Having recently returned from a ski trip to Niseko, Japan, with my husband and four year old son, I am getting lots of comments from people interested in going but not knowing where to start. Hopefully this shreds (get it!) some light on creating a memorable and precious Japan ski holiday for your family.
Lovely husband and I had skied many times in Australia, New Zealand and Japan before having our son. We were booked to go to Japan another time and I got pregnant - the best reason to postpone a holiday! We waited four years and left for our holiday on our son's 4th birthday. What a treat.
I have some simple and useful information to get your family skiing in powder paradise.
I will aim to keep this information very short and simple and I invite you to ask me any questions you might have that I haven't covered. I'll do my best to help.
Where to goI have been only to Niseko, Japan.
It is the largest ski area in Japan and as such, services and facilities are excellent to cater for the large number of tourists to the area.
Some well travelled and well skied people I have spoken to say it's touristy. Not for me. I actually don't know what that statement means. Yes, the majority of people there are on holidays. So?
How long to stayWe were there 10 nights. That was fantastic. Lots of people stay six or seven nights. It totally depends on your budget and how long you want your family skiing. Next time I would tack on a few days to show our boy Tokyo before heading to Saporro. But at age four, we thought it best to wait a few years.
When to goPeak is December to Feburary. There is fantastic snow and far fewer people if you go any time from 1 March (shoulder season) and accommodation is cheaper from that date, also. I think it's worth taking the kids out of school for.
How to get there
We flew Qantas from Brisbane to Tokyo (via Sydney) and Japan Airlines (JAL) domestically from Tokyo to Sapporo (New Chitose Airport). All flights can be booked through Qantas as JAL is a partner airline. Doing this, you can check your luggage through to your final destination.
Transfers, Accommodation, Ski Gear
There is a fantastic company based in Niseko, HT Holidays (formerly known as Hokkaido Tracks), run by Aussies, that take care of all the Japan end of things. Their range of services has expanded dramatically since our first trip to Japan and they make it so easy. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
You do, however, have many choices to make for your transfers, accommodation and ski gear and here are a few helpful hints for the things HT Holidays will arrange for you.
On Land Transfers
From Sapporo Airport (New Chitose) it's a two hour drive to Niseko. We took a private transfer in a mini van with SkyBus. Previously, we have taken the public coach to Niseko. Obviously, having our own vehicle with driver meant the minute we collected our luggage (our Driver held a sign with our name at the arrivals hall) we were in the van and on our way with the van to ourselves. The SkyBus Driver took us to the front door of our accommodation and took our luggage into the lobby for us while we scrambled for jackets, beanies and gloves. If you are travelling with kids, I think this type of transfer is worth the extra money. If you are travelling alone or as a couple, the coach is less expensive but slower. The Driver stopped at a fabulous truck stop half way to give us a bathroom break and snack. No Chiko rolls; even here the food was amazingly delicious and fresh! More on food later.
AccommodationI have a rule that holidays have to be better than home, so when it comes to accommodation....let's just say I don't camp!
You cannot go too wrong staying in a HT Holidays property but I would recommend Youtei Tracks, Powder Tracks, Yama Shizen East & West and Miharashi for their upper Hirafu Village location. All of these properties are located within a block of each other in the most sought after area for restaurants, bars and most importantly, access to the ski lifts and shuttle bus.
Some of the properties I've mentioned have some Australian electrical plugs which is a pleasant and handy feature of these beautifully built condos.
There are many properties to choose from in other parts of the village but for us, not having to walk up the hill to get to our favourite restaurants and being closer to the Gondola wins. Lower village accommodation can be slightly cheaper and a sensible family option and the shuttle bus services those areas but does not run 24 hours.
|Our gorgeous view of Mt Youtei and looking down the village from Youtei Tracks 501|
Getting around the villageThere are free, little, silver shuttle buses that move people around the village and up to the Gondola (Grand Hirafu Mountain Centre). They are regular around every 15-20 mins and you never have to walk too far to get to a bus stop.
|Silver Shuttle Bus at the Gondola heading down the mountain|
If staying at any of the properties I've suggested you will get the shuttle from Stop 10 on the main drag. There is a Driver and Door Guy. The door dude will ask you where you want to go and your answer is "Gondola" on the way up the hill and "10" (or "juu" if you want to test out your Japanese!) on the way home.
EatingI have to interrupt the information-fest with food.
After your morning on the slopes, the shuttle bus will drop you at stop 10 and you will be starving. Look no further, they've dropped you at the best lunch spot, Asahikawa-Ramen Tozanken. Far-out-brussel-sprout - we ate something here every day. Yep, every day! There are around 10 different ramens to try as well as rice dishes, curries and loads of yummy sides. It is inexpensive, filling and nutritious if you don't count the beer. So yum. They are so friendly and all the food we had here was fantastic.
|Salmon Roe on Rice with Miso at Asahikawa-Ramen Tozanken. Beyond delicious.|
|Jumbo Ramen from Asahikawa-Ramen Tozanken|
Here are a few other places you'll hear about. There are many, many options for food. All the places up the mountain have fantastic food, particularly the restaurant at Hanazono.
