Mention “Niseko” and most people familiar with Japan will attest to its white wintery wilderness and abundant powder snow. Though most famed for its glamorous ski season, this mountain resort town has a secret: It is equally beautiful, if not more so, during summer.
Warm, breezy days transform into crisp, brisk nights. The snowy slopes of Mount Yotei, said to resemble a mini Mount Fuji, are replaced with undulating fields of green. Wildlife sightings make the heart feel alive again and unspoiled nature soothes the soul.
Niseko lies approximately 50 kilometers southwest of the Hokkaido capital of Sapporo, and is 80 kilometers west of New Chitose Airport. Flights connecting Tokyo and Osaka are mere hours away, with shinkansen journeys from Tokyo to nearby Hakodate taking about four hours. International flights to Asia also abound.
Nicknamed the “Aspen of Asia,” such is Niseko’s popularity — it is said that people come for the winter but end up staying for the summer — that the summer events calendar for this famed ski resort town has seen exponential growth. Activities shift from snow sports to mountain biking, cycling tours and tournaments, hiking and trekking once the weather warms up.
Others include paddle boarding, rafting, ziplines, family-friendly camps and lazy rides on summer gondolas to the top of beautiful Mount Yotei and Mount Annupuri. Sweeping views of Niseko and beyond greet those who make the ascent up the Grand Hirafu Summer Gondola (open from mid-July), as does the reward of reclining on a sofa bed at the top.
Joyriding with the pros
Conditions in Niseko are ideal for cycling. Its roads are seemingly endless, but have enough variation to hold rider interest. The area’s temperate climate and relative lack of humidity is also a bonus for those engaging in the sport.
The Niseko Yotei Circuit Fun Ride is an annual event designed to bring the enjoyment back into cycling. Featuring courses ranging from 56 to 175 kilometers, participants circumnavigate Mount Yotei at their own pace and experience some of the best scenery Niseko has to offer. With emphasis on the “fun,” the course has been devised with the input of racing professional Masatoshi Ichikawa. The 2019 event takes place on July 7, with a follow-up event on July 8, the Onsen Panorama Ride, touring hot springs found in the areas around Rankoshi and Niseko.
Riders with a more competitive bent are advised to take note of the 2019 Niseko Classic (July 6 to 7). Open to riders over the age of 16 and this year expected to attract around 1,500 riders from all over the world, the 70 and 140-kilometer races are official UCI Gran Fondo World Series qualifier events supervised by the Japan Cycling Federation. Both races finish at the Niseko Hirafu Resort and there are prizes for all age categories.
The Niseko Classic Festival is held on the same weekend at the race’s main venue, with various food stands and fun attractions for children.
Held a week later on July 14 at Niseko Grand Hirafu, the 2019 Strider Enjoy Cup is a race designed especially for junior riders aged up to 6 years old.
Water thrills and spills
The Niseko region is one of the top areas for canoeing, paddle boarding, rafting and kayaking in Hokkaido. An incredible variety of white-water experiences — from first-timer mild, to thrill-seeker wild — is available. Niseko’s Shiribetsu River offers plenty of opportunities for beginners and advanced rafters to explore her 126-kilometer waters. One of Japan’s most pristine rivers, enthusiasts can traverse the waterway while taking in some of Hokkaido’s most spectacular scenery.
Par for the course
Golf is one of Niseko’s most popular non-snow activities. The season runs roughly from April to October, with the number of golfers escaping the humidity of southern Japan and Asian countries increasing each year. Hokkaido’s temperate climate is also said to be ideal for cultivating the lush golf grounds. While golfers are spoiled for choice and can choose from nine golf courses located within 45 minutes of Hirafu in central Niseko, three central options are proving popular among enthusiasts.
The resort-like Niseko Village Golf Course is a par-73, 6,845-yard course that is said to be suitable for all golfers, while the Arnold Palmer designed par-72, 6,805-yard Niseko Golf Course is a short drive from Niseko Village. The Hanazono Golf Course features an 18-hole par-72 course, along with an array of water features and stunning vistas of Mount Yotei and the surrounding Annupuri mountain range.
From mellow paths to woodland trails to hiking paths up the Niseko mountains that outdoor types love to ski down in the winter months — Niseko has treks and trails for all. The views from the top of Mount Annupuri are nothing short of spectacular. Standing at approximately 1,898 meters above sea level, the steeper Mount Yotei is definitely a challenge for more adventurous types. The circuit track around Lake Hangetsu, which sits at the foot of the mountain is a simpler alternative and makes for a relatively easier yet still scenic hike.
Early August sees downtown Niseko revel in matsuri, or festival activities, her streets crowded with participants for two of the area’s most popular events. The Kutchan potato festival or jaga matsuri celebrates the area’s most iconic vegetable. Said to attract around 40,000 visitors, a highlight of the event is a massive dance featuring 1,000 people.
Also popular is Niseko’s annual fireworks festival. Held at the Niseko Town Athletic Park, this year the event is slated to take place on Aug. 3. Fireworks are a summer tradition in Japan, and at Niseko the dazzling colors illuminate the skies, providing spectators with a magnificent display.