Rusutsu and Niseko: The Best Powder Snow in Japan
Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, is famous for its winter and amazing mountains with plenty of the finest powder snow you can imagine. This has been attracting skiers to Hokkaido starting already about one hundred years ago. Especially Niseko and its neighboring Rusutsu in western Hokkaido are known all around the world as the top-class destinations for skiers and snowboarders. Both of them have several ski resorts and wonderful backcountry/off-piste skiing and snowboarding opportunities, too. In addition, they are conveniently close to New Chitose international airport as well as Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido.
In this blog column, you can read about how to enjoy Hokkaido in winter by skiing and snowboarding at the popular ski resorts of Rusutsu and Niseko. If you want to read even more about skiing in western Hokkaido, take a look at our earlier blog columns Niseko: the town of fantastic powder snow and The Gan-wu Area: the Backyard of Niseko, too.
Hokkaido—The kingdom of the finest powder snow
Skiing and snowboarding are activities many people like to enjoy during winter in the northern hemisphere. Hokkaido is no exception to this: the island is full of mountains and mountain ranges and what is the best, fantastic powder snow. Many ski resorts worldwide rely on snow cannons and artificial snow because there is not enough snow to cover the pistes naturally but in Hokkaido, there is no need for that: the natural snow cannon of Hokkaido always creates plenty of fine-quality powder snow to satisfy even the most demanding skiers and snowboarders. And when it starts to snow, it usually keeps going for several weeks, when there is a top-up of 10 to 40 centimeters every day.
The quality and quantity of the snow are also consistent from year to year. For example in Niseko, the yearly snowfall is something between 10 to 15 meters down at the foot of the mountains, and the all-time low record has been 7.47 meters. In Rusutsu, the average yearly snowfall is 13 meters. Comparing this with the majority of ski resorts in North America and Europe that normally get a snowfall of around 7 meters, you can see that there amount of snow in Niseko and Rusutsu is incomparable to these resorts, even during the worst years.
Suppose you compare Hokkaido ski resorts with ski resorts in Honshu (the main island of Japan). In that case, Hokkaido’s ski resorts have longer skiing seasons than the ones in Honshu, which is only natural because Hokkaido is in farther up in the north and thus colder. Hokkaido is also superb in the terms of the quality of the snow as well as the amount of the snow: the snow is plenty and uncompacted, unlike the moist snow that falls in the south. In Hokkaido, Japow or Japan powder is not just a marketing trick but a real thing!
Why there is so much powder snow in Hokkaido?
The natural snow cannon of Hokkaido is created by the optimal weather conditions for the perfect powder snow developing above Siberia and the Sea of Japan. First, the wide permafrost land of Siberia creates a huge mass of cold air, which is then blown by the winds to the south over the Sea of Japan and then further to Hokkaido. The sea of Japan is a relatively warm sea, and while the cold air moves above the Sea of Japan, the warm, moist air rising from the sea and the cold air mass collide. This makes the moisture in the air vaporize, that is, clouds are being created. Consequently, the inflowing cold air presses the clouds further down to east and southeast over Hokkaido.
Hokkaido has many mountains and some of them are also very close to the coastline. Arriving on the island, the clouds bump onto the mountains and are pushed upwards to meet the colder air above the mountains, which makes the moisture freeze and fall down as powder snow. In the Niseko area, especially the majestic Mount Yotei contributes to this effect. The clouds arrive in Hokkaido from the northwest, so the western part of Hokkaido also gets the most snow.
Even though many of the famous ski resorts in Hokkaido—such as Niseko and Kiroro—are relatively close to the ocean, the powder is still dry because of the suitable coldness of the air. The freezing level in Hokkaido during the winter is at sea level, which means the air stays steadily cold. The powder snow needs a low enough temperature and gentle winds to be formed, and Hokkaido has a perfect winter climate for that. It is not just the snow clouds that need the coldness but also the snow already fallen needs a steady low temperature for sustaining its quality and not become compacted.
As most of the snow in Hokkaido falls on the western side of the Daisetsuzan mountain range, the ski areas and resorts in the western and central Hokkaido are naturally the most famous ones in Hokkaido. Some of the most loved ski resorts in the area are Furano, Tomamu, Kiroro, Niseko, and Rusutsu. Read on to get to know more about the two latter.
