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Skiing empty Niseko in a pandemic

Miha telemark skiing in Niseko

What was skiing like in Niseko during the pandemic? Snow, snow and more snow.

It was far from an average winter season in Hokkaido or the rest of Japan. The whole country was closed for inbound tourism (and there are no plans to reopen the borders anytime soon). Niseko was hit the hardest among the many ski resorts in Japan. Japan’s most international ski resort is full of people, life and excitement in a typical season. So when there were no visitors from abroad this winter, it was eerily quiet. Empty streets were covered with snow, houses snowed-in and hotels closed. A few locals ran the food trucks, some small businesses tried their best to stay open, and only a handful of bars and restaurants stayed operational. Apart from the convenience stores, which were business as usual, it felt like time had stopped. The whole community was frozen by the snowstorms rolling in one after another.  

Quiet snowy mountain in Niseko resort
Eerily empty slopes in Niseko United resort

Feelings of uncertainty could be felt among the local businesses and community. The excitement and energy levels were generally low. People mostly stayed at home, doing their best to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Wearing a face mask became routine, as well as sanitizing hands, ventilating places and keeping the capacity limited (half capacity on chair lifts and gondolas, restaurants adjusting to the new norm etc.). Businesses were doing what they could to keep running during the pandemic. Dealing with challenges such as opening and closing in response to occasional outbreaks, and whether to continue operating when there were few or no people in the resort. 

However, the Niseko community pulled together. Everyone did their part to support and help each other despite the unexpected difficulties and setbacks faced this season. This pandemic also gave us time and opportunity to reflect. It reminded us why Niseko winters are so special and why we love it here.

Autumn day in Niseko on 8 November 2020 (Photo: Miha Grilj)

I still remember the day before the first snowfall. I was hiking in shorts and enjoying the sun. Then literally overnight, the weather turned and I was surprised the next morning with a white winter painting outside my window. I opened the window from the warm comforts of my house to smell that crisp cold air. It was soon that I would be putting on my boots on and taking the skis up the mountain. Seeing the first snow is always a magical moment. 

That moment disappeared pretty quickly when the snow started piling up. I would wake up every morning to find the driveways and cars completely covered in snow. My shovel would keep me company for a good half an hour as I dug myself out of the house. This was before even having my first sip of coffee and getting to the mountain (forget about breakfast!).

Niseko snowed out on 9 November 2020 (Photo: Miha Grilj)

But it was all worth it once I got to the mountain. I could ski lines that I had forgotten about. Lines that were waiting untouched right in front of my eyes. I could imagine skiing my line while going up the chairlift and it was still waiting for me when I got off. Fresh powder lines were accessible in the resort for days on end. This would be unthinkable in normal years. It was unlikely you would get any fresh powder if you were not lining up for the first lifts.

Hokkaido Ski Club car completely covered in snow (Photo: Miha Grilj)

And let’s talk about the snow statistics. The fluffy, dry goodness that just kept falling and falling. We have a saying that when the Niseko snow machine turns on it does not switch off until March. And if you look at the below snowfall graph you can see what we mean. The snowstorms delivered a total of over 12m of accumulated snowfall during the 20/21 season. Meaning we got a lot of snow. All that snow but very few people to enjoy. It was heartbreaking that we could not welcome our overseas guests, friends and family back to Hokkaido Ski Club to enjoy the japow like before. But we were able to share the joys of this wonderful place with new guests  based here in Japan, many of whom were experiencing Niseko and its magic for the first time. We made the most of what we were given and we are working harder than ever before to make sure that when you are back with us here on snow, it will be as if you never left.

Snowfall in Niseko since 2016/2017 winter season (Source: SnowJapan)

Did you miss the winter season? And do you plan coming back to Japan as soon as the borders open? Send us your feedback. And if there is something you would like us to write about in the future to feature in our Club Magazine, we would love to know.

Miha Grilj

Miha Grilj

Miha is the Co-Founder and CEO of Hokkaido Ski Club. He loves teaching and sharing his knowledge and passion for skiing and nature.
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