Coronavirus international travel restrictions may have scuttled many a summer vacation plan, but there has never been a better time to embark on a domestic adventure and support local businesses. The Hokkaido town of Niseko, most famed for its snow-capped peaks and popularity as a world-class ski resort, has increasingly become a summer season destination of choice for discerning travelers.
Niseko’s abundance of space is a perfect antidote to close-quartered city spaces and related stressors. Rolling landscapes and pristine waterways are an ideal backdrop for engaging in fun-filled activities or getting some much-needed rest and relaxation while maintaining appropriate social distancing. Temperate climes are a welcome escape from the humid, sticky and languid days that summers elsewhere in Japan typically bring. A dynamic and multifaceted food scene that speaks of plentiful harvests and passionate producers is a significant contributor to Niseko’s appeal.
Getting there and away
Flights connecting Tokyo and Osaka to Niseko run daily and clock in mere hours away. Niseko is located roughly 50 kilometers from the Hokkaido capital,
Sapporo, and is 80 kilometers west of New Chitose Airport. Reaching Niseko from the airport is easiest by car — renting a car allows for a more in-depth exploration of the region — but public transportation is also available.
Mountain views await
Hokkaido’s world-famous wilderness translates to fresh and clean air, idyllic vistas and natural landmarks perfect for stopping and spending time.
Mount Yotei dominates the Niseko landscape. Once the snow melts, its grasslands come alive with blossoms and wildlife. Surrounding hiking trails that vary in length and intensity are ideal for walking and making discoveries, whether taking in the area’s 100 designated alpine flowers or happening upon local wildlife such as mountain hares or Siberian flying squirrels. It is recommended to plan accordingly and be mindful of changes in altitude and weather. Respite can be found at the mountain’s impressive 2-kilometer crater during the height of summer, where spectacular views of farmland and countryside scenery can be seen.
Variety of activities
Summertime visitors to Niseko can further enjoy in lofty heights with a trip to a natural, local attraction that is only “open” at this time of year, the Shinsen Marsh district. The marsh is a distinctive, high-altitude wetlands located on a plateau 750 meters above sea level and inaccessible during times of snow. Trails fashioned out of wooden boardwalks traverse the area’s numerous ponds. The area is famed for wildflowers such as lilies and irises, but if timed right, visitors may possibly have the marsh to themselves. This is considered fitting as the origin of the marsh’s name is said to evoke an aura of mystery (shin) and hermitude (sen). Walking and hiking maps are available from local information centers and some places of accommodation.
Down below, waterways such as the Shiribetsu River are the setting for kayaking, canoeing, stand up paddleboarding, rafting, fishing and swimming. Such water-filled, leisurely pursuits are ideal for those concerned about maintaining distance and safety and want to have fun and perhaps keep fit.
There’s a great cycling culture to be found in Niseko — slow and leisurely — where old tracks have been converted to bike trails, allowing riders to coast between popular spots and enjoy nature on the way. There are also steeper climbs for the altitude-minded adventurer; in previous years, Niseko has hosted endurance and other cycling competitions. These events attract both enthusiasts and casual visitors alike.
Hiking and trekking, water sports, road cycling, golf, fishing and more — as temperatures increase in Niseko, so does the number of outdoor activities that visitors can choose from. All fitness levels are catered to, whether one participates in a relaxing game of golf or embarks on a journey of long-distance cycling against a changing backdrop of alpine scenery.
Photographers will delight in displays of sunflower blooms and other expansive landscapes, with plenty of opportunities to indulge in their hobby.
Hot spring relaxation
At the end of an eventful day spent in the great outdoors there is nothing quite like spending some rest and relaxation in the warm geothermal water of a local onsen (hot spring). Niseko is famous for its crystalline waters with unique mineral content and healing properties. Some larger accommodations allow day-use of their onsen, while other establishments offer rooms with private baths.
Hokkaido is said to be the food bowl of Japan, and Niseko’s flourishing food culture has a marked philosophy of remaining simple, sustainable and local. The terroir lends distinctive elements to award-winning sake and wine. Crops planted in spring are harvested and sold at local farmers’ markets and roadside outlets such as Niseko View Plaza Michinoeki and Chokubaikai.
Fruit picking is a popular way of partaking in local delicacies; during summer, visitors can indulge in collecting cherries, blueberries, peaches, prunes and grapes. Succulent corn and tomatoes also make an appearance this time of year.
Local restaurants, their menus bursting with flavor from seasonal produce, are adhering to coronavirus safety measures and precautions. Diners have the option of eating in or grabbing food to go. Establishments cater to all kinds of cuisines, health preferences and budgets.
For people staying in self-contained accommodations and who may be particularly concerned about reducing potential risk, consider available services such as Niseko Gourmet that allow for personalized grocery shopping and menu planning. Local knowledge of the area’s best suppliers, finest ingredients and artisanal produce results in meals and gourmet experiences that may become etched in memory.