Friday, April 12, 2019

Planning a family ski trip to Niseko ... Japan?

I am the first to acknowledge that I am not at all qualified to write anything about Niseko.  We spent just under two weeks in Niseko.  When I wrote the blog post about Whistler we had been there five times.  That said, there is a definite lack of information out there about skiing Japan with kids so I am happy to throw my hat in the ring and share what I now know.

Why Niseko over any of the other Japanese ski resorts?

When I investigated skiing in Japan I literally googled Japanese ski resorts and started with that but after much deliberation I made the decision to go to Niseko as I felt that as the resort was very established and popular with the Australian market it was probably the best place for our first visit to Japan.  Shortly after I committed to that decision a lovely family friend got in touch and asked if we were interested in joining them for a trip to Niseko.  That sealed our decision, Niseko it was

Where to stay in Niseko?

The boys and other kids from The Aya playing out the front of the hotel.  (The Aya had a great supply of toboggans at reception. Just ask to borrow however many you need.)

Residence 102 at The Aya, this was our private ski in/out entrance,  From here it was less than 200m to the chair lift and not even 20 metres to the Go Snow ski school drop off.  

Niseko is comprised of four different ski resorts.  Annapuri, Hanazono, Niseko Village and Grand Hirafu.  We picked Grand Hirafu as our location as most of the restaruants that we wanted to checkout were in Grand Hirafu and also the hotel options in Grand Hirafu seemed the best.  We booked The Aya which is positioned in a fantastic ski in/out location at the base of the Grand Hirafu chairlift and it was excellent.  I could not fault the accommodation in any way.  We spent the first half of the holiday in one of the residences, sharing it with our friends, and it was amazing.  We had a view straight onto the base of the mountain from one side and from the other we gazed onto a beautiful snow covered grove of trees.  It also included a private onsen and our own ski in, ski out entry.  The ski room was enormous with lots of storage for all of the ski gear.    The walk in the morning from our apartment to drop the boys at ski school was literally less than 20 metres.  It really was a great location.  We were walking distance to the Seico Market, the local supermarket, Mick's (a fantastic bar and bottleshop), lots of fabulous restaurants and most importantly, the on site restaurant Ginger, had amazing coffee.   


The Aya really ticks all the boxes, it has a very funky vibe and great staff that well and truly went above and beyond.  As in the front desk staff helping our friend's 25 year old son clean up a vomit covered bedroom after one of the kid's came down with gastro and we were all out having dinner.  I was super impressed.  For our first time to Niseko, I think we really nailed it with the accommodation.  There were a couple of other hotels that looked like they might be worth  investigating also,  Skye Niseko looked great.  It is positioned a bit further up the mountain and is also ski in/out.  Ross and I had a lovely lunch at the deli here one day and from what I could see of the hotel it looked pretty amazing.  It would just be a slightly longer walk to the village if you wanted to go our for dinner and if your kids were attending regular ski school you would need to either ski them or walk them down to the ski school base.  The Vale is literally next door to the Aya, so again an amazing location in the heart of the village, ski in and out and it also had a very cool vibe about it.

These Villas belonged to the Aya and looked incredible. They were right outside our apartment and   they had the most glamourous young couples staying in them (it turns out that there is a lot of money in online gambling, who knew?) and if money was no object for me too, I would definitely love to stay in one of them one day!

Which Ski School?

Hamish and his friend that we travelled with waiting for their lesson to begin at Go Snow.

