We covered 'Where to stay in Niseko' in an earlier article, so now we will go into a little more depth and share some information about the resorts in Niseko. The first resort we are going to look at in more detail is Grand Hirafu.
Grand Hirafu Niseko
Visitors think of grand Hirafu, also known as Niseko Hirafu, or sometimes just Hirafu, as the main resort in Niseko. It has the greatest number of accommodation options and largest range in terms of quality and price. There are more restaurants, bars and shops here than any other place in Niseko. Access in general is pretty easy through the peak season all over Niseko, but Hirafu has the most frequently serviced transport routes. Out of peak season access to Hirafu is a little more difficult, but still as good as, if not better than any other Niseko resorts.
Hirafu Ski Field
In addition to the ease and accessibility of visiting Hirafu, the ski field also adds to its reputation as the main resort. Hirafu boasts the most runs of any Niseko resort, and more lifts to accompany them. The lift structure includes the best Gondola system in Hirafu, refurbished to seem like an almost new Gondola in 2011. There is also a hooded lift where to Gondola finishes, allowing you to stay sheltered from the weather almost to the top of the mountain.
For the more weather hardy skier there are a few single chair lifts and double chair lifts that access more hidden areas and quieter runs. These allow powder hounds to chase fresh runs and face shots late into the day. A single chair lift accesses the top of the ski field, and from there you can go even further up the mountain. After a 20-minute hike you can arrive at the very summit of Mt Annupuri. From here you can enjoy open powder fields back down into Hirafu, or in various directions to the other ski fields. The other famous hike in Hirafu is unto the top of Miharashi. Just a 5-minute hike from the Gondola station, Miharashi leads down onto the Holiday Run. However the run down there can be quite awesome. Take skiers left and enjoy open powder fields. Take skiers right and enjoy pillow lines and deep pow in the trees.
For skiers and boarders who are keener for easily accessed terrain, the pistes are often the quietest place in Hirafu, with most people chasing tree runs and powder turns. After a good dump of snow these pistes can actually be amazing powder runs, indeed taking the powder covered pistes down from the King Quad chair lift has provided me with some of the most enjoyable runs of the season. Good tree runs are also easy to find just off the lifts, especially from the Triple Hooded chair lift and most notably from the Swinging Monkey chair.
For the freestylers and for folks who are keen to enjoy all aspects of skiing and snowboarding there is a terrain park in Hirafu. Early season there are up to 3 medium, table style kickers and a few rails. Later on they build a couple of bigger wedge style kickers. In spring the park gets moved to the top of the mountain where there is a nice triple line and couple of rail options. Not the best park in Niseko, but still nice to cut a few laps and keep your skills in check. There is also a half pipe, but the lift access is poor, so if you are keen for half pipe, prepare to do some hiking.
Night skiing in Hirafu is unbelievable. During the peak season it is open every night until 9pm. The powder at night can be as good as it gets and the visibility remains good no matter how much it is snowing. Large parts of the mountain are open and you can even enjoy tree runs on Super Ridge or down from the Triple Hooded lift. I cannot imagine night skiing getting much better than this.
Hirafu is touristy and during peak season, very busy. This does mean it is full of life and it can be a vibrant place. Hirafu, in my experience, is a friendly place to visit, or stay for a season. To avoid the crowds I would recommend the week before Christmas Holidays, if you want powder. March may also be a good option if you want good snow and less people. If you are happy to cruise the pistes and maybe hit the spring park, April is quiet and still lovely. But beware outside of peak season services can be limited.
Hirafu's busy side does have its drawbacks, as lifts queues can be bigger than the other resorts, but still, they are rarely excessive. However the famed powder does get chopped up quicker than other resorts and there is sometimes a trail of punters scrambling for fresh track when the peak opens.
In summary, Hirafu has a great ski resort and is a busy little town. Touristy, but heaps of fun.