Hokkaido Beyond Niseko: From The Wild North To Sapporo

Hokkaido beyond Niseko? No question, the shining star of Hokkaido’s family of ski resorts has long been Niseko. Located about two hours by car from the region’s capital of Sapporo, it got so popular with Aussies it’s colloquially referred to as a mini-Australia.

The quality of everything – fields, accommodation, food, landscape, hospitality, and snow – is world-class and a great place to begin your Japan ski chapter. But sometimes you’re hungry for something different. Maybe it’s new scenery, fresh challenges, and deeper ‘cultural’ experience, and wider Hokkaido – including the Sapporo city – has it in spades.

They say variety is the spice of life, so let us spice up your next Japanese winter with a few other destinations that prove Hokkaido is the ultimate snow destination. Some you may know already, some we are sure most of you have never been too says Lucy Dayman

Eagle over the ice floes, Shiretoko National Park, Hokkaido
Eagle over the ice floes, Shiretoko National Park © courtesy Hokkaido District Transport Bureau

Hokkaido’s Wild North

Hokaido’s wild north offers offers something quite different – including spectacular sea ice flows.

Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park

For bragging rights, how’s a remote snowy island sitting at the northern tip of Hokkaido for a ski spot? Well, meet Rishiri Island, part of Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park and home to backcountry skiing you’ve never before experienced. It is worth noting that for your safety and enjoyment, we strongly recommend that you hire a professional local guide. Rishiri is home to the 1721 meter tall Mount Rishiri, a dormant volcano known as Rishiri-Fuji, where you can backcountry ski while facing the ocean! Best for only the most advanced skiers, it may not be the easiest to access, but well worth the effort.

Mount Rishiri, aka Rishiri-Fuji, on Rishiri island offers wild Hokkaido skiing
Mount Rishiri, aka Rishiri-Fuji, offers some amazing back country skiing and riding © courtesy Hokkaido District Transport Bureau

Shiretoko National Park

Protruding into the Sea of Okhotsk, Shiretoko Peninsula is most famous for its stunning drift ice, or ryuhyo in Japanese. This natural phenomenon is well worth adding to your itinerary if you have the time just to see it.

But thanks to 1254 meter high Shiretoko-dake, it’s also a world-class snow activity touring hotspot. You can enjoy activities such as snow shoeing, drift ice walks, and snowmobiling. While doing so you’ll be blessed with both untouched terrain and some of the most spectacular natural views imaginable, so prepare to be humbled by the sheer beauty of Hokkaido.

Drift ice off the Shiretoko peninsula, Hokkaido
Drift ice off the Shiretoko peninsula © courtesy Hokkaido District Transport Bureau

Heart of Hokkaido: Asahikawa

From the wild north next we check out the spectacular centre of the island around Hokkaido’s second city, Asahikawa.

Nearby, Hokkaido’s highest mountain, the still-steaming volcano of Asahidake offers a unique and amazing ski resort experience. It’s home to one spectacular ropeway with just two scenic groomer run options off that but a magnificent expanse of ungroomed, unpatrolled terrain. It’s a backcountry heaven for experienced skiers and boarders, from deep tree runs to hikes to the peak for the properly equipped, experienced and guided.

For some other options in the area, try Kurodake Ski Resort, part of the Daisetsuzan National Park, also an easy day trip from Asahikawa city. Here you get a ropeway plus a double chair above that and, like Asahidake, plenty of spectacular back country options.

The city of Asahikawa is exceptionally charming, with a sense of youthful energy, great food and a blend of modern and traditional culture. Asahikawa is also home to its own unique type of ramen, Asahikawa ramen, a must-try when you’re in the area. It’s also a key distribution center for Hokkaido, and a city where fresh and abundant ingredients from all over Hokkaido are gathered, making it a place where you can enjoy seafood, vegetables, meat, and various other local Hokkaido dishes.

Hiking above the ropeway at Asahidake, Hokkaido's highest mountain
Hiking above the ropeway at Asahidake, Hokkaido’s highest mountain © courtesy Hokkaido District Transport Bureau

Cool for Cats: Iwanai Resort

Just 40 minutes from Niseko, on the west coast of Hokkaido, Iwanai Resort’s biggest drawcard is its CAT Skiing (snowcat) packages. These offer guests access to incredible terrain quite unlike anywhere else. The options range from the former ski runs of the old ski area to old growth glades and open bowls.

If you can’t ski or board well enough to enjoy the cat tours then there is still a double chairlift accessing easy runs on the lower mountain that is generally used by local families.

Amazing views across the Sea of Japan out over the port town of Iwanai and the Shakotan Peninsula are a bonus.