Niseko is different to every other resort that we have skied at with children.  There are multiple ski schools and they are all privately owned.  More importantly they are all associated with the different resorts that make up Niseko.  When you are picking your ski school definitely investigate whether it has a base at the resort that you are based at.  As we were staying in Grand Hirafu we picked Go Snow for our ski school.  This decision was also influenced by the recommendations of friends that had previously skied Japan.  My thoughts on the ski school are a little mixed.  Go Snow was in a great location, the meeting area for Yama Riders (8-14 year olds) is just outside the front of The Aya.  The meeting spot for Ninja Kids (3-6 year olds) is next door to The Aya's Ski Valet room so it was definitely the best for us as far as location.  The instructors were also great, Hamish and his mate that we were travelling with even had an instructor who attended the same school as me in Canberra, just 30 years after my time there!  It was more that the ski school levels are pretty lax and there were a real mix of abilities at the advanced level of the ski school program.  We had a fair few complaints from the boys at the end of the day that they had to spend a lot of time waiting on runs as the other two kids in their class were both unable to keep up and struggled with many of the runs.  It is also frustrating as the Ski School were not permitted to take kids aged under 13 years through the Gates (this is where all the good skiing is) and were limited to only skiing the main runs, which are very busy and pretty basic skiing. This rule also applies to private lessons unfortunately.  Definitely do some research before you book into any of the ski schools.  Confirm that the location is convenient and ask lots of questions.  One friend told us that the ski school she booked her daughter into refused to serve lunch as part of the day program, so they had to ski back to the ski school base, collect their daughter, feed her and then return her back to the ski school.   Go Snow did feed our kids and there were no food complaints!

Dressing the kids for skiing Japan

Hamish rugged up against the cold.

It was cold.  The coldest I have ever been skiing.  It is the only time Hamish has asked for glove liners.  Up the top of the mountain it averaged around -12C.  The village was around -6C.  There were times it was colder as the wind up high added a little something extra to the chill.  Hamish wore Ice Breaker as his base layer, added a merino wool top over that and then a light down vest under his ski jacket.  He has Kjus Ski Wear and he said that he never felt cold in his body, only his hands.  I ended up giving him my Ice Breaker merino wool glove inners in order to keep his hands warm as it was that cold.  He doesn't like the artificial hand warmers.  He also for the first time asked to wear a balaclava.  The cold/snow/ice on your face in Japan is quite something.  Do not send little ones out in Japan without their faces covered, buy either a merino wool or fleece balaclava to wear under their helmets.  I would say the same for the adults.  It was soooo cold.  I ended up wearing my Ice Breaker neck warmer as a sort of face mask as at times my face did not feel like it belonged to the rest of my body.  If you are planning to ski Japan often, I would investigate investing in proper heated gloves and boots.  The main thing is dress yourselves and the children in quality ski gear.  Skiing is an expensive enough holiday as it is, there is no point going all that way and not being able to get out and ski because you are too cold.

Our first day in Niseko and we seriously thought we had arrived in skiing heaven.  Incredible powder, bluebird skies, it was magical.  My friend Jennifer and I skied long after everyone else had retired for the day.  I am so glad we decided to stay out that day.  We were able to witness the most incredible pink glow over the resort as the sun set and we also made the most of the good weather.  It didn't take us long to realise that blue skies in Niseko are rarer than hen's teeth.

Ski Hire?

We prefer to hire our skis each season.  The boys do have their own skis and poles but we don't travel overseas with them.  Primarily because, no one wants to fiddle about with oversized baggage at the airport and also because you can then check out all the new demo skis each season as part of your ski hire package.  Another factor to consider when making the decision to travel with your ski gear is whether your travel insurance will cover the cost of any damage to your ski gear.  Ours does not and we have a comprehensive annual policy that includes skiing as part of the extras.  Our ski gear is not covered for damage on snow or in transit, so we have always opted to rent our skis (we do all travel with our own boots though).  These are the two options for Ski Hire in Grand Hirafu that we looked at:

Rhythm Snowsports

We used Rhythm  because when skiing in Australia that is where we have always hired our gear from.  It turned out to be a great decision as they appeared to be the biggest rental shop we saw in Niseko.  They also have a relationship with The Aya and have a small service desk in the Aya's ski valet room.  It turned out extra handy for me as one day when I went to pick up my skis after lunch I found that someone had replaced my poles with their significantly shorter ones.  The Rhythm staff member at The Aya was great and swapped them over immediately for me.  Another reason to hire from Rhythm is that there is a fantastic little coffee bar within the store that has excellent coffee.  Drinkable coffee is always a lovely and welcome surprise when travelling.  Rhythm delivered all our ski gear directly to the Ski Valet at The Aya, when we checked out we simply handed it all to the Rhythm staff member on duty in the Ski Valet room.  Super easy.

