Besides famous cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, the northernmost prefecture of Japan known as Hokkaido is a top tourist attraction, especially for those who enjoy the chilly winter season and sports. It is known for its volcanoes, natural hot springs and ski areas. There are many renowned ski resorts in Sapporo and around Hokkaido, but Niseko is one of the most popular ones.
Niseko is a resort town in western Hokkaido and is famous for its multiple ski resorts that attract visitors from all over the world. The area is known as a snow mecca of the world, and snow here is unlike anywhere else as it is a very dry and fluffy white colour. On average, there is about 15m of snowfall every year. This is because from November to March, the snow barely stops falling in Niseko, so expect to ski day after day on fresh tracks in some of the lightest powder on the planet.
However, it's not convenient to get there from Tokyo as there's no bullet train, at least not until 2028 according to the locals. So in order to get there, first you'll have to take a 90-minute flight from Tokyo to New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido, and Niseko is another three-hour drive from there. Fortunately, there's a direct flight from Bangkok to New Chitose Airport in Sapporo, which should save you a lot of travel time.
Niseko is divided into four interlinked ski resorts, which include Niseko Village, Hirafu, Annupuri and Hanazono. When taken together, you have more than 120 hectares of incredible terrain, each creating its own distinctive character and atmosphere. The busiest one is Hirafu as it's the largest of the four resorts that make up the Niseko United ski area.
And that's where my hotel Sansui Niseko was located. It has direct access to the Grand-Hirafu ski slopes and is also close to the Welcome Center, convenience store, pharmacy, ski shops and restaurants. Sansui is a brand new luxury ski-in/ski-out 5-star boutique hotel located in prime Upper Hirafu. Despite the construction being completed more than two years ago, the hotel only opened its doors last November due to the pandemic.
A private onsen in the penthouse.
As most of the scenery in Niseko during winter is blessed with an abundance of majestic wilderness, both the exterior and interior of the hotel, designed by award-winning architect Makoto Nakayama, have glass walls which reflect the surrounding scenery making it seem like a part of the forest.
Upon arrival at the lobby, you are greeted by a dose of top-notch Japanese hospitality from the hotel staff. Then you'll spot an atrium located at the centre of the building with dazzling, high open-air ceilings. Watching the snow fall on the atrium through the glass wall from the inside of the hotel gives an amazing sense of space, a zen-like work of art. Sansui Niseko has 55 bedrooms with a studio, 1-bed, 2-bed, 3-bed and penthouse options, all equipped with a kitchen/kitchenette and laundry facilities.
Embraced by mountains on all sides, guests can wake up every morning to a pristine view of nature from their balcony, especially the majestic views of Mount Yotei, a volcano which is the main symbol of Niseko, and often dubbed the Mount Fuji of Hokkaido.
Natural materials have been used as much as possible inside rooms instead of a grand interior, which looks mostly like a boutique condominium room providing a casual and soothing environment and allowing long-term stays for guests. Although there is a large signature traditional onsen, the penthouse rooms feature 100% natural hot springs where you can enjoy the outside from an onsen in your own room for an exceptional experience and a moment of luxury.
Private onsens are also available upon booking at the reception, providing in-house guests the opportunity to unwind after a day of activities. There is also a comprehensive range of other facilities, offering a variety of activities. This includes a restorative spa experience, a fully equipped gym with Technogym machinery, a ski rental centre, a children's playroom, an art gallery and an events space.
There are three in-house dining options. One of them is Sushi Shin by Miyakawa, the Niseko outpost of Sapporo's three Michelin-starred Sushi Miyakawa. The restaurant's menu is a journey through the best of Edomae sushi paired with locally-sourced ingredients. I was fortunate enough to try out the omakase dining course on the first night, and it was a memorable experience. The ingredients, refined fish cuts and perfect rice were all delicious. There was a mix of classic nigiri with those kinds of creative dishes, and the uni and monkfish liver stood out for me. Served over rice, it had a velvety texture, almost like risotto. There's also an astounding selection of sake which goes well with the meal.