Rusutsu: A tiny village with a mighty number of trails
Rusutsu village (留寿都) is located in the Shiribeshi area in western Hokkaido right next to Mt. Yotei. The village lives mostly on agriculture producing daikon radish, potatoes, and asparagus. Tourism is also one of the important livelihoods, especially during the winter. At the end of April 2022, there were 1,865 inhabitants in the village. Like most of the other place names in Hokkaido, the name of the village of Rusutsu comes from the language of the indigenous Ainu people of Japan and Russia. The Ainu name of the area around Rusutsu is ru sut, that is ru ‘a road, a mountain pass’ and sut ‘the root of something’, so the meaning of the name is ‘road at the root of (the mountain).’
You can read more about the neighboring towns of Rusutsu in our earlier blog column Kutchan, Kyogoku, Kimobetsu, and Makkari: The towns and villages around Mt. Yotei.
Next to the village of Rusutsu lies Rusutsu resort (an outbound link). The resort spreads on three mountain sides: West Mountain, East Mountain, and Mt. Isola. There are 37 trails and 18 lifts in the resort. The trails cover a whopping 42 kilometers and the number of the trails is the largest in any one ski resort in Japan. Rusutsu’s lifts are all quite new and their good quality is praised by the skiers: The gondolas in the resort really keep you nice and warm on your way up. Rusutsu also tends not to be so crowded as the nearby Niseko ski resort. It’s no wonder that in 2021, Rusutsu has taken the ‘Japan’s Best Ski Resort’ award in the World Ski Awards 2021 (an outbound link) for the 2nd time within four years.
The resort has a lot to offer to experienced riders. Especially off-piste/backcountry skiing and tree skiing opportunities in Rutsutsu are amazing and it is not prohibited to do so either. However, you have to abide by the rules to keep everyone safe. There are no extreme steep runs in Rusutsu, so if you are looking for that wild excitement the steep slopes can give you, try some other Hokkaido ski resorts instead. If you are eager to find the deepest and the most powdery powder ever, why not try some heli-skiing in Rusutsu at Mt. Shiribetsu?
While offering a lot to experienced riders, Rusutsu on the other hand is also very family-friendly. The beginner pistes are well-groomed and if you are new to off-piste riding, the runs in Rusutsu are excellent for novices to practice powder. There are many outdoor and indoor activities for kids, such as dog sledding, snow rafting, outdoor ski and snowboard lessons, an indoor ski school for total beginners, a game arcade, and a wave pool. Rusutsu is located next to maybe the most famous ski resort in Japan: Niseko. The drive from Rusutsu resort to Niseko resort takes about 40 minutes.
Skiing and snowboarding in the amazing powder of Niseko
Located west of Rusutsu, Niseko ski resort is one of the most famous ski resorts in Hokkaido and the whole of Japan, and many titles it the best place to ski in Japan. The most attractive part of Niseko is the overwhelmingly abundant amount of powder snow: on average, 15–18 meters a year! The first ski area in Niseko was opened in 1961 and the resort has been expanded since into current four different areas.
The Niseko resort has several groomed pistes, but also side-country or out-of-bounds riding is allowed as long as the Niseko safety rules (an outbound link) are followed (for example, you can’t exit the gates from the piste to side-country without carrying an avalanche beacon and wearing a helmet). Niseko resort is also suitable for families with children and there are English-speaking childcare and children’s ski lessons available. And of course, there are many places to enjoy backcountry/off-piste skiing and the endless powder. However, always check the Niseko avalanche info webpage (an outbound link) before going.
Niseko ski resort or Niseko United (an outbound link) consists of four areas that are interconnected with ski lifts and the slopes connected up at the mountain side but there is a distance between the base areas.
Niseko Hirafu is the largest ski village in Niseko and the adjoined Niseko Grand Hirafu (an outbound link) is the largest of the four Niseko ski areas. There are in total 30 marked trails and 12 lifts in the ski area. Niseko Hirafu is very well suited for families and there are many activities for kids as well as childcare services. The vast majority of the staff in Niseko Hirafu is English-speaking, so if your Japanese is not so good, it doesn’t cause any communication troubles. Niseko Hirafu has the best assortment of services of the four ski areas, be it ski/snowboard rental or restaurants. It is also the center of Niseko nightlife, so if you are looking forward to after-ski, Hirafu is the place to go, and on the other hand, if you rather stay in a more peaceful place, choose one of the other areas instead: Niseko Annupuri Kokusai, Niseko village, or Niseko Hanazono.
