Things like lack of funds, not enough vacation time, and unwillingness to travel alone usually top the list of reasons why you haven't booked a life-changing trip to ride the best powder of your life. In order to make this happen, here's what you're going to need to spend your money on, along with a few tips on how to stretch your budget the furthest.
First thing's first; you're going to need a plane ticket. In terms of timing, we'd recommend mid-January to late February as the sweet spot. Then you should start thinking about using these wonderful things called airline miles. The best way to earn a large amount of miles quickly is to apply for any one of the numerous reward credit cards that provide bonus miles upon signup. They'll typically have other perks including a free checked bag, and occasional free access to the swanky club-style lounges with functioning wifi, as well as snacks and free booze. With this method, you can easily pick up anywhere from 30-50,000 miles right off the bat, which can net you a free one way ticket to Japan, leaving only the cost of the return trip coming out of pocket. Most cards are free for the first year, with a yearly fee after that. Think of that fee as an investment in future travel if you decide to keep it for more than a year, because there's always the option to cancel after you pick up your miles. Plan your budget to pay off your card as you use it, and you won't ever have to worry about that pesky interest rate. Once you've booked your flight, you'll want to secure transport from the airport to the mountain. In our case, a round trip bus ticket set us back less than $60.
Where To Stay
In terms of a warm bed to sleep in, assuming you're not willing to go the cardanchi route and sleep in a van, you've got a few options. Group lodges are a great way to keep budgets down, as well as make some friends in the process. You'll be sharing a room with multiple people, but it’s worth it. The Hooting Owl located in Niseko Village comes highly recommended from our crew due to the solid prices, friendly staff, and awesome atmosphere. You'll get a place to sleep, breakfast cooked for you, as well as a free ride up to the mountain, all for about $70 a night. If you're traveling with a bigger group, you might want to check out the local Air BNB offerings.
Our humble abode for the week, complete with a car to use, all via AirBNB.
The best thing about Japan is that when you get there, things are pretty affordable. Where you might end up paying upwards of $120 for a day ticket in the US, you're going to pay just a fraction of that to ride in Japan. With a small deposit of 1,000 YEN you're only looking at around $73 for a day ticket at Niseko United, and even less if you get a multi-day pass. This will give you access to the Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu, and Hanazono areas, which is more than enough terrain to explore. At the end of your trip, drop them off at a vending machine looking contraption to get your deposit back, which is easily enough for a beer or two. You're also going to want to take advantage of what could be the greatest 1,300 YEN you'll ever spend in your life. For what amounts to about $13 you get early access to the gondola at Niseko Village to get first tracks from 7:30am – 8:30am. This incredibly inexpensive ticket resulted in some of the best turns of our collective lives. Not only can you get up before most other people, it'll also put you in a prime position to be first in line for the opening of the backcountry gates leading to some of the best terrain on the mountain. You'll have to have a regular day ticket to continue riding after the hour is done and it's only available on the weekends, but if you do one thing at a resort, it's got to be this, hands down.
The food in Japan is amazing. Niseko Ramen ended up being our favorite restaurant in town. A typical meal there is around 1,300 YEN, plus a little more for add-ons like extra pork, egg, or bamboo shoots. Tack on 600 YEN for a beer, and you're looking at one of the best meals of your life for under $20. If you want to go out to eat, make a reservation, as many places fill up quickly. It's easy to be drawn to the main street of Niseko with its food trucks, bars, and restaurants, but you should spend some time exploring the side streets, which also offer some amazing hidden gems. If you're trying spend less, the bus to Kuchan runs from main street and is free with your lift ticket. There you can find a grocery store, where you can stock up on supplies. We also recommend the local Seico Mart, which sells pretty much anything you'd need, from cheap whiskey to pre-made hot meals. You'll find plenty of different things to eat, that is, if you can figure out how to read the labels. A quick download of the Google Translate app will work wonders for you here. We wasted no time sampling the various flavors of rice triangles, dumplings, canned coffees and much more throughout our stay. It's definitely worth stocking up on snacks and drinks to bring with you as you ride the resort to ensure you're getting the most out of your time there. Since it's the closest thing to a grocery store in town, the lines can get a bit long. Get there early, grab what you need, and bail out as quickly as you can.
Niseko Ramen was one of our favorite spots in town to eat. Photo: Eric Gaines
If you're really on a budget, the best way to save money is by not drinking. You'll save a ton of money by sticking to water and the delicious vending machine hot coffees. Less time drinking means more time riding, less time hungover, and more money in your pocket. But let's be honest, having a couple drinks after riding, especially when on vacation, is difficult to avoid.
Keep an eye out for the many happy hours at the local restaurants and bars. You'll find drinks specials for sometimes as low as 300 YEN, which is a steal by any measure. If you end up frequenting the same watering hole enough times, you may even get confused for a local and be granted access to the locals discount, making drinks dirt cheap. Plus, it’s pretty rad to be able to buy a beer out of a vending machine, so you might as well do it while you can. Another option is to simply stock up on bottles of 1,300 YEN whiskey at the Seico Mart and keep the party going on your own terms.
If you're feeling especially adventurous, you can journey to Kuchan in search of Karaoke, a very popular pastime in Japan. Hopping the bus is fairly easy, especially because you'll get a free ride by bringing your lift ticket along. There you'll find a private booth for you and your party, along with an all-you-can-drink offering. One night we ended up being invited by a couple of locals to a bar in Kuchan, where we stumbled upon a free psychedelic music and light show inside of a bar boasting drinks for just 500 YEN. Just be sure to bring some cash, as many places don't accept cards. Oh, and don't miss the bus home. It's a pretty long walk.
Explore Your Surroundings
If you're going to put all this time and effort into embarking on the trip of a lifetime, be sure to live it up.. After a long day of riding, a soak in the local Onsen will work wonders on your aches and pains. What is basically a natural, mineral-rich hot spring, Onsen have been part of Japanese culture for centuries. There are a few options, but the most budget-friendly one is to poach the local Hilton for free. Just lurk around the entrance to the springs on the first floor long enough for someone to exit, catch the door, and you're good to go. Be sure to bring a white towel and an open mind, as you'll encounter an exceptionally high amount of nakedness.
Depending on conditions and your willingness to hike, there is a journey to Mt. Yotei. Towering high over the area, it's impossible to miss, and a popular spot for some gnarlier terrain. A splitboard or, at the very least, snowshoes, are highly recommended for the hike, which is about six hours to completion. Once you reach the summit, you'll be able to drop into the crater and snowboard inside of the volcano itself. After a relatively quick 45 minute jaunt back out, you can score some serious lines back down.
Mt. Yotei. Photo: Jeff Brockmeyer
Choose Your Dates and Send It
Embarking on the trip of a lifetime isn't nearly as hard as many would make it seem. Be smart about how you spend your budget, plan ahead, and above all, go with the flow. While in Hokkaido, things seemed to just work themselves out, whether it was easy access to a Japanese hot spring, a slight fender bender involving a bus, or simply stumbling upon the best ramen you’ve ever had along with a group of good friends. Gather your crew or go solo. Whatever you do, just make sure to enjoy the ride.