What it's Like to Visit Niseko, Japan During COVID-19
As one of the top and perhaps best-known ski resorts in Asia, Niseko is a global destination that visitors flock to from all over the globe. Located in Japan's northernmost and largest prefecture, the island of Hokkaido, Niseko sits at the foot of Mount Yotei, the Mount Fuji of Hokkaido, where it can be seen in all its glory from the slopes of Niseko's ski resorts to its main towns. Renowned for its "Japow," or the unparalleled powder snow of Japan, Niseko is usually bustling during the winter holiday season. However, during these past couple of years as borders have remained closed to international visitors, Niseko has unfortunately fallen quiet. We have been in Japan throughout the pandemic so this January, we not only had the chance to experience the world-famous destination, but also had the unique opportunity to see what it's like to visit Niseko during COVID-19.
About a 2-hour drive away from Sapporo, the capital city of Hokkaido, Niseko lies amidst weather conditions that make it the perfect ski destination. While warm currents flow along Hokkaido's Sea of Japan coast, releasing steam into the air, cold winds from Siberia cool the steam into clouds which then travel across Hokkaido to deposit snow.
Being right by the southwestern coast of Hokkaido, Niseko has snowfall averaging up to 16 meters per year, and it not only gets huge amounts of snow, but also snow that is dry, powdery, and among the most sought after in the world. With snow falling for as many as 100 days in the season, Niseko is truly a winter wonderland backdropped by a snowcapped Mount Yotei that impressively rises out of the landscape.
While Mount Yotei is a distinct landmark in the beautiful views that are characteristic of Niseko, the peak opposite to it, Mount Niseko-Annupuri, is the true heart of Niseko. On its slopes, the mountain hosts Niseko United, the network of Niseko's four main ski areas: Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu, and Hanazono. On the ground level, the four ski resorts at the foot of Mount Niseko-Annupuri are quite a ways apart from each other, so we spent most of our time in Hirafu. As the largest village in Niseko, it's what you might consider the "main town" of Niseko as its streets are lined with a myriad of different accommodations, restaurants, and shops.
However, due to the pandemic, during our time in Niseko, the atmosphere was quiet and only a fraction of the energy that would usually buzz through town during this time of year, Niseko's peak season. In Hirafu, the streets were largely empty apart from the occasional car or pedestrian that would pass by. It was strange seeing the shops and restaurants of such a well-developed tourist town devoid of visitors to fill them, and it was truly demonstrative of just how far-reaching the effects of the pandemic have been. The few people that were around were mostly Japanese tourists, an interesting contrast to how pre-covid Niseko was usually packed with foreigners while less frequented by locals.
During peak meal times, even then it seemed that very few people were drawn out to the streets. At Tozanken, a ramen restaurant at the heart of Hirafu's "main street" and just minutes from the ski resort, we were one of only a handful of people there for lunch. Reviews and descriptions online will tell you how the restaurant, and perhaps all of Niseko as well, is notorious for queuing. Yet, any of the crowds that could have been expected were now very apparently absent. Upon nightfall, even a popular spot that visitors would often frequent to eat from food trucks remained largely undisturbed.
When it was time to hit the slopes of Mount Niseko-Annupuri, on the other hand, the atmosphere was a little more lively. While we were there, mostly Japanese groups of skiers and snowboarders snaked down the slopes, but still, the number of people certainly could not compare to the full scale of Niseko's pre-COVID capacity.
Although each of the four ski villages in Niseko is an independent ski resort, an All-Mountain Pass gives you access to all of them via interconnecting slopes and lifts. This opens up over 47 kilometers of groomed paths to you, making Niseko among the largest ski resorts in Japan! Starting from Hirafu with All-Mountain Passes in hand, we spent a full day exploring the four resorts of Niseko, and it's really no wonder why Niseko has become such a popular destination.
Like any international travel destination during the COVID-19 pandemic, Niseko has unfortunately seen a very sudden drop in the number of visiting tourists as Japan's borders have remained closed these past few years. From the slopes to the towns, the atmosphere was subdued and although it was nice to visit, it was hardly representative of Niseko's true vitality. Without international visitors, Niseko strangely didn't feel all too different from the local ski resorts that we've been to in the countryside of Japan, and it was often easy to forget just how famous of a destination we were in. With the pandemic, as the world seems to be nearing the light at the end of the tunnel and countries, including Japan, have begun opening up again, hopefully in not much time at all, Niseko will be brimming with visitors once again and can welcome back all those who have missed it after all this time.
Have you ever been to Niseko? I would love to hear your experiences and whether this quiet Niseko is similar, or perhaps completely different from the Niseko you know!