‘Niseko’, ‘Rusutsu’ or ‘Tomamu’ Which one?
Hokkaido is one of the top Winter destinations for many families. Travellers come from all over the world to experience a white winter filled with ‘Jap Pow’ – the famous fine powder-like snow in Hokkaido. Top among the ski resorts in Hokkaido are Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu, Rusutsu and Tomamu. Since we have many readers writing in to ask which is the ‘best’ place to ski, we have summarized our recommendations of 3 resorts which we’ve stayed in this post.
Grand Hirafu, Niseko: Ki Niseko Hotel
Our complete experience staying at Grand Hirafu, Niseko here:
About the Place:
Technically, Niseko is not a single resort but a ski town made up of four interconnected ski zones: 1) An’nupuri, 2) Grand Hirafu, 3) Hanazono and 4) Niseko Village (which essentially is an exclusive enclave consisting of only 3 hotels: Kasara Niseko, Hilton Niseko and The Green Leaf Niseko).
Each ski area is separately owned/operated and requires a separate lift ticket for access. As the 4 base villages are not located next to each other and getting transportation to and from isn’t simple, it’s important to select which base village you want to stay in. In terms of accommodation and food choices, Hirafu offers the widest variety. Foodies will enjoy the wide collection of international fusion and European-inspired restaurants and, of course, authentic Japanese hotspots. Most restaurants require advance reservations. For our 1st trip to Hokkaido, we stayed at Ki Niseko in Grand Hirafu which was fantastic (and incidentally rated #1 hotel in Niseko by TripAdvisor).
English is widely spoken everywhere in Niseko which is a boon because it means you have no difficulty getting English ski instructors. The other side of that coin is that some seasoned travellers may find Niseko slightly less authentic than some other Hokkaido ski towns.
Distance by coach/car from New Chitose Airport: 2.5 to 3.5 hours one way. In winter, the travelling time could be lengthened.
Choice of transport used: We drove from Sapporo to Lake Toya to Noboribetsu and ended in Niseko where we returned the car. We used the Airport Shuttle Bus which picked us up from the Niseko Bus Centre for our flight home to Singapore.
Activities: Skiing is the main activity. There are several ski schools and private coaches to choose from. Our daughter, Dana attended her first ever ski lessons with Go Snow and never looked back since.
What else to do there: From hiking to snow mobiling, there is an assortment of activities aside from skiing but one need to source out from various service providers. Ask your accommodation hosts to assist or contact the travel suppliers early. There are alternative ski activities (such as snow tubing) at Hanazono and An’nupuri. We did a brief stop at Hanazono and found that the slopes there are also kid-friendly.
What we love about Grand Hirafu:
1. Great variety of very good eateries. We were spoilt for choice. From potato ramen to the freshest sashimi to authentic shabu-shabu. The list goes on.
2. Good shopping options for winter wear and winter gear (though the branded ones tend to be pricey).
3. That awesome feeling of being in a ski town / ski village surrounded by snowy alpine mountains. Indescribable.
4. Everyone speaks English –it feels more like a European town during winter!
5. Endless choice of accommodation types (from condo hotels, to town houses, to chalets, hostels and even Airbnbs).
What to note:
1. Book your restaurants early: These eateries are mainly small and tend to get filled-up fast. Some eateries require you to place a deposit to secure a reservation. Failure to reserve a table may result in waiting out in the cold for at least 30 minutes or more. That may seem like forever.
2. Be prepared to take public transport: Driving in snow and in winter can be potentially treacherous as the road conditions can be unpredictable. Be prepared to take public buses to some eateries and to your ski-slope. Fortunately, they do come often and on time.
3. Take your hotel shuttle, if any to get around. Some hotels, like ours, provide their own shuttle service to several designated stops within Niseko village. These may help to cut waiting time for public transport.
4. Get good snow shoes: Ice is virtually everywhere and can cause a nasty fall if we are not careful. Make sure you purchase or loan good snow boots that gives good traction in snow and ice. This is especially important for parents with young kids so that we don’t fall and pull the kids along!
5. You have to rent your ski equipment 1 day in advance before the actual ski day. We rented from Rhythm Niseko Ski Rental, which is conveniently situated in the centre of Grand Hirafu Main Street. Ki Niseko provides free transport to and fro to the ski rental shop. The staff at Rhythm will advise you what to rent.