Niseko Annupuri Kokusai
Niseko Annupuri Kokusai (an outbound link) (Niseko Annupuri International) or just Annupuri for short is a favorite of the visitors who really come to Niseko for skiing and chasing powder. The actual ski resort is rather small with 13 trails and 6 lifts but, as stated earlier, it is connected to the other areas of Niseko United, so there are plenty of courses to explore. It’s a quite quiet resort with not so active nightlife but with some really nice restaurants. There is an onsen hot spring spa complex called Kombu onsen nearby, so it’s nice to enjoy a hot soak after a hard day of skiing.
Niseko village ski resort
Niseko village (an outbound link) is especially suitable for beginners: there are several slopes suitable for beginners and many English-speaking ski instructors to help the beginners to get started with skiing. There are 15 trails and 8 lifts in the area. Niseko village is very family-friendly and there are many fun activities available for the children besides skiing and snowboarding, for example snowshoeing, snowmobile riding, and reindeer sled riding. The village itself has a row of traditional Japanese-style houses that give the place a nostalgic atmosphere (or kitschy, it’s yours to decide).
Another beginner-friendly area is Niseko Hanazono (an outbound link) resort. There are many gentle sloping trails for novices and beginners but also something for more advanced riders. In total, there are 12 trails and 4 lifts. The slopes of Hanazono are oriented towards the northeast, so during those rare winter days, when the sun comes out in Niseko, the snow quality in Hanazono stays the best in the area. Being easy for beginners, Hanazono is popular among families and there are many services for children, such as daycare, a play center, and group ski lessons in English.
Snowcat skiing in Niseko
For those who rather ski and snowboard on untracked terrain, snowcat skiing is a great option to reach the best, untouched powder snow without hiking. There are several snowcat operators in Niseko, each operating in different areas of Niseko with different riding experience requirements. Most of the operators require upper-intermediate, advanced, or expert riding experience, but there are also some that are suitable for lower-intermediate and even beginners. Many of the operators utilize the old pistes of abandoned bubble-economy era ski resorts but there is also some tree skiing offered. If you would like to try cat skiing during your Niseko trip, let us know when you contact us.
If you want to read more about Niseko and the wonderful skiing and snowboarding opportunities it offers, take a look at our earlier blog column Niseko: the town of fantastic powder snow. Take also a look at the blog column The Gan-wu Area: the Backyard of Niseko if you want to know more about skiing in peace and quiet in Hokkaido close to the sometimes quite crowded Niseko.
A Brief History of Niseko town
One of the areas in Niseko United is called Niseko village, which is confusing because the ski resort is located in a town called Niseko. And what is even more confusing, Niseko town started its life as Niseko village. The old Niseko village is close to the Niseko ski resort and was established already in 1901. The village’s history with skiing started in 1912 when a soldier called Theodore von Lerch introduced the secrets of skiing to the Japanese army. The old Niseko village was originally called Kaributo village (狩太) but the village was merged with neighboring Nisekoan village (仁勢古安) in 1910, and the name of Nisekoan village was further shortened into Niseko in the village name revision of 1964. Currently, the town has about 4,900 inhabitants.
Like the name ‘Rusutsu’, also the name ‘Niseko’ originates in the Ainu language. The famous mountain called Niseko-Annupuri, where the ski resorts are located, is looking over the town and that is also the origin of the name of the old village. In the Ainu language, the name of the mountain is ‘nisey koan nupuri’, that is nisey ‘steep cliff’, koan ’to be somewhere’, and nupuri ‘a mountain’, that is, ‘mountain, where there is a steep cliff’. The name of the mountain comes from the name of the river, that flows at the mountain’s foot, that is ‘nisey koan pet’, ‘a river, where there is a steep cliff’. So, the village was named after the mountain, which was named after the river. The river is now called the Shiribetsu River.
However, for some reason, the name of the mountain is thought to be formed from two words (niseko-annupuri) instead of the original Ainu language’s three words (nisey-koan-nupuri), so the village name became Niseko in the name revision of 1964. From the Ainu language’s point of view, the current name does not make any sense, because the word koan is cut in two in the middle of the word, and the prefix ko- cannot be used alone, it must be attached to a verb (in this case an, ‘to be located, to exist’). By the way, the name of the Niseko village is written in Japanese as ニセコ in katakana syllables (one of the two Japanese phonetic writing systems), which is very rare. Usually, the names of Japanese cities, towns, and villages are written with kanji characters or in some cases, with the other syllabary hiragana.
