com (one of Japan's leading restaurant search websites) for an even more authentic culinary experience.

Here, we’ll highlight some of the main options for planning your Niseko dining and nightlife.

Dining

Authentic Japanese Cuisine:
For experiencing authentic Japanese flavors, and traditional culinary artistry, there are options ranging from sushi prepared by a Michelin-starred chef at Sushi Shin by Miyakawa to Robata Kaiseki style (fireside cooking multicourse dishes) at Niseko Naniwatei at Intuition, all using fresh local ingredients.

Contemporary and Fusion Dining:
A modern approach to cuisine where you can enjoy a creative fusion of flavors, sophisticated cooking, and a contemporary dining atmosphere would be MAME Niseko for Japanese contemporary dining.
For French and Italian cuisine with a focus on Hokkaido’s superb ingredients, méli mélo - Yuki No Koe would be a great choice.

Casual and Cozy Options:
Relaxed and welcoming environments, perfect for casual meals with a diverse range of flavors, are also available. There’s AFURI, which is famous for yuzu ramen, offering a variety of dishes, including gyoza and salads in a stylish setting, or J’ai la patate, a cozy French restaurant with classic cuisine, using fresh, locally sourced ingredients.

Family Friendly Options:
These establishments provide a mix of cuisines and atmospheres, ensuring a pleasant evening dining experience for families. Niseko Pizza offers a family-friendly atmosphere with a wide range of pizzas and Italian dishes. Perfect for a casual and enjoyable family meal.
For Chinese and seafood, Ryunabe Niseko specializes in high-quality soup bases and fresh seafood—a great option for families looking for a hearty and satisfying dinner.

Nightlife

Niseko provides a variety of nightlife options for adults and families alike. Here are some of the main activities:

For Adults:
Bars and Pubs: Niseko is known for its vibrant bar scene, offering a mix of traditional Japanese izakayas and Western-style pubs, where you can enjoy local and international beers, sake, and cocktails. Many bars feature live music or DJ sets and often have a cozy, intimate atmosphere.

Après-Ski Activities: Many ski resorts have on-site bars and lounges where you can enjoy the lively après-ski culture after a day on the slopes. It’s a great way to socialize and meet fellow skiers and snowboarders. These activities often include live entertainment and special events.

Night Skiing: Some areas in Niseko also offer night skiing for those wanting to experience the slopes under the stars. It’s a unique and exhilarating way to enjoy the snow and often less crowded than daytime skiing.

For Families:
Onsen Visits: Visiting a local hot spring can be a soothing evening activity. Many onsens are open in the evenings, and it’s a relaxing way for the whole family to unwind. Some onsens have family rooms or private bathing options for those wanting more privacy.
These activities balance lively nightlife for adults and more relaxed, family-oriented evening options. You might want to check local tourism websites or contact your accommodation's concierge to plan with specific location recommendations.

What are some essential tips I should know before going to Niseko?

(Photo: PIXTA)
(Photo: PIXTA)

Before heading to Niseko, consider these essential tips for planning a smooth and enjoyable trip:

Prepare for the cold: Niseko can be very cold, especially during peak ski season. Pack appropriate winter gear, including thermal layers, waterproof ski jackets, gloves, and hats.

Accommodation: Book your accommodation well in advance, as Niseko is a popular destination, and places can fill up quickly, especially during winter.

Travel insurance: Although obvious, make sure you have travel insurance that covers winter sports, as skiing and snowboarding come with a risk of injury.

Onsen etiquette: If you plan to visit an onsen, especially for the first time, familiarize yourself with the bathing etiquette, such as washing before entering the bath and not bringing towels into the water.

Bring cash: While credit cards and electronic payments are widely accepted in Niseko, some smaller establishments may only take cash, so having some on hand is good.

With this guide, you're now ready to plan an unforgettable first-time Niseko trip for you and the family. Happy travels!

Written by: Sloane Japan

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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