Fancy a week all-in on Japan’s ridiculously snowy, fantasy ski island of Hokkaido for under £1000? Thought you might. Here’s how.
For a moment, ignore the seven days of ski passes, transfers, food and accommodation that are all included in our wallet-defying grand total. The key to doing Japan on a budget is flights. It was most important when I did Fall-Line’s first Asia on-a-shoestring adventure in 2007 (taking in resorts around Tokyo’s closest decent ski town Yuzawa), and it is now.
Start with Swiss. They’re big, the service is great, they have a good baggage policy (with ski bags travelling free, plus 23kg of hold luggage) and run plenty of routes to the east. This June I booked Manchester to Sapporo for £502 return with them. Yes, I’m going via Zurich and Tokyo, but at this price (less tax the fare comes to an incredible £116) you really can’t complain. And, however you do it, there are no direct flights from the UK to Chitose (Sapporo’s international airport), so what’s an extra sit down and cup of coffee between friends?
The summer before, I stalled a little, waiting for a ski pal to commit, and ended up paying £607 at the start of September (a month later this was up to £850). It does not take a genius to see the pattern, and while everyone else is thinking barbecues, Wimbledon and all that nonsense, you need to be planning for winter. I think I started looking as early as May this year. But that’s how good my trip to pow-tastic Niseko (Hokkaido’s most famous resort, which averages over 15m of snow a season) was in early 2013.Experience powder like this for less than £1000 |Mattias Fredriksson/Red Bull Content Pool
Building block two has to be where to stay. Just like flights, get this wrong and you’re toast in terms of a tight budget. And part of the reason I like Hirafu (Niseko’s main hub) so much, apart from the huge range of terrain, and reasonable lifts passes (more of which later), is the amount of sociable, well-priced accommodation.My favourite, and where I’ll be sitting this winter on tatami mats drinking fake beer (called happoshu and made with less malt to avoid government duty) and eating weird seaweed snacks, is the Yubokumin. It’s clean, friendly, family-run and two minutes from the nearest lift. Best of all, a dorm room sharing with three others costs £36 a night (using the rule of thumb 150 yen to the pound conversion rate that’s been pretty accurate for the past year). I know, I know, hostel hell… but against the odds it really is rather marvellous, especially as that price includes an excellent home-cooked breakfast and supper.
Don’t fancy the 8am rice, fish and miso soup? Or the amusing three-course chopstick chase that is dinner? Easy. Just sign up for bed-only at £26 a night and get food in the centre of town a 30-second walk away.Straight across the road you have Seiko-Mart packed with salads, sushi, sandwiches and Asahi (beer) at similar prices to your local Tesco (just with a lot more Aussies in the aisles). Or walk a street or two back from the main drag and there are well-priced restaurants like Yummys (large Margarita pizzas for just over a fiver) or the less touristy Yamanchu (open kitchen, with Japanese-style omelettes for £4).
Should you be pulled in by the booze tractor-beam (fair enough, as the place is packed with bars, and beers start from £3.50) or need fuel on your way back from night skiing (excellent here too, with the main lifts running every evening until 8.30pm), there are a baffling array of pimped-out takeaway vans. Think more lights than Blackpool illuminations, timber cladding, US number plates, and happy faces squeezed into tiny side windows all chorusing “Ohayou!” as you walk past. Crucially, all smell good and offer great value with everything from crêpes to curry for under £5.
With airport transfers cheap too (White Liner charge just £15 for the 150-minute coach from Sapporo Chitose to Hirafu), the last big hurdle on our overdraft-defying £1000 extravaganza is lift passes. In plenty of places – hello North America! – this alone would pretty much eat half our week-long budget. But on the north island of Japan you’re talking less than half that, with prices pretty much level-pegging with Europe. Plus there are further savings to be made with a cheaper five-hour ticket available alongside the usual day-pass.
If you want to scrimp even further, the resort has four distinct sections: Annupuri, Niseko Village, Hirafu and Hanazono. So if you can’t quite stretch to the full Niseko United pass at 6000 yen (or £35 once you’ve grabbed a further discount card that plenty of the hostels have), you can ride Grand Hirafu (and its 60% of the ski area) from 10am to 3pm for just £25.
That says it all really. Where else are you going to get powder this amazing, and a lift system this advanced, plus all the cultural weirdness/brilliance of Japan, for £5 an hour? Nowhere! So get planning and we’ll see you there eating weird fishy soup and drinking counterfeit beer.