Then there is Dining by LUPICIA which spotlights a selection of memorable Japanese and international classics. It's also the place in the hotel where you have breakfast in the morning. Japanese hotels often have two types of breakfast. First is Japanese, which often comes with steamed rice, miso soup, different kinds of pickled vegetables and grilled fish. But for those who don't like to eat fish for breakfast, there is a European breakfast with bread, all kinds of buns, omelettes, cornflakes and so on. Lastly, LUPICIA Boutique provides a mid-day respite with appetising food and beverages, as well as an evening menu for an after-hours drink.
Speaking about winter sports, you can't visit Niseko without at least trying skiing or snowboarding regardless of how much experience you have. Of course, I have zero experience and I didn't prepare or have any gear at all. And even though I arrived there with empty hands, I rented everything starting from the clothes and the needed equipment for about 2,300 baht a day. Getting an instructor will cost you more, so if you travel there with friends who are experienced skiers or snowboarders it will be very helpful. There are all kinds of slopes with different levels of difficulty. For instance, just outside of the hotel's back entrance the slope is almost flat, which perfectly suits beginners like me, but there are also more difficult slopes in the same area for the experienced. I lost count of how many times I fell, but I must say the fluffy snow is very comfortable to land on, especially when you are a beginner.
The population of Niseko is only around 6,000 people, and most of them make a living in agriculture. But since the town has become a popular tourist and winter sports destination, it gets roughly 200,000 visitors every winter. And as it is a popular tourist destination, don't be surprised if you find that most of the Japanese people here are quite fluent in English. Whether they're the staff you talk to at the hotel, at the restaurant, or anyone you meet on the street. For a tourist like myself, this is a very noticeable difference compared to even bigger cities like Tokyo or Osaka.
Niseko is an incredible place with magical winter scenery. The trip was about experiencing something completely new and being overwhelmed by it, whether it be the rich culture and history of this country, amazing food or incredibly polite people offering great hospitality always with a smile on their faces.
Sansui Niseko hotel. Photo courtesy of Sansui Niseko
Sushi Shin by Miyakawa.
A stunning view of Mount Yotei. Photo courtesy of Sansui Niseko
Winter horse riding.
More recommended places to visit beyond the slopes
Niseko Village Snowmobiling
Niseko Village resort offers 50-minute snowmobile tours. Kids are allowed to join if they can reach the controls, and tandem (two guests on one snowmobile) are welcome. This is a perfectly safe and fun adventure as you will get to explore the snowy white surroundings of Niseko Village resort. For more information, visit niseko-village.com.
Winter Horse Riding
Horse riding is a fun and exciting activity in Niseko that can be enjoyed most months of the year. In winter you can ride through trails of beautiful white snow. The horses are well-trained and friendly, and you can do a practice run in a paddock before the actual trek. The activity is ideal for those with children or those who have never been on a horse before. Bookings can be done at hanazononiseko.com.
For those who enjoy drinking, there is a hidden gem located inside the Hirafu Prince hotel (a short walk from Sansui) or Toshiro's bar, owned by award-winning bartender Akinori Toshiro and his wife Yoko. While enjoying the couple's friendly hospitality, have a taste of their unique cocktails (including the famous signature Smoked Penicillin). They offer a huge range of whiskey, gin and many other spirits at their bar with over 400 different bottles. Opening hours are 5pm-1am. Visit toshiros-bar.com.
Niseko Distillery Tour
The distillery was founded by Hakkaisan Brewery, a major Niigata-based sake brewer that celebrated its grand opening back in 2021. The home of local brands such as award-winning Nikka whiskey and Ohoro gin, Niseko Distillery is located near the foot of Niseko Annupuri International Ski Area and is now welcoming guests for a tour. All entries to the distillery require a reservation, so visit niseko-distillery.com for more information.