Niseko United is known for it’s JAPOW — the deep dry powder snow that famously blankets the island of Hokkaido, Japan each winter — and the reason we chose this Ikon pass ski resort for spring break this year. March skiing can be unreliable but surely we would be guaranteed exceptional powder here, plus all the other perks that come with travel to this favorite destination — the food, the service, the beauty, the zen, and the wonderfully wacky commercials and other delightful quirks.
Well, we found the snow, walls up to 20 feet of it lining the streets in the village of Hirafu. But no fresh powder in the past 10 days plus warm days and rain created slopes of both slush and ice covering the mountain. Foiled once again for our spring break ski vacation. Luckily the restaurants, the hot spring onsens, and the views of Mt Yotei help take the sting out of the wound as we see all the photos of the snow dumped on Utah and the East Coast resorts this week. Even Windham, our home-base resort, dry the entire three weeks I spent there in February, received three feet in one day.
Where we stayed
Ski-in/ski-out mid-luxury hotel in Hirafu village, right next to the gondola. There are both regular hotel rooms and condos with living areas and kitchenettes.
The three of us stayed in a one bedroom condo, booked with a resort view but complimentary upgraded to a Mt Yotei view two weeks prior to arrival. Plenty spacious with a fabulous view of Yotei, two twin beds in the bedroom, and a rollaway bed in the living/kitchen area. There is a bench and coat and shoe area located in the entryway, as well as space for ski luggage — skis and boots, however, can be stored in the ski valet located on the second floor, with easy walk-out access to the gondola.
Management requests no shoes worn within the condo room, supplying you with slippers to wear inside. They also provide comfortable sleep suits which they encourage you to even wear to breakfast in the morning along with the slippers. The washer/dryer and kitchen make this a very comfortable place to reside for several days.
The one bedroom deluxe would have been more spacious with a murphy bed and the toilet separate from the shower room, but also $100 more per night.
There are beautiful hot springs onsens for both men and women within the hotel, as well as a private one that can be reserved. Also a spa onsite. But no gym, fyi. The boys are dedicated to their workout time so they paid for a monthly pass to a local gym nearby, Niseko Physio. Daily passes available but not weekly, and the monthly was more economical after 3 daily visits. Niseko Physio also provides physical therapy, osteopathy, and massage for any injuries incurred on the slopes. I had a hip injury from a fall on the slopes, and scheduled a 60 minute deep-tissue massage. It was definitely the least enjoyable, most painful massage I’ve ever experienced BUT it did help my injury!
A breakfast buffet at An Dining restaurant in the hotel is included. Pastries, sweets, breads, cereal, fruit, salads and vegetables, eggs and other hot items which change daily, rice and miso soup plus accoutrements, juices, coffee, and tea. Some people sport their ski wear, while others don the sleep suits.
The hotel has a shuttle which circles Upper Hirafu village every 20 minutes starting at noon until 9:40 pm. We made use of it since I was limping around at a snail’s pace.
Originally we booked the Hilton in Niseko Village. It is slope-side by the gondola, looks lovely, and rates were incredibly cheap, BUT reviews were not promising. But Hirafu village seemed much more promising for restaurants and nightlife. Ki Niseko was a great choice, no complaints here other than the lack of gym which I didn’t realize when we first booked. There are several large hotels or boutique ones as well in Hirafu, but Ki Niseko is the only ski in/out option here, I believe. The trade off is a further walk to restaurants, especially in lower Hirafu.
I also considered Kimamaya Boutique Hotel in lower Hirafu connected to The Barn where we dined one evening — they provided on-call car service to the base and around town.
Luxury: Park Hyatt Niseko Village, Higashiyama Niseko Village Ritz-Carlton, Aya Grand Hirafu, Setsu Niseko Hotel
Mid-luxury: The Chatrium, The Hilton, Kimamaya, Chalet Ivy,
Where we ate
Make sure to book dinner restaurants ahead of time as many places do not accept walk-ins. The downside, they charge a hefty fee for canceling the day of, or even 72 hours prior in some instances.
The restaurants below are not listed in any ranking other than order of visit for us.
Ramen place inside Setsu Niseko Hotel. A line forms outside the restaurant entrance inside the hotel. We only waited about 5-10 minutes before seated. We ordered edamame which was probably best I’ve ever had because they were sauteed with oil, garlic, salt, and pepper. My hazelnut ramen was recommended by the waitress… I was intrigued. Soooo good!! The boys loved their choices as well, though Miles would have preferred a soup ramen rather than his which included noodles and meat with a dipping sauce on the side. Service was spotty but friendly, and the place was super busy.
We dined here again for our final lunch in Niseko, and it was still fantastic. Highly recommend! https://setsuniseko.com/en/dining/afuri
Small popular izakaya that has been around for many years, run by a friendly older couple. Reservations required and make them WELL in advance. Yakitori, sashimi, and many other a la carte options. Edamame complimentary. For the sashimi, they will create an assortment for whatever budget you give them.
