Japan during the summer months is hot. Brutally hot. That’s one of the reasons we decided to visit Niseko in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. The other reasons? Recreation and food.
Many know Niseko for its super powdery snow, a gift from cold fronts from Siberia. Like Aspen, Vail or Park City, this ski resort is also an excellent summer destination.
During our visit, it was 15 degrees cooler than Tokyo and Kyoto and far less humid. In my family’s five days in the region, we went rafting, hiking, cycling and took advantage of the mineralized thermal springs known as onsen. The best part? The elevation is a mere 1308.5 meters, This means that there is no altitude to contend with.
Hokkaido, Japan’s least developed prefecture, is filled with farms and grazing pastures. So, you’ll find standout produce and dairy as well as killer seafood. We ate at the many izikaya (low key bistros) feasting on sashimi and Wagyu beef. Al fresco Japanese BBQs-think succulent marinated lamb and local vegetables-served at the foot of the mountain was another home run. The creamy soft serve ice cream catapulted everyone into dairy nirvana.
We spent a few nights at the stylish Kimamaya, a 9 room boutique hotel right in Hirafu town with easy access to shops, bars and restaurants. The vibe was so relaxed that sailing down the stairs for coffee in my robe was encouraged, something you should absolutely not do in Tokyo!
Then, we moved to Zaborin, a stunning ryokan tucked into the Hanazono forest. Ryokans are traditional inns where a stay is about experiencing authentic Japanese culture often with no frills. Zaborin presented a luxurious, high concept take on this experience. The property has a lovely library and sitting room with many nooks and crannies offering panoramic vistas of the mountains. My husband and I slept in a western style bed with fluffy accoutrements while our daughters stayed on futons in their own area that could be privatized by closing Shoji screen doors. There were comfortable pajamas to be worn around the property-even to the fine dining restaurant- along with specific slippers. (Wearing pajamas to dinner is a trend I would like to jumpstart to start in the USA). Each room had an indoor and outdoor onsen. Soaking outdoors surrounded by chirping birds and exotic trees is invites living in the moment. I wish that I could tap into that feeling in my everyday life. A stay also includes a kaiseki meal, a multi-course fine dining experience where the chef showcases seasonality, textures, colors and the food of the region, in this case, seafood.
Another thing we loved: the lack of crowds. We didn’t need dinner reservations. We were solo on hiking trails. We were the only guests at Kimamaya, one of the most popular hotels during the winter season. Here’s what I know: Summertime in Niseko is on-the-verge. In another few years, Americans will flock to the pristine forests and lakes. I’m happy to have experienced it pre-trending.