1. An excellent hotel: We were travelling with 2 young kids and Ki Niseko provided us with many excellent facilities such as free ski valet where we can deposit our ski equipments before heading up to our room. No need to fuss with ski lockers, taking ski boards up the public bus etc. We also enjoyed the family onsen which is complimentary for guests. The hotel also provided excellent service – warm, attentive and helpful.
2. Enroll in a good ski school: Skiing is a risky sport especially for novice skiers. Always engage a good ski school / instructor. We recommend Go Snow – a highly professional ski school with dedicated coaches and a systematic ski programme. Read our experience with Go Snow where Dana picked up solid foundation skills.
3. Travel there before mid-December: Ski season starts officially in mid-Dec and peak around Christmas. By then, the mobs would have descended into Niseko. Going there BEFORE mid-December helps to avoid the crowds, get shorter meal queues and cheaper off-peak menus!
4. The early bird: Wake up early to walk around the charming neighbourhoods in Grand Hirafu. The scenery can be breathtaking, especially if you can catch the grand dame, Mt. Youtei, also known as Enzo Fuji – Fuji’s sister (there’s slight resemblance!).
5. Leave early: As Niseko is about 3-4 hours from the airport, it pays to arrange for your transport to the airport to leave earlier. Winter weather is very unpredictable and can often cause huge delays. We recommend staying a night nearer the airport to avoid travel delays.
Grand Hirafu, Niseko is a lovely base to stay, explore and ski. It offers great variety of eateries, activities and accommodation types. That being said, we find it to be more suitable for families with older kids who are independent, e.g. 7 years and up as it involves taking shuttle or walking in the snow to get around for meals, shopping and ski activities.
Rusutsu: Rusutsu Resort Hotel & Convention and The Westin Rusutsu
Read our complete experience staying at Rusutsu here:
About the Place:
Rusutsu Resorts (‘Rusutsu’) is currently the largest ski resort in Hokkaido. It comprises of 2 main hotels – the Westin Rusutsu and the Rusutsu Resort Hotel & Convention. We stayed 2 nights at each hotel as we were not successful in booking 4 nights in a row due to 100% hotel occupancy.
The popularity of Rusutsu Resorts can be attributed to a variety of factors. If you stay at the Rusutsu Resort Hotel & Convention, you have direct access to the beginner slopes that has night skiing and the kids’ snow park. The family suites are huge and spacious. You are also surrounded by a wide range of eateries and shops all ‘under one roof’. This means that you can shop, eat and enjoy the facilities of the hotel freely without having to don thick winter gear – a boon for families travelling with young kids or older grandparents. Restaurants and eateries comprise of fast food (e.g pizzas), snacks (such as Japanese cream puffs) and higher-end restaurants. Within the Rusutsu Resort Hotel compound is a 2-story high carousel, which is popular with kids and adults alike.
The ski slopes in Rusutsu are popular with skiiers as the mountains receive heavy snowfall of dry, fluffy Jap pow annually. For folks like us who do not ski, there’s no shortage of activities to keep us entertained. Top amenities at Rusutsu Resort Hotel & Convention include a wave pool, indoor ski slope for kids and a games arcade. In addition, there’s a kids’ snow park with tubing, snow biking, snow mobiling and more! Check with the hotel concierge for more info but make sure you contact the service providers early to book your slots.
If you choose to stay at the newly refurbished 23-storey Westin Rusutsu, you will get stunning views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains, but do note it is located on the other side of the road from the main base village. So you and your family will have to hop onto the monorail to get to the main base village and West Mountain slopes, where the family-friendly ski trails and beginner slopes can be enjoyed.
Distance by coach/car from New Chitose Airport : Rusutsu is a convenient 1.5 hours from the airport; 90-minute drive from Sapporo and is a 30-minute drive from Niseko.
Choice of transport we used: Return trip via coach from New Chitose Airport.
Ski School: Crayon Shinchan Ski School is an excellent ski school for young kids and beginners. Their pedagogy is sound. They get kids to acclimatise and learn basic balancing moves INDOORS before heading outdoors to the harsh elements. There are many ‘stations’ to celebrate small successes as the kids pick up skiing basics along the indoor obstacle course. Coaches are caring, encouraging and professional. This is an excellent ski school for young kids 7 and below. For older kids or those that need refresher lessons, the other ski school, the Rusutsu Resort Ski & Snowboard School offers a range of lessons and instructors that can provide the level of lessons that suit your skiing needs as our daughter Dana personally experienced – going from intermediate to the advanced run.