Larry Adler

Larry Adler's is basically a Sydney institution, there are multiple stores in Sydney and they always have gorgeous window displays.  The family we travelled with hired all their gear from Larry Adler who then had it all delivered to the Ski Valet at The Aya, but if you want to switch anything over you need to walk back to the Larry Adler store to do it.  Also, once you are done skiing you need to return the ski gear to the Larry Adler store.  It also definitely did not have the range of options that Rhythm had.

Where to eat?

We booked our trip to Niseko is July 2018, so a full 7 months before we travelled.  Friends that had travelled to Niseko in the past and also out wonderful travel agent advised us to make our dinner bookings as soon as possible. Luckily we heeded their advice as I did a quick ring/email around, got a few suggestions and then asked Ari from the Luxe Nomad to go ahead and make bookings.  Incredibly, 7  months before our trip several of the restaurants that had been highly recommended were already booked out.  Almost all the others refused to take a booking without a credit card.  Regardless, we had some absolutely amazing meals out.  These are the stand outs that I would recommend.


Kamimura is conveniently located in the heart of Grand Hirafu and was walking distance from The Aya and... it is probably the best degustation menu I have ever had. Ever.  It was literally astonishingly and mouth wateringly amazing.  If you go to Niseko and you enjoy food, please do make the effort to visit.  It wasn't a cheap meal but it was truly extraordinary.  All the dishes are made with locally sourced ingredients and they literally burst with flavour and texture.

Ross and I were lucky enough to meet Chef Yuichi Kamimura, what a treat. 

Other great local restuarants I would recommend include Abucha 2, Ezo Seafood, Rin and Yukitei.  All of these will require bookings months in advance.  As soon as you have booked your accommodation, book the restaurants you are interested in visiting.
Sea Urchin... so delicious!

Family travel tip... always pack a deck of UNO!

If you are in the mood for something other than Japanese,  we all loved The Barn.  Locally sourced ingredients and a fantastic location.  The staff here were amazing also.

The Barn by Odin, the building was inspired by traditional Hokkaido architecture and was very impressive.  Definitely worth a visit

  If you are in the mood for something cheap the food trucks are also fantastic and the kids will love it.  These are all parked in the heart of Hirafu Village and are right near the Seico Mart.  You can't miss them.

The food trucks offer a variety of cheap, fast and easy meal options.

If you are in the mood for some Apres-Ski, the best option we found was Mick's.  A fantastic little wine bar diagonally across the road from The Aya.  It is a wine bar and also a bottle shop.  We ended up having drinks here most evenings when we were intending just to buy a bottle of wine to go with dinner or a bottle of champagne for some apres-ski drinks.  It is just that kind of place, welcoming, fun and friendly.  That said, Mick's really does have an incredible selection of wine and also some great local beers and whiskies.


How to get to Niseko?

We flew ANA from Sydney to Tokyo and then Tokyo to Sapporo (New Chitose Airport).  From the airport our travel agent (The Luxe Nomad) booked us transfers with Sky Express.  We were met at the airport by a lovely New Zealander from Sky Express who helped us with all our gear and explained to the driver that we wanted to stop for food and toilet stops at around the half way point.  Our return transfers were also with Sky Express and the service was faultless.  There were 9 of us and we travelled in a mini bus  that was spacious and comfortable. Also, the seats had proper seatbelts.  Even better,  almost everyone had a nap at some point in the journey.

What to do on non ski days?

We spent one fabulous afternoon snow mobiling at Hanazono.  We booked a taxi to transport us all over to Hanazono and then the boys had a play on the kids snowmobiles (if they have snow mobile'd elsewhere I would skip this.  The "guides" were super strict and the boys got a little frustrated with it.) Afterwards though we all did a proper snow mobile tour and it was amazing.  We were unable to do the Panorama course as the visibility was very poor and the guides considered it too dangerous so as an alternative we did an extended tour of the Rabbit course and it was beauitiful and exhilarating.  The course takes you through what in summer is a golf course and must be incredibly beautiful to play golf at as it was quite spectacular even in winter.  We cruised along icy paths past groves of trees and picturesque mountain views and it was really lovely.  We all loved it, from the 7 year old to the 67 year old!

