With its world-class ski resorts and incredible powder, the village of Niseko on the Japanese island of Hokkaido gets a lot of attention in the winter. But northern Japan is a great destination year-round, and the area’s snow-capped peaks aren’t the only reason to venture to this end of the Japanese archipelago. To get the scoop on all kinds of adventures waiting for you in the land of the rising sun, check out “100 Experiences in Japan,” a comprehensive guide book recently released by the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). Organized by seven passion points, including the outdoors and nature, it’s the perfect introduction to the country’s unique regions and natural wonders.
Niseko is synonymous with skiing, but if you only travel there in the winter, you’re missing out. In the summer you’ll find a more laid-back atmosphere, fewer crowds, and a wealth of outdoor activities, including mountain biking, river rafting, hiking and more. And Niseko is big on culture, too: Make sure to put a traditional tea ceremony and world-famous soba noodles on your list. Read on for your guide to all that the area has to offer in the summertime.
What to Do
Finding your way in a foreign country can be tricky, but in Niseko, you’ll always have a guide: Just download the official Niseko app. From transportation info to restaurant and bar guides, the app has everything you need to explore the area. Download it before your trip to access a wealth of local knowledge right at your fingertips.
Niseko is an adventurer’s paradise, with lots of ways to get your adrenaline pumping. Start off with a rafting trip on the Shiribetsu River, one of Japan’s clearest rivers. When the temps start to rise in the spring, all that powder that skiers and snowboarders love turns to meltwater, creating Class III and even Class IV rapids. Head over to Hanazono Niseko Resort to book a guided rafting trip and paddle your way through the waves and whitewater. If you’re looking for a more mellow rafting experience, try visiting later in the summer when there’s less meltwater and the river is a little more tame.
Rivers aren’t the only way to get on the water in Niseko—it’s on an island, after all. Explore the stunning crystal blue waters of the Sea of Japan with a guided kayak or SUP tour from NAC. All of the tours take place in the sheltered bay near Otaru, which is famed for its dazzling water quality and the massive cliffs and colorful tidepools near the shore. Paddling is the best way to get up close to these natural wonders (and get a good workout while you’re at it).
Not looking to paddle? Running, swimming, and biking are also great ways to enjoy Niseko’s surroundings in the summer. Just look at the region’s stacked race calendar: The 2020 Olympic marathon will be held in Sapporo (about three hours away from Niseko by train and car), the Hokkaido Triathlon is returning in August, and the area is home to the Niseko Classic, an elite road bike race that’s part of the UCI Gran Fondo World Series.
While you can’t just waltz into the Olympics, those latter two events are a great way to spice up your trip with some friendly competition. Sign up for the Hokkaido Triathlon (held on Aug. 23) for your chance to swim in the crystal-clear waters of Lake Toya and then bike and run along winding country roads. For a first-time visitor, there’s no better way to explore Niseko’s unique towns and natural landmarks while also pushing your limits. For cyclists, the Niseko Classic is a can’t-miss event. It’s held on June 12-14 and includes a 9.3-mile time trial, a 52.8-mile course, and a 93-mile course. You can also opt for the Niseko Yotei Fun Ride to experience the event at your own pace. Either way, it’s the perfect opportunity to see the picturesque countryside around towering Mt. Yotei. But you don’t have to sign up for a race to experience all this natural beauty: There are plenty of great running and riding routes for a solo trip as well.
If trails are more your thing, there’s plenty of dirt to explore around Niseko, too. Niseko Mt. Resort Grand Hirafu converts its ski slopes into an epic downhill mountain bike course and a flow course in the summer (they’re open from mid-July to late September). Head up on the gondola to access both, and make sure to carve out time to take in the expansive panoramic views at the top. The flow trails are great for beginners, and the downhill course, which descends over 1,500 feet, should provide a worthy challenge for more experienced riders. The resort even offers e-mountain bike rentals, so you don’t have to bring your own bike. For all your other bike needs, check out Rhythm Japan, which has a big fleet of rentals available, from full-suspension MTBs to road bikes and more.
After all that, you’ll probably work up an appetite. Luckily, there are lots of dining options in and around Niseko, including everything from traditional Japanese fare to Western favorites like burgers and pizza. But you can’t leave the island of Hokkaido without trying some of its famed soba noodles, and Rakuichi Soba is one of the best places to get them. This small, 12-seat restaurant is run by Tatsuru Rai and his wife Midori, and all of the noodles are made fresh to order. The service is classic Japanese—the staff is clad in white kimonos, Midori handwrites the menu each day, and the dishes feature local ingredients from the surrounding countryside. The family’s other restaurant, Karabina, is also worth a stop for its extensive selection of sake and shochu.
Another way to immerse in the local culture is with a visit to Somoza, a gallery, event space, and cafe/restaurant in the Hanazono Hills outside the town of Kutchan. All of it is housed in a repurposed kominka, a traditional Japanese wooden structure with a thatched roof. Inside, you can shop a rotating array of books, cards, gifts and other products, stop by for one of the series of talks and workshops, or take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in the space’s dedicated tea room.
How to Get There
There are frequent flights to New Chitose Airport (located near the city of Sapporo) from Tokyo. From there, it’s a three-hour bus or taxi ride to Niseko. You can also take a train, although there’s no direct service from the airport into Niseko.
Where to Stay
Your hotel options in Niseko just got a big upgrade. The Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono opened this year, and it offers a wide range of tastefully appointed rooms with expansive views of Mt. Niseko-Annapuri and Mt. Yotei. Do yourself a favor and book one of the signature suites, which feature their own private onsen. Guests can also take advantage of the hotel’s exclusive access to the nearby Hanazono Golf Course, or book a guided mountain bike or river rafting tour, too.
The Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Niseko Village is scheduled to be finished in 2020, and open soon thereafter. It’s located right in the center of town, but still offers easy access to the surrounding mountains and resorts. It’s a great pick if you’re looking for a more intimate feel: At just 50 rooms, this hotel is designed to provide a one-of-a-kind experience for its guests.
For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!