What we love about The Rusutsu Resorts:
1. Choice of accommodation between international luxury brand and renowned home brand. Both were good, the Westin is a duplex-style hotel, each room is 2 storey so you have to climb stairs to get to the Master Bedroom above. The Rusutsu Convention Hotel has large family rooms which can accomodate up to 6 pax in a single room.
2. Definitely their ‘All under one roof’ concept where shops and eateries are all inside the resort. No need to don thick winter clothes just to grab a quick snack and no need to queue for shuttle buses in winter to get to breakfast/lunch/dinner!
3. Range of shopping and eatery. A decent range that didn’t bore us. The souvenir shopping is also sufficiently comprehensive too and prices competitive with those at the airport. We shopped and packed everything in before departure. No need to lug shopping items onto plane!
4. The ski schools, particularly Crayon Shinchan Ski School.
5. Everything is so near: The ski school, the activities center are all within walking distance of the Rusutsu Resort Hotel & Convention. No need to wait for buses or trudge on snow for long. There is even an indoor swimming pool which we didn’t have time to enjoy. Reason to return!
What to note:– For some reason, the staff here are not as well-versed in English as elsewhere, esp. in Niseko. A little patience is needed. Despite that, the service is still good and personable. Just to share, Rusutsu Resorts has an awesome outdoor amusement park which only opens in Spring/ Summer.
1. Rusustsu Resort is the mid-point stop for coaches travelling between the New Chitose Airport and Niseko. You could plan to include Rusutsu en-route back from Niseko.
2. Crayon Shinchan Ski School is excellent for young ski beginners. Make sure you sign up early and let your kids attend their comprehensive 3-day lessons.
3. Hokkaido gets dark by 4pm. Most outdoor activities, aside from skiing, ends by 4pm or thereabouts, so do plan your day activity well to maximize your stay.
Rusutsu Resorts is an all-in comprehensive resort that offers under one-roof convenience for its facilities. A perfect place for families with young kids or for those experiencing Hokkaido for the first time and especially if you’re learning to ski for the first time.
Tomamu: Hoshino Resorts Tomamu
Read our complete experience staying at Tomamu here:
About The Place:
Hoshino Resorts Tomamu or ‘Tomamu’ in short, is a resort owned by Hoshino Resorts, a Japanese resort company with over 100 years of experience. ‘Tomamu’ stretches across a large span of land and is home to some of the most diverse experiences one can have in Hokkaido. The resort consists of 2 main hotels – The exclusive Risonare Tomamu and The Tower. The activity hub situated at The Tower hotel wing is where the ski schools and ski activities are located. The rental location and lockers for ski gears and ski wear are also situated at The Tower.
Connected to The Tower is a stretch of covered walkway that leads to other parts of the resorts. This includes Hotalu Street – a street where good eateries are situated. The other parts of the resort includes Mina Mina Beach where it houses the world’s largest indoor heated pool, the Ice Village – a small ‘village’ that comes alive from late Dec, carved entirely out of ice as well as the breathtaking Unkai Terrace. Internal shuttle buses ply between the different parts of the resort at an interval of around 10 to 15 mins during peak hours. Distance between the resort venues is around 10 to 30 mins walk on average. The resort does provide some novel backcountry experiences including husky dog rides and others like the Christmas cookie making in a Japanese barn, which we loved! With over 100 years of being in the resort industry, you can count on Hoshino Resorts Tomamu to give you a diverse and unforgettable winter experience.
Distance by coach/ car from New Chitose Airport: Smooth, easy 90 minute drive from airport.
Choice of transport used: By train from Airport to Tomamu and then resort shuttle. You can also hop on a direct Airport to Hotel Shuttle but we booked late and all seats were booked out.
Activities: This is one resort with a large and diverse range of winter activities apart from skiing. We did snow mobiling, snow rafting, Christmas cookie baking in a Japanese barn house and more.
The other highly recommended activities include:
- Going for a swim at Mina Mina Beach: The largest indoor heated swimming pool and don’t forget to enjoy the onsen there.
- Go up to Ungkai Terrace on a Gondola and experience what it’s like in ‘Narnia’!
- Visit the Ice Village from late December and participate in some activities there!
What we love about Hoshino Resorts Tomamu:
1. The diverse range of family-friendly snow activities available. Wow! We literally wish we had more time.
2. The ski rental at The Tower. Comprehensive! We could even rent snow boots and ski jackets even if we were not skiing. All one-stop. Very good and super convenient.