The resort is out of the way so you’ll avoid the crowds. Book ahead with Iwanai Resort to avoid dissapointment as CAT tour numbers are limited and the day trips from Niseko are popular – and highly recommended. 

Cat skiing at Iwanai Resort Hokkaido an easy day trip from Niseko
Lonely line © Iwanai Resort

Sapporo: Culture, Cuisine and Killer Slopes

A mistake people often make when coming to Hokkaido to ski is to overlook Sapporo city, considering it a transit spot, rather than a ski and travel destination in itself.

This city has the enviable quality of being balanced; it’s one of Japan’s biggest cities population-wise while still feeling spacious and being surrounded by incredible nature.

If you’re a foodie, then you’re in for a treat. The city is bursting – like your belt buckle will be soon – with incredible cuisine for all tastes. For seafood, it’s off to Nijo Market for the best fresh sashimi, juicy winter crab, and oysters. For something to warm your belly, try Sapporo miso ramen, often topped with a local Hokkaido butter and corn. It’s decadent comfort eating at its best. Want to heat things up a little? Then try the famous soup curry, a soup flavoured-curry topped with chicken and vegetables; it’s like a big spicy hug. 

Like most hungry Aussies, the locals up here love a good lamb BBQ (known as Jingisukan), washed down with a few icy pints of Sapporo beer. So make a beeline to Sapporo Beer Garden if that sounds like your jam. After, finish off the meal like a local with a visit to the neon-lit inner-city ‘hood of Susukino. Populated by bars and tiny eateries, it’s also an excellent spot to hunt down Sapporo’s strange but local cultural culinary quirk, a late-night parfait (shime-parfait). 

When it comes to ski options, the city Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort and Sapporo Teine Ski Resort are two very conveniently located options. Both offer easy access and best for beginner-mid-level skiers with generous dumps of soft powder snow. All of the ski resorts are full-fledged ski resorts with soft powder snow, satisfying both families and advanced skiers. On a clear day, you can enjoy skiing with a spectacular view of the ocean. Sapporo Teine was also the venue for the Sapporo Winter Olympics.

Sapporo's Susukino district is the 2nd largest restaurant/nightlife precinct in Japan
Sapporo’s Susukino district is the 2nd largest restaurant/nightlife precinct in Japan © City of Sapporo

Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort is about an hour from the city centre by car. It has four lifts and seven courses, and incredible amounts of snow. While the slopes aren’t super steep, families to advanced skiers of all levels can enjoy the good quality of powder snow.

A nice little bonus tip about Kokusai is that it’s only 25-30 minutes from the scenic hot spring resort town Jozankei Onsen, an ideal place for a night or two away soaking and soothing those snow-tired muscles. 

Some of Japan’s deepest snow falls slather Sapporo Kokusai every winter © courtesy Hokkaido District Transport Bureau

Sapporo Teine has a couple of advanced options for seriously steep slopes, and at the moment, it’s still relatively unexplored by international visitors, making it feel like a bit of a local secret.

It also has some off-piste and terrain, but be sure to enjoy the backcountry at your own risk and in compliance with Sapporo Teine’s Rules of Conduct. There’s no on-site accommodation at Sapporo Teine, but just 40 minutes outside of the city centre, it’s an easy journey from Sapporo.

If you’ve booked a while in Sapporo and have a ski-day-off, consider exploring the city’s more civilised side with a cultural adventure to the Isamu Noguchi designed Moerenuma Park, Tadao Ando crafted The Hill of the Buddha shrine, or a stroll around Sapporo Art Park.

So lose to downtown, Sapporo-Teine has great terrain for all levels and lots of Japow! © Sapporo Teine

Getting to Hokkaido

Pre-covid there were direct flights from Sydney to New Chitose (near Sapporo, about 40 minutes by train from Sapporo) with Qantas. Hopefully they will return for winter 2022-2023, but JAL, ANA, Qantas and Jetstar (with code share connections) offer easy connections via Tokyo and other major Japan gateways.

Asahikawa Airport is another great option, only around 90 minutes from Tokyo by airplane.

If you are exploring from the rest of Japan, there are also plenty of options for domestic flights from major cities and key regional airports.

Or by rail, the shinkansen takes as little as 4 hours 15 minutes from Tokyo to Hakodate in southern Hokkaido, with onward JR Hokkaido rail connections from there.

Hokkaido Love!

For more information on how to explore Hokkaido in more depth, be sure to visit the Hokkaido travel platforms Hokkaido Love! (which also has an excellent snow sports section) and Visit Sapporo for city-specific information. 

Niseko is awesome, but there’s plenty more to discover in Hokkaido © courtesy Hokkaido District Transportation Bureau