The boys also loved the snow tubing that was also available at Hanazono.  It is a very kid friendly tubing park and you could easily leave the kids to play for a couple of hours while you enjoy a peaceful lunch inside!

Do we recommend Niseko for a family ski holiday?

I have been asked this a few times and definitely have mixed feelings.

The positives about skiing Japan are:

The time zone is similar.  Realistically it probably took a similar amount of time to get to Niseko as it would to get to Whistler, the extra flight, the transport from New Chitose to Niseko all adds up, but the bonus of no significant jet lag is not to be disregarded.

It was amazing to experience Japanese powder, it really was something else and I have never experienced powder like it elsewhere.  I would also say that it is very pretty skiing Japan.  Some of the runs in the gated areas were exceptionally lovely.

Japanese food! So delicious.

Culturally it was fantastic to experience something different.

Not to say these are negatives, but they are things to consider when making the decision to ski Niseko (also please remember we only have been once and for a very brief time and they reflect only my experiences):

The mountain is busy.  The lift lines are like Perisher on a Saturday in school holidays.  The lift lines are also very poorly managed.  They do not have mountain staff organising the lines into groups of four for a chairlift of four and so on.  It is very frustrating to watch lift after lift go up the mountain with only 1 or 2 people on a 4 seater when there are a hundred keen skiers and boarders waiting in line.  This was the situation at all four of the resorts also unfortunately.

The main ski trails are also very crowded (and a little boring)  and there are a lot of beginner skiers.  More than I have ever seen anywhere.   The gated areas and off piste skiing however is brilliant and quiet but you are skiing at your own risk and there are costs associated with any recovery.  I would also advise that you store all the emergency phone numbers for the different resorts into your phone in case of any incidents.  We spent most of our time skiing in the gated areas and outside of the resort boundaries.  In two weeks of skiing, I only ever saw ski patrol go through a gated area once.  We did come across other skiers of course, but in some spots it was rare and for safety reasons I would only ski in the gates with an operating mobile phone and with another person.  This is all very problematic for family skiing.  If you have children that are accustomed to challenging skiing and have been skiing double black runs and couloirs elsewhere, they will be very bored in ski school in Japan as they are not permitted to ski through the gates.  (Even if you pay for private lessons as we discovered).  We ended up skiing with the boys most days so that they could actually enjoy some decent skiing.

All that powder does come at a price, it is an almost permanent white out.  Our first day skiing was a magical blue bird day and I am truly grateful we got to experience that one day of incredible skiing as every other day had next to no visibility.   It is very, very cold and it is almost always snowing.  Again, this is not ideal for families.  Hamish and I got horribly lost one day and I was frightened I would lose sight of him at some points and we are very experienced skiers.  This is something that I would definitely consider if you are beginner skiers as the legendary Niseko white-out is not for the faint hearted.  The cold and the lack of visibility would not be fun for little kids and I would also be fearful of putting them off skiing for life.  Skiing is not a cheap holiday and to go all that way and with that kind of expense and for the kids to hate it, would be so disappointing.

Niseko is also very expensive.  The entire trip cost us double a ski trip to Canada.  I am glad we went and experienced it but the expense was phenomenal.  We stayed in comparable hotel accommodation, at both destinations we eat out every night and we book the kids into ski school at both.  Niseko was easily double the cost if not more (sorry Ross!).

So would we go back?  I asked Ross this recently and he said he would go back for a boys trip with his mates but not with the family. I would have to agree.  I am very glad we went and experienced Niseko but I probably would not travel there as a family again.  I can see much more value skiing elsewhere in the world as it was so tremendously expensive. I know this will polarise some people, we know some very committed Niseko ski families, so I guess it truly depends upon what you want from a family ski holiday!

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