NOCTURNAL skiers and snowboarders are arguably treated to some of the best flood-lit night terrain in the world in Niseko.
After dark, three-of-four Niseko United resorts are still open for business – Hirafu, Niseko Village and Annupuri – with Hirafu the most popular and ample locale for night riding. True to Niseko’s belief in opening up as much terrain as possible – as per its liberal, accessible back country policy – a vast amount of the mountain is well-lit and rideable by night, especially in Hirafu, where about 70ha of mountain is open, accessed by most lifts, except for the peak. Niseko is one of the few places in the world that is so well-lit at night, off-piste and tree runs are still there for the taking, as well as the groomers; it’s a strange yet amazing experience being able to dash confidently between trees at night.
It should be said that the mountain is a completely different world in the hours of darkness, and well worth exploring. “With the way the mountains are lit up at night, it’s like a 3D fantasy world up there when it’s dark,” says Annupuri’s general manager, Toshio Fujisawa. “Skiing at night is part of Japan’s snow culture, because Japanese always try to maximise the amount of time they spend riding up on the mountain.”
Although crowds are rarely a problem at the moment in Niseko, runs are often deserted at night time, meaning skiers and boarders can get open slather on the mountain, and don’t usually have to deal with lift queues or crowded runs. It’s mostly local riders, and not so much the tourists, who take advantage of the mountain once the sun has disappeared. Sliding downhill by night is popularly thought of as a pastime of the skilled; it’s when the pros to come out and play after work, because most tourists are too preoccupied hitting the bars and restaurants. Having all this space to themselves, Niseko’s skiers and boarders will often be seen riding much faster, and with wild abandon and an aura of invincibility. Although it’s dark, night time is show time.
With fewer people on the mountain, it can usually make for a treat for riders, because the mountain and its precious powder doesn’t get tracked out or smashed up anywhere near as fast. There can regularly be more powder out there at night than riders know what to do with. The groomers, which, during the day, are tracked out almost instantly and resemble corduroy, have even been known to be knee-deep in powder by night, and nothing short amazing. Get up there at night after the lifts have been reopened from being closed all day due to high winds, and you’ll often be treated to some of the best banked up powder on offer. If the snow’s really coming down, much of the time your tracks will be filled in the time it takes to get to the bottom and catch the lift back up to the top. Niseko nights are usually when the sometimes harsh weather goes to bed – it can be calm and eerily still, and with temperatures lower, it frequently makes for lighter, fluffier, better quality powder.
Many would be surprised to hear that visibility at night is often crystal-clear – much better than during the day, when daytime white-outs frequently make things a little unclear. With a good pair of goggles, moments of clarity are a constant at night.
So, considering all this, the next time you want to call it a night, head to the pub, or hit the onsen, perhaps reconsider and go back up for a night ride. Then, when the sun eventually creeps back up over Mt Yotei, it’s time for riding by day with the diurnals.
Niseko nights: the stats
Niseko has offered night skiing at Grand Hirafu – the most popular night-time hotspot – since way back in February, 1967…believe it or not.
On average, currently about 900 individual skiers and boarders head up the mountain after dark, compared to around 4000 during the day. At Hirafu, 1287 metal halide lamps have been erected strategically around the resort, lighting a vast amount of accessible night terrain, including the Ace Family Pair lift for beginners, and plenty of intermediate and advanced courses and tree runs, both on and off-piste. Every day, it costs Hirafu around ¥100,000 to power its lights with 1100 kilowatts per hour until last lifts at around 9pm.
A smaller night spot is at Niseko Village, formerly known as Higashiyama, which has been operational at night for about 25 years. Niseko Village has two lifts operating – Banzai and the Community Chair – which give access to night runs such as Don’t Blink, Pure Magic, Cruiser, Next Stage, Shaky Knees and Final Fling. In the ’06-’07 season, Niseko Village had almost 75,000 riders pass through the gates, and over 100,000 last season. It costs Niseko Village more than ¥5000 to light its runs each night, not including costs to power lifts. With 35 years of night-skiing, Annupuri is traditionally the only resort to groom its runs after the daytime skiers and boarders carve it up – before the night riding begins. Around 1800 people go through the turnstiles at Annupuri each evening (may include one rider going up multiple times), to access 14.7ha of terrain – the courses open at night time are Family, Junior and Dynamic runs. One busy night two years ago saw the gates at Annupuri tick over around 4500 times in one evening. It costs about ¥20,000 per night to power the lights at Annupuri, which run at 263 kilowatts per hour. With mostly flat terrain accessible at night, and lit by three different sorts of lights (214 in total) to give off a ‘moody, 3D effect’, Annupuri offers a good night spot for beginners or families keen to get out for a ride
Hit the lights, and let the show begin
GANGS of fearless snowboarders who only come out at night – especially local Japanese – take to the mountain in numbers and with a vengeance after dark, with many putting on a stunt show decked out in their evening best (Old West-style face warmers are the current craze for these gangsters). Often there’s something about the lack of sunlight, and abundance of artificial light, that causes many boarders to throw caution and common sense into the wind. But the tricks pulled off – often conveniently beneath the lifts for all to see – can be quite the spectacle. Under the cover of darkness is when these hero boarders take the stage, taking full advantage of the bright lights, better quality softer snow and wide open, uncrowded spaces. Often the best time to negotiate tree runs at speed is, scarily, at night. Pushing each other to the limits, for these boarders turning is not an option much of the time – no matter the conditions.
When hordes of locals head up for a night session, you know it’s going to be on…and we mean really on!! While the tourists may hit the pub, eateries or onsens by night, the locals simply know best, as is usually the case. Niseko regular Taiki Nakamura has been night-boarding in Niseko for the past five seasons, and simply can’t get enough of it. Taiki is normally a lone rider, but likes to track down his mates once up there. “It’s awesome at night – heaps better than in the day,” he says. “It’s great because there are not as much people and it’s not as crowded, so I can go as fast as I can – everyone goes super-fast! There are more locals riding at night, too, so it is kind of just for the good riders; I guess it could be pros only out there at night.”
Fellow local night bandit Koji ‘The Ninja’ Furuta, who works at Demo hire in Hirafu, likes to go ‘ninja-boarding’ at least a couple of nights a week with his mates, or girlfriend, Teruko. “There are not too many people up there at night,” Koji says. “I really like night sliding off-piste, and I also like how nice and clear it is up there. I have been night-boarding in Australia at Mount Buller, but it is totally different there, and nowhere near as good because there is only one course to ride. I love all the terrain that I can hit at Niseko at night.” So, next time you’re riding the lift at night, cast your eye downwards and see these bold, brave boarders cutting their swathes down the mountain without a care or fear in the world. If you can’t see it, it can’t hurt you, right? I guess that’s one way of looking at it…