Summer is coming to the Japanese archipelago.
Some say Kyoto, trapped as it is like a dumpling in a surrounding skillet of mountains, is unbearable. Others swear the curtains of heat that rise from Tokyo’s concrete sprawl are the summit of swelter. But in the end, it doesn’t matter — summer anywhere south of the Tohoku region brings stupefying temperatures and humidity that will mug you of energy.
What’s worse, on the way from spring to summer, the rainy season lies in ambush. Clothes hang damp in the soup-like air, bananas go brown overnight and umbrellas are little help against roving walls of rain.
Yet up north, looking down on this seasonal gyre, sits Hokkaido. Nearly a third of the size of Honshu but with a only tiny fraction of the population, Hokkaido somehow manages to skip the rainy season altogether and sports summer weather that makes the south look hellish.
In late August last year, I boarded a plane in the Tokyo heat and stepped off 90 minutes later into a cool evening at New Chitose Airport, where I rented a car and headed west, bound for the town of Niseko.
Even at night, you can feel Hokkaido’s wide-open spaces. Where arteries stemming from large cities in the south are almost always crammed with traffic, I saw only a handful of cars over nearly two hours of driving. Of more concern were the clusters of deer by the roadside, threatening with headlit eyes to jump out in front of my car.
Arriving at Setsu-in, a chalet in Niseko built by office design company Scandinavian Modern, which organized my trip, I stepped out of the car and into the still darkness of the countryside.
Winter yes, but summer too?
Niseko, in southwest Hokkaido, is renowned for the kind of high-grade powder snow that is prized by skiers and snowboarders alike.
In the winter months, heavy clouds blow in from the Sea of Japan on cold Siberian winds to dump wet snow on the mountains to the west. By the time those clouds reach Mount Niseko-Annupuri (1,308 meters), the snow is dry and fine. With their progress east blocked by the Fuji-esque volcanic cone of Mount Yotei (1,898 meters), the clouds tend to unload on the town of Niseko to the tune of 10 to 15 meters each year.
A century ago, in the winter of 1918, the Hokkaido University Ski Club made their first ascent of Annupuri with the intent to ski down and, in the 100 years that followed, Niseko and its surrounds have grown in popularity as a ski resort. Today, it rivals the resort of Whistler, Canada, and other top destinations, in its ability to draw enthusiasts from the four corners, but in particular from Australia and New Zealand and, more recently, China and other Asian countries.
But all of that is to the side. The Niseko that I woke up to was warm (but, crucially, not hot), with highs in the mid-20s. The first thing I noticed was the clean air, open roads and forested mountains extending in all directions. The simple fact is this: When it comes to the outdoors, you’ll be hard pressed to find a place in Japan with more to do.
Pleasant to say the least
First up was a trip to the Kutchan Valley between Mount Annupuri and Mount Yotei to Rhythm Japan, an all-purpose sporting store that offers everything from guided tours to paddle board and mountain bike rentals, plus excellent coffee.
Together with Glen Claydon, my photographer and guide, and Tom Phillips, the manager at Rhythm, I loaded a van with SUPs (stand-up paddle boards) and headed for a stretch of the nearby Shiribetsu River.
SUPing, for the uninitiated, is an elegant and noble pursuit. Similar to surfboards but thicker, wider and built for stability, SUPs are ridden with feet planted side by side in a wide stance. The paddle’s single-bladed oar is of similar composition to those used for kayaks, but the shaft is long, to accommodate the standing position, and has a handle like a canoe paddle.
Gliding past farmland and forest as the mountains looked on afforded time to reflect. There really is something different about Hokkaido. Even today, it retains a frontier feel. The Japanese essence begins to bleed into something else — what remains of the indigenous Ainu culture perhaps — and beyond that into raw, unbridled wilderness. Like other outlying areas such as Okinawa and the Ogasawara Islands, Hokkaido can feel a little like another country.
Exploring like a local
Hailing from Bedford, UK, Phillips has spent six winters in Niseko as a backcountry guide and has lived there since 2015. He’s seen the changes brought by recent investment and development in the town and its ski resorts, citing price increases on one hand and better shopping and the new Niseko International Clinic, which has English-speaking staff, on the other. In other words, Niseko’s off season is increasingly “on.”
“At any weekend across the summer months there’s a festival of some kind. The Hirafu matsuri (festival) has the best selection of food, but the Iwanai or Furubira festivals are a feast for the eyes and can add a really authentic touch if you make the effort to get out of the Niseko bubble,” says Phillips, adding that his favorite summer activity is exploring the rugged Hokkaido coastline.
With no time to lose, Claydon took us on a tour of the nearby mountains by car, highlighting the abundance of hiking around Niseko. At one point we stopped to follow a footpath to a waterfall. I edged my way under pounding water that was mind-numbingly, breathtakingly cold. This is what being out of Tokyo is all about.
Our next stop was Shinsen-numa marsh to the northwest, a serene wetland that can be traversed on elevated boardwalks (much of which is wheelchair- and stroller-friendly) and features brilliant views that will interest bird-watchers and nature enthusiasts of all stripes. On our way back, we stopped at Oyunuma pond, a natural hot spring that bubbles away like a cauldron. Speaking of thermal wonders, Niseko has no shortage of onsen baths — there are too many good ones to recommend, but Makkari Onsen is a good place to start.
After a full day, I returned to Setsu-in and was able to inspect it in the fading light. From the outside, the chalet is in stark contrast to the A-frame lodges to either side. Its mysteriously minimal gray exterior gives way to the warm welcome of wood inside, with Japanese touches like a genkan (vestibule) and nakaniwa (inner courtyard). It has the clean lines of traditional design, a full kitchen and an overhead shower that feels like rain. Setsu-in is a base fit for a king (or six of them) and I made a mental note to return in winter.
So much to do, so little time
On my last day I was spoiled for choice. Though I’m not a golfer, Niseko is a mecca for the sport, leveraging one of Hokkaido’s most important natural resources: open space.
There’s horse riding, too, or kayaking on Lake Toya to the south, as well as the option to navigate rivers in rafts, tubes or a quirky two-man craft called a ducky. Families can pick fruit, and Niseko’s restaurants, including the excellent An Dining, often feature fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
Pressed for time, I opted for a visit to Pure at Niseko Village, whose 1.4-kilometer zip-line tour is Japan’s longest. After a short safety course I was careering through the trees, trying to drop a ball into a bin 10 meters below. Soon it felt safe to do spins, and in no time I made the transition from crashing into the landing pads to delicately pushing off them into the kind of jump that’s usually only possible on the moon. Not quite as thrilling as paragliding off Annupuri (also something you can do), but it sure beat office work in the city.
Rounding off my final afternoon, we returned to Rhythm to take some mountain bikes for a quick spin in the foothills. I’d always imagined the sport to be jarring, but the bike’s shocks made for smooth sailing, and each time we looked up to take bearings, Mount Yotei loomed large.
My time was up — we were done before we really got in gear. I made another mental note: I had to come back, to finish the biking I’d just started, plus a dozen other sports.
From New Chitose Airport in Sapporo, Hokkaido Access Network busses run 10 times daily to Niseko. A one-way ticket costs ¥4,000. A number of rental car providers operate out of the airport. New Chitose Airport connects directly to airports across Japan and internationally to airports across Southeast Asia. For equipment hire and summer tours, visit Rhythm Japan at www.rhythmjapan.com. Stays at Setsu-in can be reserved at niseko-setsuin.com.