09 Aug Niseko—Japan’s Ski Haven—Is a Dream for Off-Season Adventure
Adventurous travelers are bound by a common goal: to sniff out compelling destinations before they top everyone’s hot list. If you are the type who enjoys the road less traveled—say, cycling through pristine farmland and forests, often without encountering a soul; being the lone American at achingly chic boutique hotels; or uncovering tucked-away eateries with seafood, wagyu, and tempura so otherworldly that Nobu seems ho-hum in comparison—then head to Niseko in Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido.
Like Vail or Aspen, Niseko is a ski resort (revered for it’s perma-perfect powder) whose mountains and rivers transform into an adult playground once the snow dumps melt. Unlike Colorado, the region is on an island. And at low altitude, just 4,300 feet. So visitors profit from crisper temps and alpine recreation without having to deal with altitude acclimation. Another difference: There are no crowds. During the summer, Niseko is not a tourist hot spot. Yet. And that’s a huge part of the allure.
Niseko Adventure Center (NAC) is ground zero for outdoor fun. On tap: guided white-water rafting on the crystal clear Shiribetsu River, sea kayaking in the starfish-speckled Oshoro Bay of Otaru, and canyoning through the waterfalls and moss-coated stones of Sakazuki River canyon. NAC will also organize multiday camping trips or curate a weeklong itinerary. Hiking in these parts is a thrill. Niseko is banked by Mt. Yotei, what locals call Little Fuji, to the east and Mt. Annupuri to the west. Glens of bamboo grass and crater lakes pepper trails around Hangetsu Lake and Shinsen Numa pond. More adventurous types can summit the legendary peaks (a guide is recommended). Atop Yotei, you can navigate the interior volcanic crater, a popular spot for extreme skiing. The rolling hills of Niseko are prime for cycling. Rent bicycles from Niseko Sports and cruise by grazing cows and flowering potato fields with a pit stop at Milk Kobo for Hokkaido’s famed soft serve ice cream. However you recreate, your efforts will be rewarded at lunch: Japanese barbecue of thinly sliced lamb grilled with bean sprouts and cabbage, or ramen soaked in pork bone broth with a thick miso paste, both regional specialties. To cap off the day, hit an onsen, mineral rich Japanese thermal hot springs. Niseko has more than a dozen, many with views of the mountains.
Hirafu Village, at the base of the slopes, is a mash-up of sleek multimillion-dollar condos, modern boutique hotels, retail (Montcler, North Face, Burton), and blizzard-worn wooden shacks turned restaurants and watering holes. The juxtaposition feels slightly rough around the edges, a result of money pouring into a tiny on-the-verge destination (Park Hyatt just broke ground a few miles out of town) that is quickly evolving into a major player in the international ski arena. What it lacks in manicured optics, it makes up for with homespun charm and unexpected bursts of sophistication. Take Kimamaya Hotel; unassuming on the outside, this nine-room, in-town chalet oozes alpine coziness with Nordic-inspired interiors, stone soaking tubs, and an objet-filled communal lounge. Personalized service complements the at-home vibe. To wit: The convivial British manager doubles as concierge, assisting with dinner reservations and activity bookings. Also, guests are issued local mobile phones for easy communication. For a more classic Japanese experience, book Zaborin (about 15 minutes from town), a high-concept, 15-room ryokan that telegraphs a luxurious iteration of Zen from deep within the Hanazono Forest. The space merges contemporary design with tradition—guests wear Japanese house pajamas, dinner is an 11-course kaiseki meal of artfully presented foraged ingredients, and rooms boast an indoor and outdoor onsen.
Hokkaido beef, seafood, and produce are prized throughout Japan. So extraordinary cuisine is the norm, not the exception. There is fine dining at Kamimura; made-to-order soba noodles in the 12-seat Rakuichi; and numerous izakaya, laid-back Japanese gastropubs usually manned by off-duty millennial snowboarders. At Ebisutei, you’ll slug down Sapporo beer, listen to ’70s rock, and tuck into sashimi, tempura, yakitori, and karaage—terrifically crunchy fried chicken. Nagomi Izakaya looks average by day. But when the sun sets, the diminutive backlit A-frame restaurant glows like a bamboo UFO. Inside, hundreds of carved wooden pegs sway from the ceiling, a vision that becomes more interesting when drinking sake. Bang Bang has char-grilled wagyu and local specialties like Akkeshi Kakimon oysters, kinki (rockfish), and roe-stuffed chicken wings. Wash it all down with Nikka cocktails, an award-winning local whiskey.
How to get there: Fly to Sapporo (ANA has frequent flights) and take a 2.5-hour train to Kutchan Station, where your hotel will have arranged pickup. Or rent a car at Chitose (Sapporo) airport.