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 — myself and two sons — 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.
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.
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. Also, the concierge team is excellent, reaching out to me well in advance to help me secure transportation to and from Sapporo as well as helping me with restaurant reservations, ski rentals, and finding a nearby gym.
Other hotel options…
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. Plus, Hirafu village seemed much more promising for restaurants and nightlife… let’s not forget the joy of the apres ski! 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.
I also considered the quaint Kimamaya Boutique Hotel, located in lower Hirafu and next door to The Barn where we dined one evening. Location is a long walk to the slopes but they provide on-call car service to the base and around town.
Yes, but how is the apres ski scene?
Excellent! Hirafu village is filled with interesting bars, though not of the upscale alpine renditions you will find in Aspen or Park City…
Perhaps now my favorite bar in the world. So cool, I even briefly considered recreating something similar back in Windham, NY. Hmm…
One enters through the vintage red vending machine facade which has been fashioned into the front door. The building itself is blanketed under snow most of the winter, so look for the door and a lit lantern, signifying the place is open for business. You won’t find it lit in the summer as this is a winter-only establishment.
Inside is a warm, cozy, cabin-like space, the bar along the far wall, large picture-frame windows behind showcasing the winter wonderland beyond, and everything dimly lit by flickering tabletop candles. Funky jazz and soul emanates from the turntable on the bar, punctuated by the occasional shake, shake, shake as libations are mixed.
Menus are hand-written and whimsically illustrated with pages upon pages of interesting cocktails and rare Japanese whiskies or other spirits. For a brief acoustic feel for the place, search for the Bar Gyu playlist on Spotify.
More importantly…Where we ate
Make sure to book dinner restaurants ahead of time as many places do not accept walk-ins, a strange practice but Japan often does things differently. The downside, they charge a hefty fee for canceling the day off, or even 72 hours prior in some instances. But, don’t worry… you will be fed very, VERY well.
- Rakuichi Soba
- Bang Bang
- The Barn by Odin
- Tonsanken Ramen
- Ghengis Khan Eigen Bettei
Did you catch the “No Reservations” episode where Anthony goes to Hokkaido? Season 7, episode 8. I learned so much about what to expect food-wise, and especially enjoyed seeing him visit Rakuichi, the restaurant of soba-master Tatsura Rai. It was a much more casual restaurant when Tony visited many years ago — he enjoyed cold soba and beer with local snow-boarders there. Now it is a multi-course Kaiseki menu only option and reservations book out several weeks in advance. They also plan to build a bigger, fancier building as well.
Difficult to get a reservation as this is a small restaurant with only 16 seats — I booked three months in advance. This is a family run affair — Tatsura Rai is assisted by his daughter and wife, Midori, for the preparation and service.
I was super excited for this final dinner of our trip, though felt a bit nervous the NON-soba courses might pose challenges for my college-aged sons who only recently started to like fish, raw or cooked. And, not everything was a hit for them BUT… there is always a bit of theater involved with Kaiseki, and this meal was no exception.
Midori warmly welcomed us and helped put us at ease even when we needed guidance on how to eat certain dishes. Really interesting experience and an exceptional meal. I am so happy we were lucky enough to dine at Rakuichi, though I will be honest with you… though the soba was delicious, my palette is less evolved than I prefer to admit and cannot appreciate the finer subtleties of soba created by a master. I will just need to continue my gastronomical education… where to next?
Ramen place inside Setsu Niseko Hotel. A line forms outside the restaurant entrance inside the hotel — there is an outside entrance as well, fyi, but pass through to reach the host stand at other entrance. We only waited about 5-10 minutes before seated.
We started with the edamame… best I’ve ever had — sauteed with oil, salt, pepper, and plenty of crispy garlic. The hazelnut ramen was recommended by the waitress… I was intrigued so ordered it. And just wow… SOOOOO delicious!! 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 super friendly.
We dined here again for our final lunch in Niseko, and it was still fantastic. More edamame, plus crispy fried chicken — Karaage Don… YUM. Afuri definitely provided us the best ramen on a trip filled with excellent ramen. 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. The place is small and many were turned away during our visit. There is a second location next door that doesn’t take reservations — Bang Bang 2! http://nisekobangbang.com/
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!
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 its 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 hand-crafted 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
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 all the good reviews on Google, I had high expectations but we actually found everything somewhat underwhelming compared to 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/
An Dining at Ki Niseko
Not recommended. We had lunch here to avoid the rain outside. Expensive, limited menu, average food.
- 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.