Photo: Riding at Niseko, with the volcano Mt Yotei in the background
Niseko is located on Hokkaido - the north island of Japan. The closest major city is Sapporo which is around 100km away and it takes about 2 hours to drive between Niseko and Sapporo. A shuttle bus (Hokkaido Resort Liner) from the New Chitose Airport, the major airport outside Sapporto, can take you up to the resort. Niseko is also accessible by train from Sapporo and New Chitose Airport.
Niseko is one of the most popular resorts in Japan, and one of its most well-known resorts internationally, attracting visitors from all over. The snow is huge at Niseko. With 15 - 16m of annual snowfall, it has one of the highest average annual snowfall of any resort on the globe. Working at Niseko for a season provides the opportunity to ride all four resorts at Niseko and ski some of the deepest powder on the planet.
Niseko is the name of both a town and the ski area, and so can be confusing. Niseko town is actually a small town, about 7km (20 minutes) from the closest ski area.
There are four main resorts which make up the Niseko area, all of which sit on, and are carved out of, a giant volcano. The four areas are Hanazono, Hirafu, Niseko Village (formerly Higashiyama) and Annupuri. Hirafu and Hanazono combined are referred to as 'Grand Hirafu'. There is a smaller fifth area which is connected as well, Moiwa, but this area requires a separate lift ticket.
The main service and administrative town is Kutchan which is approximately 20 minutes from the main ski resort village of Hirafu. The next biggest town is Annupuri, followed by Niseko village and the smallest town, Hanazono. Most tourist and nightlife activity is found in the village of Hirafu.
The towns in the Niseko area are more westernized than other Japanese resorts, given the large number of foreign visitors that come through each year. You won't have an issue getting around without speaking Japanese. English is widely spoken by staff at restaurants and accommodation and signage is in English.
There are a large number Australians, in particular, who come to Niseko each year to ride or work, and it can feel very Australian at times. Because Niseko is so popular, it is not as cheap as other Japanese resorts. Hirafu is the most westernized of the resort areas. Nonetheless, Niseko is still distinctly Japanese and working there allows you to experience some of the Japanese culture for a season.
All resorts at Niseko are located on the side of Niseko's famous volcano and are linked up with each other. This means that, although the resorts are separate from each other, a day riding could lead you to any of the 4 main resorts of Niseko. Between the four main resorts there is a large amount of terrain and there is more than enough terrain at Niseko to last a season.
Photo: Mt Yotei ringed by clouds
Hanazono and Hirafu combined or 'Grand Hirafu' is the largest of the resort areas. There are 34 runs here, the longest being 5.6 kms (4 miles). There are a lot of open cruisers and access to some of the best powder runs at Niseko. Strawberry fields at Hanazono is as close to back country you can get in-bounds. Although back country access is restricted at Niseko due to avalanche danger, there is a lot of side country and other off-piste riding which is permitted which means a good variety of terrain.
Annupuri probably has the best variety of terrain of the resort areas.
Niseko does not have the huge steeps and cliffs like in North America or Europe and there is not much in the way of big mountain terrain with rocks and cliff hucks. Instead, come to Japan for its awesome powder. It absolutely dumps down with snow in Niseko. It seems like every day there is a foot deep of fresh powder, and it has happened that so much snow has dumped down that lifts have been covered. Make sure you bring the fat boy powder skis or get yourself a wide board to ride the incredible powder.
Niseko Total Mountain Stats
The season runs from December until the end of April.
Niseko ski area is home to harsh conditions.
It gets bone cold and is often -20c with a wind chill factor of another -20c which can put a dent in the fun of the day. Often the light runs out at about 3pm which means heading in early.
Also, there are not too many clear days at Niseko and it rarely sees sun. However, the fact that it snows almost every day and there are seemingly always freshies goes some way to making up for the lack of sun!
Japan has working holiday visas for citizens of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Republic of Korea, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, and Norway and for residents of Taiwan and Hong Kong.
To get a visa, you are not required to already have a job offer. Applicants need to be aged between 18 - 30, must have proof of sufficient funds ($US 2,000) and must be in good health and not have a criminal record.
The working holiday visas are offered once, but can be extended again for up to 18 months. See more information and apply for the visa through on the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
However, you should start applying for your working holiday visa as early as possible as there are a limited number offered each year. March is a good time to start applying.
Photo: Powder day at Niseko
It is advisable to arrange a job before going to Niseko. It is quite difficult to simply show up in Niseko and find a job. Each year, a lot of people do so, and a lot end up just buying a season ticket and riding for a couple of months until the money runs out as they are unable to find a job.
The best way for international applicants to obtain a job for a winter season is to contact a company that operates in one of the resorts at Niseko. Many jobs in Niseko do not require Japanese language skills as you will interact mainly with foreigners.
(1) Tour Companies in Niseko
Tour companies operate in Niseko that look for English speakers each season to work with foreign guests. Jobs would include driving guests around, welcoming guests, ushering at hotels. Niseko Powder Connection is one such company.