We shared a sashimi plate for 6000 yen which included toro, salmon neck, tuna, scallop, and two white fish which I didn’t quite catch name. The table next to ours had dragon fish — Hakkaku —on their platter — the “wing” is splayed out and so impressive looking. The yakitori we ordered were good, nothing amazing. Pork and beef better than the chicken.
For dessert, we tried the baked cheesecake instead of their unbaked version. Different from US cheesecake but decent. The vibe here is so much fun. There was a birthday and the entire restaurant stopped and sang… and it didn’t even feel tacky! There is a second location next door that doesn’t take reservations — Bang Bang 2! http://nisekobangbang.com/
Restaurant/lodge on the mountain at Grand Hirafu, located between the gondola and short lift. GREAT food, known for the noodles and ramen but we all got the rice bowl with pork katsu, which also came with miso soup. I read that it fills up quickly so we opted for an early lunch, arriving around 11:30 with several tables still available. Grab a table first if possible, then head to the right window to order and pay. You will receive chips for each item ordered plus a receipt, proceed to the next window to provide them with the chips. It took about 7-10 minutes before ours was ready. The vibe is fantastic, old-school, with a wood stove in center of the restaurant with benches surrounding it to warm up and an overhead rack to hang gloves and helmets to dry or warm up. Everything was delicious. By the time we left, people were waiting around for tables to free up. Cash only, fyi. https://www.tripadvisor.com
The Barn by Odin
I tried to cancel this after reading several recent negative reviews the day prior but they had a strict cancellation policy. Went into it expecting poor service, overcooked overpriced food. Well, none of that was true for our experience — the food was fantastic and our waitress adept.
We started with beef sushi and foie gras sushi (don’t worry, it is cooked!) YUMmersville. I ordered the pork stewed in red wine — so tender and good. Reed ordered the wagyu beef 100g and said it was best steak he’s ever had. Miles loved his Eto deer cooked in red wine. I tried it. Normally I find venison fairly tough but this was tender and super flavorful. For dessert, molten chocolate cake, cheesecake, and tarte tatin. The first two were the best in our opinion.
The restaurant is beautiful, 2 story ceilings and glass front-facing wall, with architecture resembling a Hokkaido barn. https://www.nisekobarn.com/
We had seen lines of people at this small cafe in upper Hirafu but we arrived early for lunch and were seated immediately. I don’t believe they take reservations. Several options for ramen including what type of broth. I ordered the small spicy miso which was still plenty big. The boys ordered the fried chicken version and the pork cutlet version, both served with corn. All yummers. We also started with fried chicken wings — sauteed rather than fried AND soooo good — and pork gyoza — hot and delish. https://www.winedineniseko.com
Ghengis Khan Eijin Bettei
Hokkaido is known for it’s lamb Mongolian barbecue restaurants which they refer to as Ghengis Khan. There was a popular one right by our hotel. Small, smokey place with hot plates in center of table where you cook your meats and veggies. We chose to order a la carte rather than all-you-can-eat option. And we left full and happy as well as better-off financially — 26000 yen for several orders of lamb, vegetables, edamame, and several beers. The owner gifted us all a glass of his own sake as well. Friendly place, lots of fun and excellent barbecue, perfect for a cold winter’s eve. Our hotel made the reservation the day prior. Several parties were turned away at the door. https://www.winedineniseko.com/niseko-restaurants/genghis-khan-eijin-bettei
An Dining at Ki Niseko
Not recommended. We had lunch here to avoid the rain outside. Expensive, limited menu, average food.
Another small izakaya, about a 10-15 minute walk from our hotel. I booked several weeks before we arrived, so I was sad to see that they reserved a table in the back room for us — definitely request the front room if you prefer a more lively vibe. From the reviews, I had high expectations but we found everything underwhelming compared to all our other dining experiences in Niseko. We ordered Shabu-Shabu with Australian beef, roasted Hokaido potatoes, and a few pieces of sushi. Everything was good, just nothing remarkable. http://renniseko.web.fc2.com/
Did you watch the “No Reservations” episode where Anthony goes to Hokkaido? Season 7, episode 8. I learned so much about what to expect food-wise, and was so excited to see him enjoy cold noodles made by a soba master at Rakuichi in Niseko. It was a more casual restaurant when Tony visited and enjoyed soba and beer, now a multi-course Kaiseki menu only option and reservations book out several weeks in advance.
I was super excited to dine here, not really sure what to expect from the non-soba courses. Let me just say, a few of the courses were challenging for my college-aged sons who only recently started to like fish, raw or cooked. But there is always a bit of theater involved with Kaiseki, and this meal was no exception.
- For transportation to Niseko, our hotel arranged for car service through Sky Express to bring us to the hotel from Chitose Airport in Sapporo. It is a 2 hour drive. There is a bus as well but we arrived late so opted for the private van.
- Transportation back to Sapporo is booked with Hokkaido Resort Liner. Bus service from Hirafu Welcome Center.