YOU MUST HAVE BEEN LIVING UNDER A VERY LARGE ROCK if you haven’t heard of the powder paradise of Niseko in Hokkaido. But the area offers even more than super soft snow—it has a burgeoning summer season with endless activities in perfect mild temperatures.
Word has spread fast about this sleepy little town-turned-adrenalin-filled playground. How it’s changed from the days when the area was a tranquil escape for onsen lovers, with the beautiful mountains providing a haven for crazed Tokyoites. Fast forward a few years and Niseko has been invaded by skiers and snowboarders craving the legal white stuff. Yet it’s no surprise when you look at the stats: an average yearly snowfall of 13m, and 47km of groomed slopes and floodlit runs allowing the mega-keen to ski over 12 hours a day. Temperatures drop to well below freezing in winter, so there’s no sipping vin chaud and topping up the tan here; this place is for serious snow junkies, and you definitely need to pack your granny’s thermals.
But come June you would expect the excitement to be all over. The snow starts to melt—but does the buzz? The pace definitely slows a little, but spring and summer bring a whole new world of activities. Temperatures are mild throughout July and August, providing a welcome escape from the heat and humidity that overtakes the rest of Japan.
In July, people flock to the Kutchan Jazz Festival, which plays host to international and local performers, kicking the summer off to a fantastic start with lazy days in the sun with friends.
If music’s not your thing, pull on those plus fours and check out Niseko’s golf courses. Just a 15-minute car ride away, you can tee off at the superb Arnold Palmer-designed course. While taking in views of lush green pasture and Mt Yotei, visitors can see exactly why Niseko’s golf is getting a name for itself worldwide.
Those looking for a bit more speed to rival the winter scene should hit the numerous mountain biking trails and weave across the mountainside taking in the stunning vistas. Hokkaido is fast becoming a haven for two-wheel enthusiasts, with more trails discovered each season and bike challenges running throughout the summer months.
The incredible range of outdoor pursuits also includes rafting and swimming races during July and September. Operators are springing up everywhere, offering whitewater rafting, kayaking, go-carting and paint-balling. If that sounds all far too energetic, there’s always the option of a gentle cycle ride on the myriad paths that run all around town.
Whether you visit Niseko in winter or summer, a trip to the area’s famous onsen should definitely be part of your itinerary. Two great options in Hirafu town are Yokuro, near the lower end, and Prince Hirafutei, which offers stunning views over the slopes as you bathe.
So there you go—Niseko has it all. One of the longest ski seasons in the world, followed by mild-summer months offering an array of outdoor activities and amazing natural hot springs to relax in afterward. It’s little wonder the five-star hotels have heard the rumors and are moving in. Book a trip this summer to beat the rush.
DINING OUT in Niseko
Due to the growing popularity of Niseko, most area restaurants are now open all year round. Down Town Café (0136-23-3354) serves giant all-day breakfasts and delicious burgers, and is situated on the main street so you can watch the world go by. A five-minute walk out of town leads you to JoJo’s Café and Bar (0136-23-2220), located above an outdoors shop. A climbing wall stretches the whole of the back of the restaurant and provides endless entertainment for diners—if they can manage to look up while devouring the best burgers in town.
During the winter months it’s bound to be harder to get out of bed, but crawl to Abu-Cha (0136-22-5620) and you are guaranteed to feel much better. It’s a great little bakery packed to the rafters with delicious pastries and piping hot coffee to get you revved up for the day ahead. What you burn on the mountain you can replace with avocado salad, thin-crust pizza and cookies at Yummy’s (0136-21-2239), tucked away in a picture-perfect chalet.
A good number of airlines now fly direct to Sapporo; Niseko is a 2.5-hour drive away. Niseko Powder Connection (www.niseko-hirafu.com) can organize both winter and summer accommodation and activities, including golf or mountain biking weekends, adventure racing packages, and jazz weekend packages. This year’s Hanazono Kutchan Jazz Festival (www.jazzfes.com) takes place July 5-6. For onsen, try Yokuro (0136-23-3434) near the lower end of town or Prince Hirafutei (0136-23-2239). If you are keen to stay a little further out of town, try the less developed Annupuri (www.annupurivillage.com). The website of Niseko United (www.niseko.ne.jp/en) provides English information and web cams.