This restaurant is near impossible to get into it is so popular. They serve traditional hot pots - a simmering, tasty stock with meat and veges cooked at your table. They also have lots of side dishes. It is noisy, fun and casual and they are kid friendly. As ridiculous as it sounds, go and make a booking as soon as you arrive for holidays and you might get in. Otherwise you have to line up at 5.30pm (for a 6pm opening) and hope they can fit you. It's borderline ridiculous. I tried to book on two different occasions and couldn't get a booking. The three times we walked in, twice we got a table and once we were turned away. We went in shoulder season too.
Food on sticks. Note when ordering, you are ordering one. They are all sold individually. If you want six you have to say so. Hilarious.
Kid friendly. Very yummy.
Don't bother. It was just 'ok'. The service was very sloppy.
Mariposa Muffin and Scone shop
Muffin heaven! Once we found this little yellow shop on a walk to HT Holidays' office, we went daily to get muffins for breakfast the next day....and maybe one for the walk home. A lovely Japanese couple make and sell the cakes and pastries and the flavours change frequently. I can highly recommend the Apple and Caramel Muffin and the Green Tea and White Chocolate Muffin. If you stay at Miharashi it is just across the road.
Everyone knows where the Seiko Mart is at the main intersection in Hirafu. It is a landmark. You can get most everything you'll need there including grocery items, alcohol, fresh sushi snacks and newspapers.
In the upper village at shuttle bus stop 10, Piz Gloria is my favourite convenience store because there is a cute, little gift store attached. It is smaller than Seiko Mart but had everything we needed. Great muffins and some fresh fruit.
Ski EquipmentWhile we own our own ski clothing, we hire equipment. Again, HT Holdiays organised it all through Rhythm Sports which is around the corner from Seiko Mart, heading up the hill.
The equipment from there was great. We took a premium package which meant we got better quality gear and could swap or alter our gear at any time.
They have a pick up service so if you aren't staying close by, they will drive you and your gear to your accommodation after you've been fitted. So good!
Ski ValetIf you book with HT Holidays, you can access their free Ski Valet which is a good enough reason alone. You can leave your skis and boots with the lovely HT staff up the mountain rather than have to carry them on the shuttle and back to your accommodation every day. It is an amazing service. I felt sorry for all the people on the shuttle struggling with their gear and their kids'.
We used NAC, booked through Hokkaido Tracks. My boy is 4 and he had ski school every morning for a couple of hours.
NAC "ski" the kids until they're tired, then take them back to their headquarters where they offer them sweets and have an indoor play area.
They cater well for kids and have their own ski area for beginners. They are mostly Aussies.
|The super cool NAC sled pulled along by a quad bike at their private beginner area|
My boy did one full day of ski school but we found it to be a little too tiring for him so cut it back to just mornings.
NAC pick the kids up in their own mini van at the stairs to the Mountain Centre at the Gondola. We were very confused the first day because it was not obvious and there is another major ski school that operates there. You literally wait at the steps of the entrance for their white van with "NAC" sign written on the side. The instructors wear completely black outfits with light blue embroidery on the backs. This is where you drop them and collect them.
|NAC Ski School pick the kids up at these stairs - the entry to the Mountain Centre|
|This is the NAC van to look out for|
I hate group classes so always book a private lesson for my first few hours on the slopes. It gives me enough confidence to ski after however many years it's been. It's more expensive that group lessons but progress is much faster.
For private lessons, NAC collect you from your accommodation.
Other info for familiesHT Holidays have a stack of DVDs you can borrow at their office.
Take Paw Paw ointment or Vaseline for your kids' lips and apply frequently. If they're old enough to understand lip balm, give them one.
Take a decent medicine kit. You cannot buy, for example, kids Panadol. The nearest medical attention is at the hospital in Kutchan.
Don't worry about taking any food. Honestly, anything you could want (chocolates, bikkies, chips, drinks, noodles, bread) can be bought in Niseko.
If it's your first time skiing, you will be able to ski and enjoy yourself after only a few lessons. If you know how to surf and skateboard, maybe snowboarding will be easier for you.
It is colder than Australia and New Zealand. You will need good quality, well water proofed ski clothes. Typically we wore merino thermals (the base layer), a jumper or soft-shell, then our ski jackets (which has puffer jackets zipped in). On days warmer than -10 I didn't need my jumper. You need a beanie, neck warmer (a Buff is good because you can breathe through it), mittens (highly recommended even for adults, they are so much warmer) and really, really good quality socks.
Check out the snow play areas behind the Grand Hirafu Mountain Centre and at Hanazono.
|Tobogganing at Grand Hirafu Snow Play area|
Is it expensive?I believe it costs around the same as Australia to eat out and buy at convenience stores. Some things are pricey, like sashimi and wine, but others are reasonable, like pork and beer.
Hit me with any questions you have on anything I haven't covered and happy planning!