3. Have your meals at one of the high-quality eateries at Hotalu Street. However, be prepared to go early to queue.
4. Mina Mina Beach and Ungkai Terrace – must-go! Read our detailed reviews!
5. Have breakfast at Mikaku. A small Japanese restaurant compared to the main breakfast restaurant Nininupuri but it offers a good (and fun) view of the kids playing snow outside.
6. Play almost everywhere – Virtually everywhere at The Tower, is ‘playable’ for the kids. Go buy a mini sled or a snowball maker and look for a spot in the snow with the other kids and play away!
7. Have a free drink at Yukku Yukku – The little space is tucked at the corner in The Tower. Enjoy free flow warm drinks and even flavoured ice sticks while watching the kids play outside. A good place to unwind over some seriously nice warm drinks…free.
What to note:
1. Book your restaurants early: These eateries are mainly small and tend to get filled-up fast. Some eateries require you to place a deposit to secure a table. Failure to reserve a table may result in waiting out in the cold for at least 20 minutes or more. That may seem like forever.
2. Be prepared for bus trips, lots of it: Going for one place to another at the resort site requires you to take the internal shuttle. Though these come quite regularly, you would still need to factor in some waiting and travelling time. It also tends to be crowded. You may wish to stay at The Tower to reduce the amount of bus trips, especially if you have younger kids.
3. Take a bus for breakfast: The main area for the hotel breakfast is at Nininupuri – a large breakfast area that gives you the feeling that you’re dining in the woods. Be prepared to do a 10-
minute bus ride there for breakfast. Either that or book early for breakfast at Mikaku, at The Tower.
4. Crowds at The Tower: The Tower houses majority of the activities and eateries. Because of that, do expect The Tower to be more crowded and constantly bustling with noise and visitor activities. The hotel staff are patient, helpful and accommodating though.
5. Limited shopping: At the point of this post, there’s only one winter wear shop at Hotalu Street with very limited opportunities for souvenir shopping. You may want to give more time to shop at the airport.
1. Divide and Conquer – Booking for a spot for lunch and dinner can be quite a challenge. Better to ask the spouse or a friend/family member to go early to stand in line during peak meal times so that you can get a spot when your ski class ends. Be prepared to wait at least 30 minutes during peak times.
2. Take advantage of the sun – When the winter sun peaks through the clouds and the forecast is good, head towards Unkai Terrace. The gondola rides up and the place itself is unforgettable.
3. Rent winter jackets and snow boots – Whether you are skiing or not, go and loan a pair of good snowboots from the rental location at The Tower. The gear there is very good and comfy and they have sizes for kids too!
4. If you want to experience the full range of winter activities, then come in late Dec or in January where the Ice Village and more snow-based activities would be operational.
5. Rooms at the all-suites Risonare Hotel comes with a huge jacuzzi and sauna, quite a novelty and big enough for a family of 4 to enjoy a hot soak together! However, the tradeoff is that you have to hop onto a bus shuttle for meals and other activities as the main ski centre is at The Tower Hotel.
A stay at Hoshino Resorts Tomamu offers families plenty of memorable experiences but be prepared to make many bus trips in their internal shuttle. The staff are very competent in English and are helpful and accommodating. It’s a good place for families with kids especially if you choose to stay in The Tower to lessen the amount of bus trips to make.
It is really difficult to say which ski resort is ‘better’ as each resort has its own merits and every traveller comes with a different set of expectations and needs. We have stayed at Ki Niseko, Rusutsu Resorts Hotel & Convention, Westin Rusutsu and Hoshino Resorts Tomamu and found each to be really enjoyable in its own unique ways. Depending on the age of your kids, you might want to read our detailed reviews before deciding on the most appropriate accommodation for your travelling party and budget. We love Hokkaido and there are still many other ski resorts which we’ve yet to experience (e.g. Kiroro, Furano, Niseko Village etc.). We hope to share more of our winter vacays with you through this space. Stay tuned!
- Where to eat in Niseko
- Ki Niseko Hotel Review
- Go Snow Niseko Review
- Hokkaido: The Complete DIY Itinerary
- Self-Drive Hokkaido: Winter Driving Tips
- Keio Plaza Sapporo Hotel Review
- Best of Rusutsu, Under One Roof
- Hoshino Resorts Tomamu: The Complete Vlogs
- 10 Ways to Enjoy Hoshino Resorts Tomamu
- Asahiyama Zoo, Hokkaido Review