If you’d only ever experienced Niseko under a four-meter blanket of snow, you’d barely recognize Hokkaido’s most cosmopolitan winter-sports resort in summer — in the best way possible.
Gone are the half-pipes and moguls, and the skis and boards are all packed away in favor of mountain bikes. The pace of life slows as powder hounds are replaced by grazing cattle and elderly foragers scouring the hillsides for mushrooms and sansai (mountain vegetables).
A refreshing escape from sticky Honshu summers, Niseko — a collection of resort villages clustered around the base of 1,156-meter Mount Niseko Annupuri and with mighty, 1,898-meter Mount Yotei (known as the “Mount Fuji of Hokkaido”) towering over all — is a rural idyll unlike anywhere else in Japan.
Just a two-hour drive from Sapporo, when the snow has cleared you’ll find, instead of rice paddies, fields of sunflowers and vegetable allotments. And instead of endless gray concrete boxes, you’ll find interesting structures abound — from renovated traditional farmhouses to glass-and-steel Modernist-style buildings.
These days, in fact, Niseko is quite a creative hub: Atelier BNK, the Hokkaido team behind Sapporo Dome, designed hip restaurant The Barn; New York-based Champalimaud Design has remodeled the new Green Leaf Niseko Village hotel; and famed architect Tadao Ando is set to raise the bar further with the Capella Niseko resort and residences due to open in 2012.
Unique to Niseko, too, is its cosmopolitan vibe: The numerous Antipodeans and Europeans who’ve made the area home have brought about an interesting cultural exchange that has benefited the local community and economy immeasurably — in particular gastronomically.
“Three years ago, the produce was nowhere near as good as it is now,” explains John Stomski of Niseko Gourmet. “If we saw a zucchini in the supermarket, we thought ‘OMG — let’s buy it.’ But now they’re popular and they’re everywhere.”
“I can’t eat any more zucchini,” his wife, Tess, says with a laugh.
The Australian-born duo, whose business provides in-chalet fine-dining experiences and cooking classes in the village, have just completed their fourth season. (Everyone seems to chart their time here by how many winters they’ve stayed.) It’s not that good produce didn’t exist, they explain: It’s just that local consumers were deprived of variety.
One of the first foodie discoveries the couple made was a place beloved by locals: the michi no eki (road station) known as Niseko View Plaza. Farmers bring their vegetables — whatever’s fresh that day — to the “road station” shop and place them on shelves labeled with their name and details of their farm. The produce is great value, the stock changes daily and shelves are often restocked by the farmers during the day. Inevitably, there always seems to be a long queue for the car park.
In a quieter part of Niseko, to the south of Mount Niseko Annupuri, we pull into a drive with a sign signaling that Rakuichi — one of the area’s finest purveyors of soba noodles — is open. It’s good news, because when we’d visited the day before, they had closed early after having sold out.
Rakuichi is one of Niseko’s best-kept secrets — although maybe not for much longer, as American chef Anthony Bourdain and the team from his award-winning Travel Channel TV show, “No Reservations,” visited in February.
Here the husband-and-wife owners serve pure buckwheat noodles made fresh for you. Place your order and watch as the dough is rolled and then cut into long strands, before being boiled and served steaming in bowls on the wooden counter. Try the signature kamo (duck) soba. Rakuichi is open daily from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. — or until the dough runs out, which it often does as early as 1.30 p.m.
Not far from Rakuichi, close to the Green Leaf Niseko Village hotel, which opened this season and has a lovely rooftop bar, is Milk Kobo, a family-friendly dairy farm modeled on a Midwest homestead. Here, visitors can ride horses against the photogenic backdrop of Mount Yotei and watch cream from the dairy herd being piped into pastries at the onsite bakery. Try one of its huge, puffy choux creams fresh from the oven — washed down with its deliciously rich drinking yoghurt seved in a miniature plastic churn.
If it should occur to you to burn off some of those calories, you may opt to take the walking trail from nearby Hilton Niseko Village to the town of Hirafu. But be sure to ask, too, about the guided nature walks and nighttime guided strolls around the area. You could also take one of the many sedate cycle tracks through woods and fields — there are free “green bikes” to borrow from five locations, including Milk Kobo. For keen cyclists, Niseko hosts an annual cycle week that incorporates one leg of the Tour de Hokkaido, which traverses the island from September 16 to 19.
Hokkaido is famous for its dairy products, and Milk Kobo caters to the lighter end of the market. Across the road, Niseko Fromage serves up its own interpretations of gouda, camembert and mozzarella; but for the island’s finest cheeses, head for J-Sekka Deli in Hirafu, where passionate executive chef Kim Wejendorp had made it his mission to track down the island’s grands fromages.
J-Sekka Deli sources 80 per cent of its produce from Hokkaido, including pork from nearby Makkari and seafood from the coast. It is part of the Green Lantern movement, which fosters a commitment to food with local provenance. Outside the cafe is an unstaffed organic vegetable “honesty stall” selling produce from Niseko Green Farm, an innovative business run by Dennis van den Brink, a young Dutchman who supplies most of the area’s top restaurants with their veggies, from okra to microgreens.
Prominent among the farm’s customers is Kamimura, an intimate fine-dining restaurant in Kutchan that’s run by Hokkaido-born chef Yuichi Kamimura, who trained at the world-famous Tetsuya’s in Sydney. Kamimura’s is widely considered to be the best restaurant in town. When we visited, chef Kamimura had just taken delivery of a huge maitake mushroom from a local forager, which he prepared and served in all its delicious, earthy freshness with sublime seared Hokkaido wagyu beef.
If foraging is your thing, mid-July marks the start of the wild mulberry season. Try your luck around the base of Mount Yotei, or join Yuko Matsuda, co-owner of the cafe inside Niseko Station — and her self-styled 15 Old Ladies — who organize excursions to collect wild mountain vegetables. The group also hosts open cooking classes twice a month.
For adrenaline junkies, Hanazono on the northern slopes of Mount Annupuri is the destination of choice. A terrain park in winter, in summer the hilly resort comes alive with mountain bike trails, as well as activities such as canyoning (leaping from high places into a river), rafting, wakeboarding and ziplining. There is also a popular “bag jump” that allows skiers and snowborders to practice their tricks on skateboards ahead of the next season — and land safely on a huge inflatable bag.
Tired? Well, with 15 hot springs in and around Niseko — including at the 100-year-old Koikawa Onsen Ryokan in Kombu Onsen, on Mount Niseko Annupuri’s southern slopes — relaxation spots are never far away. Recommended, too, is the rotenburo (outdoor hot spring) at the nearby Niseko Grand Hotel, which, unusually, is mixed, so families can enjoy an al fresco onsen experience together.