IT’S easy to get so wrapped up in the winter wonderment of Niseko that you forget all about common sense. Caution obviously needs to be considered while on the mountain, and certainly when outside the backcountry gates. However, tourists who visit Niseko from warmer, more familiar home climes often aren’t aware that it’s worth considering your personal safety when simply getting around town. While there’s generally no life-threatening dangers, there are a few things you need to be made aware of that you may not have otherwise considered.
Besides physical dangers, cultural differences can make it hard to simply achieve what you want… and sometimes this can be downright frustrating! With that said, Powderlife has compiled this ‘village survival guide’ to hopefully keep you safe, while also allowing you to understand Niseko that little bit better…
Walking on icy roads and footpaths
Niseko’s footpaths and roads can be sometimes like an ice skating rink – especially after a night-time freeze follows a daytime melt. Joggers or sneakers from home just won’t cut it, so it’s a good idea to invest in a pair of snow boots with plenty of tread (gumboots will also do the job, and keep your feet dry), or failing that a pair of snow cleats or spikes that you can clip onto your shoes (which you can buy from any number of ski stores in town).
Other tips we can give you are: for balance, don’t walk with hands in your pockets so you can brace yourself for a fall – wear gloves to keep your hands warm instead; take smaller steps; and don’t carry heavy loads – if you fall, throw goods in the air and protect yourself, not your goods. It should go without saying, but don’t slide down slippery, steep sections of ice to show off!
Also, when crossing the road, factor in that the roads are icy and slippery and that it will take cars longer to stop for you.
Walking or parking under roofs
During your stay in Niseko, you may notice snow falling from roofs. This may look impressive, but can be very dangerous – notice the thud when the load hits the ground. Niseko gets massive amounts of snow during winter, and despite its cute fluffy appearance, it’s very heavy. Believe it or not, snow sliding from rooftops kills people in this part of the world, and can seriously damage cars.
Ski/boarding on roads and footpaths
It may seem fun and so much quicker and easier than walking, but skiing or boarding home from the hill can be one of the silliest things you can do in Niseko. Because the roads don’t have as much snow on them, and generally a lot of ice, your skis or board won’t react like they do on the mountain. So where on the hill you might be able to stop within a couple of metres before hitting that beginner skier who’s just veered wildly in front of you, on the road, instead of stopping you could very easily find yourself skidding underneath a bus that’s just pulled out in front of you. For the drivers, it’s hard enough driving in the snowy, icy, white-out conditions without having to worry about dodging out of control skiers and boarders. Please, keep your riding on the hill!
Driving on icy roads
Niseko is well serviced by inter-resort buses, which are the safest, cheapest and easiest mode of transport in the area. These resort buses are free for mountain pass holders. There are also regular buses into Kutchan. But if you want to drive, make sure you drive to the conditions and always be in control. Icy, snowy, white-out conditions can be a nightmare to drive in. Every driver here will be able to tell frightening stories about completely losing control of their car on ‘black ice’. For a detailed feature on how to drive safely in Niseko, refer to your copy of Powderlife Issue 13’s Niseko Survival Guide, or find it online at www.powderlife.com/_issues/powderlife13web.pdf.
Don’t leave bars alone
If you’re going drinking, make sure you leave the bar with someone else and try not to walk home alone. Also make sure you rug up and stay warm. People have been known to fall asleep in the snow on the way home after going out drinking in Niseko. This season’s case of a tourist going missing under these circumstances have reaffirmed these dangers, so please do the right thing by yourself, and your friends.
And make sure you’re cahsed up and know where to shop…
Japan is still largely a cash society, and Niseko is no different. Some places accept credit cards but many smaller shops, businesses and accommodation houses don’t. For maximum convenience and to avoid missing out on that fantastic looking little restaurant or unique souvenir shop that you may not pass again, it is advised that you carry cash.
There is no ATM that will accept international cards in Hirafu, Hanazono, Niseko Village or Annupuri [There is now an ATM in Hirafu at the Hokkaido Tracks office in Yama Shizen]. If you need to withdraw cash from an ATM, you will need to go to a post office in Kutchan Town, which is a 10-15 minute taxi or bus ride away. The post offices in Kutchan have ATMs with English instructions (there are also English-language international ATMs at most 7-Elevens). The main post office is on Eki Mae Dori (the main street), on the opposite side of Route 5 from the train station.
Powderlife’s hot tip is to get cash out at the international ATM at the airport when you arrive at in Sapporo (New Chitose Airport). Go to level three and use the Citibank ATM which accepts many international cards.
Cards and networks accepted at post office ATMs are: Visa, Visa Electron, Plus, MasterCard, Maestro, Cirrus, American Express, Diners Club, JCB, China UnionPay. Please note, there may be restrictions on the different accounts you can access for different banks and networks, for example credit and cheque accounts on debit cards on the Cirrus/Maestro/Plus networks. If you’re going to Kutchan solely to use the ATM, it might be a good idea to ask your accommodation provider to call the post office to check before you go. The main post office ATM is open weekdays 8.45am-7pm and weekends 9am-5pm. Public holidays it may be closed.
Lift tickets, ski hire and ski lessons can all be paid for by credit card. Most large restaurants and some small ones also will accept them (check the Powderlife.com restaurant guide).
At your convenience
There are two convenience stores in town for all your local shopping needs. The iconic Seicomart in the heart of Hirafu is arguably king, but Lawson, the blue shop just down the road towards Kutchan, is another option that offers smaller queues and a larger range of international products.
Kutchan has shopping covered
Several specialty stores in Kutchan may also come in handy when you wish to expand from the stock in Seicomart or Lawson. Best Denki stocks all your technical needs from memory sticks and external hard drives to heaters and fans. M-Pocket has imported groceries, specialising in imported alcohol. Homac shelves basically every household product known to man, while Max Value is your best option as far as big supermarket chains go. The ¥100 Shop stocks cheap groceries, stationery and more priced around – you guessed it – ¥100. There are no pharmacies or stationery stores in Hirafu, but several in Kutchan, such as the Tsuruha Drug. The Co-Op, next to Kutchan Station, is both a department store and supermarket.
For your information:
The Niseko Grand Hirafu Welcome Centre at the main bus stop in Hirafu parking and the Hirafu Safety Information Centre next door to the Seicomart have a wide range of brochures and transport information and can also help with accommodation in case you’ve arrived without a booking.
Meanwhile, the Kutchan Tourist Information Centre, located on Eki-mae Dori opposite the Best Denki, provides an excellent English-speaking service for visitors. They can be contacted on 0136 22 1121.