Another company that works out of Niseko is Niseko Base Snowsports. Through this company, you can work as an instructor, in the rental shop, front of house administration and in the retail shop. Again, get in early as the positions fill up quickly.
www.FastFun.jp is a Snowsports company that employs ski and snowboard instructors and back country guides.
Other tour companies operating in Niseko which look for English-speaking employees each season include:
(2) Ski and Snowboard Instructors
If you have your instructing certificate, you could apply to work with the resort as an instructor. Gondola Snowsports is the official international ski and snowboard instructing school at Niseko. See www.gondolasnowsports.com
All the lessons are conducted in English and cater especially to foreign visitors. Instructors usually come from Australia, New Zealand, North America and Europe.
See Work a Japanese Snow Season for information on converting your international instructing certificate.
(3) Local Businesses
There are also a few local businesses such as hotels which look for foreign staff each season. Often you can just email these businesses with your CV and a cover letter.
There are a few companies which organise internships and working holidays to Niseko. You will need to pay these companies but they can help place you into work. These companies include:
Working for the Resort
Working for the resort itself in lift operations, mountain operations etc. is difficult unless you speak Japanese. The resorts at Niseko look for Japanese speakers to fill these jobs. In fact, most of the jobs on the mountain such as lift operators go to the old Japanese potato farmers who farm potatoes in the summer in the area and work for the resort in the winter. As much as the Japanese welcome the tourists, they tend to prefer hiring Japanese instead of the foreigners who arrive each season.
Pay and Working Conditions
Jobs are generally not well paid and you could expect around 150,000 - 300,000 Yen per month ($US1,450 - $US2,900). You will mostly have to work 5 days a week.
The driver jobs are good as you can work after resort hours, meaning maximum ride time - usually at least a morning a day. The famous Japanese saunas provide an excellent alternative for those days on which you do not have the energy to ride.
While it is possible to get individual passes to each of the mountains, the best bet is to get an all-mountain pass early in the season. This is the Niseko United lift pass. Most jobs will not give you a season pass - you will have to buy this yourself.
The first tax bracket in Japan is 5% and the second is 10%. You will also be required to contribute to the Japanese pension fund which will be 11% of your earnings.
As a seasonal worker, you are likely able to get some of this money back. See Getting Your Tax Back for information on how to claim back your tax.
Some of the companies operating in Niseko will have staff housing, and this is generally a good option as it can be difficult to rent a place for the season in Niseko. However, Niseko real estate is a good place to look if you would like your own place and there are definitely apartments and houses available for seasonal renting in Niseko.
It is getting very difficult to get season accommodation in Hirafu. It is easier to do so in Kutchan and even easier in Niseko town. Most real estate owners require a Japanese guarantor and rent upfront due to so many foreigners either not paying rent or causing damage to the building.
The cost of utilities is not cheap in Japan. Also, you will need to either snow clear yourself or contract a snow clearer (moving 15 meters if snow is a lot of work!) Try www.nisekoaccommodation.com for both short and long term accommodation options.
Niseko has a large range of short-term accommodation options for when you first arrive, including hotels and hostels.
Living in Niseko ski area is fun. There are heaps of bars and nightlife. You can take the bus each day to work and it takes about 20 minutes to get to the ski area.
Grand Hirafu is the only resort town of the 4 that you should consider if you like nightlife, apart from Niseko village. Hirafu is where most of the Australians end up. Grand Hirafu is big enough to be fun and have a few bars and some nightlife, but you can still get an authentic Japanese experience in many of the restaurants and bars.
Niseko Village has only a giant hotel at its base while Hanazono is a ghost town. Buses link up each of these four towns but they only run until 10pm.
Be prepared for drop toilets in the housing at Niseko! These can stink especially when the snow starts to melt.
Niseko ski area has probably has the best resort nightlife at a ski resort in Japan, with a huge number of bars and restaurants.
Grand Hirafu has over 50 bars and restaurants and is where most of the nightlife is centred. It has a large number of western style restaurants as well as a good number of Japanese eating spots. Niseko village also has bars and restaurants but is a smaller nightlife. Annupuri and Hanazono are very quiet, in contrast.
A good Japanese meal with meat, rice and vegetables will be around 800 yen ($US9). Beer is really expensive in bars, about 500 yen (roughly what you'll earn for an hour of work), but if you head to the liquor stores you can get bottles of spirits for 1,000 yen. The drinking age is 20, but really they don't even bother to check for ID. You can walk into almost any bar no problem, especially if you're a foreigner.
Expect to mostly hang around foreigners because the Japanese keep to themselves. There are way more guys than girls in Niseko.
HOMAC is the Japanese equivalent of Walmart or Kmart and is located in Niseko. It is awesome and has everything cheap you could want to deck out your apartment.
Buy the Japanese gumboots which go up past the knees. It's worth it when you're walking in a foot of powder which comes up to your knees, particularly given how cold it can get.
Snow gear is very cheap in Japan. On your way to Niseko, it is a good idea to spend a night or two in Sapporo to use the time to shop for gear before the season starts.
Also, the Japanese tend only to use and rent new boards, skis and boots. This means that tour operators and the resorts themselves buy stacks of new gear mid-way through the season. You'll get some good deals at the end of the season if you hang around.