Mentioning Shiribetsu River above, there is another interesting winter activity in Niseko. The Shiribetsu River is one of the few rivers where you can try your skills on winter rafting! So, if you get bored with skiing and snowboarding (is it even possible?) or just want to experience something new, do try this unique activity on the Shiribetsu River. You can ask for the details about arranging a winter rafting experience in Niseko by filling in our inquiry form.
Travel to Hokkaido to enjoy all the aspects of winter
Traveling to Hokkaido winter wonderland will be without doubt one of the best trips you will ever make. There are also several other winter activities than skiing and snowboarding that the visitors to snowy winter Hokkaido can enjoy: snowshoeing, dog sledding, ice fishing, winter river rafting, onsen hopping, winter festivals… And what’s the best, all this is easily accessible from New Chitose international airport.
Both Niseko and Rusutsu ski resorts are close to New Chitose international airport. There are frequent shuttle busses from the airport to all the areas of the Niseko ski resort and Rusutsu ski resort. With a shuttle bus, the travel time is something between 2 to 4 hours, depending on the bus operator and route the bus takes, and also which stop you are staying off the bus. The most convenient way is of course a private car that will take you straight to your place of accommodation. By private car, the travel takes about 2 hours to Niseko and about an hour and a half to Rusutsu.
Winter festivals in Sapporo
When you visit Niseko or Rusutsu ski resort, you have a wonderful chance to do a sightseeing trip to Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido. There are several festivals arranged in Sapporo also during the winter: The world-famous Sapporo Snow Festival, Sapporo White Illumination, and many smaller events such as Jozankei Onsen Snow Light Path in the Jozankei onsen hot spring resort in the southern part of Sapporo. And don’t forget to taste some Sapporo delicacies, such as Sapporo miso ramen, soup curry, and snow crab that is harvested only during the winter.
It takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes to travel from Rusutsu to Sapporo and about 2 hours from Niseko to Sapporo by private car. With public transportation, the travel time from Rusutsu to Sapporo is about 2 hours by bus, and from Niseko to Sapporo something between 2 hours 30 minutes and 4 hours (depending on your departure time and whether you use a bus, a train, or a combination of both). From New Chitose airport, the travel time to Sapporo is about 30 minutes by train to Sapporo station and about an hour by car.
We have several earlier blog columns about Sapporo, so if you want to know what to do in Sapporo in more detail or just get a better idea of what kind of place Sapporo is, take a look at the blog columns Sapporo: The Capital City of Hokkaido, Sapporo: A Metropolis Close to Nature, Sapporo: Winter Festivals with Snow Sculptures and Christmas Decorations, andSapporo: A green city that embraces sustainable tourism.
Crafts and sushi in Otaru
Another must-see destination close to Niseko and Rusutsu is the historical city of Otaru. The historical area around the Otaru canal is especially beautiful in the winter. Otaru is a port city, so there is a plethora of fresh seafood available in the city’s numerous restaurants. This makes Otaru a must-visit destination for sushi lovers. Otaru is known for its handicrafts, for example, glass making, so visiting Otaru is a good chance for some unique souvenir shopping. There are also different handicraft experience workshops for visitors to participate in and make souvenirs by themselves! Many of these require a reservation, so contact us if you want to participate in a workshop. We will make the needed arrangements for you.
The travel time with a car between Rusutsu and Otaru is about 1 hour 30 minutes, between Niseko and Otaru about 1 hour 20 minutes, and between New Chitose airport and Otaru about 1 hour and 15 minutes. With public transportation, you can reach Otaru from Rusutsu in about 3 hours, from Niseko in about 2 hours, and from New Chitose airport in about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Read more about Otaru in our other blog columns History of Hokkaido: Crafts and Trade at Otaru city and Nostalgic Gourmet Stroll in Otaru: Mochi, Mochi and More Mochi!
If you are planning a ski or snowboard trip for next winter, Niseko and Rusutsu are the places to go. We are happy to help you with arranging your trip and introducing you to some activities that will make your travel even more memorable. Just contact us through our inquiry form and we can get started with creating an itinerary for your dream ski trip!