See Hokkaido's Niseko without its famous snow
The famed ski resort in Hokkaido has thrills and great views to offer even during the warmer months
Published on Apr 9, 2014 6:56 AM
Skiiers and snowboarders might find it strange to head in summer to Niseko, on the island of Hokkaido, famed for the powdery snow of its mountain range. Yet, the Japanese resort town in warmer months offers big-air thrills of its own - from tree-trekking and ziplining to sampling breath-taking uni and drinking whisky.
From June to October, the views there are no less stunning, with lush greenery and majestic mountains providing a picturesque backdrop to Niseko Village, as well as the neighbouring towns of Shakotan, Otaru and Yoichi, havens for fresh seafood, shopping and adventure sports.
I stay at the family-friendly Hilton Niseko Village (niseko.hilton.com, tel: +81-136-44-1111), which is open the whole year round. (Nearby, The Green Leaf Niseko Village - both are owned by YTL Hotels - opens only during the winter season, to cater to ski enthusiasts.)
Pure (niseko-village.com, tel: +81-136-44-2211) organises a number of fun activities within the Hilton Niseko Village's grounds.
Get the Pure Super Passport (4,200 yen or S$51 for adults 16 years old and above, 3,200 yen for children) that gives you unlimited play on 11 attractions, which include kite-flying and obstacle courses.
The adventure junkie in me is thrilled with the tree- trekking course, where you walk along hanging bridges, cling for dear life to ropes and swing from one platform to another.
There is an elementary and an advanced course (subject to height limit, minimum 110cm for elementary and minimum 140cm for advanced), both of which have their own challenges, such as balancing on wobbly platforms no bigger than my feet.
I am exhausted after taking just over an hour to complete both courses.
Another must-try activity is the Pure Zipline tour (4,000 yen for adults, 3,500 yen for children, minimum height of 120cm) that covers a distance of 1.4km through open fields and forests.
At its highest point, the line is 20m above ground. There are 10 lines in total and there are local tourists from other parts of Japan also trying out the tour.
I get harnessed before I get on the line (there is no safety net) and two local guides patiently explain each section to me.
Some include fun elements, such as trying to toss a ball into a basket on the ground while zipping past on the line (not as easy as I thought).
Other parts have you ziplining in parallel pairs, becoming a competition to see who can zipline faster while taking in the view of the majestic Mount Yotei in the distance.
Other obstacle courses in the Pure Action section look deceptively simple and remind me of kiddy bouncy castles because of how it is technically one big air cushion.
Think twice, however. There are no harnesses when you climb or free-fall. Whatever bravado I have evaporates as the guides demonstrates the "correct" way to land safely on the cushions. I cannot land properly - the right way is on my derriere, not feet - and I don't last more than half an hour on the course.
If strenuous outdoor activities are not your thing, head for relaxing day trips to the Shakotan Peninsula or Otaru Canal.
The fishing town of Shakotan is home to the freshest uni or sea urchin. The best harvest is during June and July.
For a hearty seafood lunch, go to Fuji Zushi (tel: +81-135-44-2016, 11am to 9pm daily), for fresh uni and sashimi. The restaurant chain, which originated in Otaru, is open only in Hokkaido. A menu highlight is its trio of rice bowls (2,840 yen), each topped with a different ingredient: sea urchin, pearls of salmon roe and fresh crab meat. For me, that pretty much sums up the main beauty of Hokkaido's seafood.
From Fuji Zushi, it is just a short hike to the panoramic views of the Shakotan Peninsula's seaside and fishing village.
Afterwards, head over to Otaru Canal, considered the Venice of Hokkaido. There, you can sightsee, shop and, well, eat some more.
Go on a romantic stroll along the 1,140m-long canal, built in 1923 after nine years of construction.
Or walk along the main shopping belt of Sakaimachihondori Street, which has many local confectioneries, glasswork shops and wine boutiques. Look out for Le Tao (7-16 Sakaimachi, www.letao.jp, tel: +81134-31-4500), which is known for its lush and soft cheesecake (1,575 yen for a whole 12cm cake).
In the next town of Yoichi, which is best known for its Nikka Whisky Distillery (7-6 Kurokawa-cho, Yoichi-cho, 9am to 5pm daily, except New Year holidays), a free on-site museum showcases how the local whisky is made and offers tastings (charges apply, from 2,200 yen for 180ml). The museum also showcases a range of limited-edition Nikka Whisky bottles.
One could also go fruit picking at Yamamoto Sightseeing Orchard (www.fruits-yamamoto.net/en) in Yoichi (from 1,050 yen for adults and 840 yen for students). The orchard has seasonal fruit such as strawberries, prunes, grapes, peaches and apples, and for one hour, I stroll through it trying to find the sweetest specimens. By the end of my quest, I am reduced to a slobbery mess, with juice running down my arms.
Seeing members of our travelling party chomping on bunches of grapes at a go, our local guide and fourth-generation owner Hideomi Tsuchiai advises us to try just one grape from a bunch to see if it is ripe, instead of trying to finish a whole clutch of sour grapes.
If you are not too full by this point, head to Milk Kobo Cafe (www.milk-kobo.com, 9.30am to 6pm daily, tel: +81-136-44-3734) for the best cream puffs and desserts.
The puffs (180 yen each) are so generously filled with cream - no empty pockets of air - that one is definitely not enough. For a satisfying tea break, order the soft serve ice cream (250 yen for a single scoop) and cheesecake (from 150 yen) as well.
In the cool weather, the Niseko landscape lacks the serene beauty of stark white snow, but that is made up for by vistas of lush green fields, complete with photogenic tractors and hay stacks.
For a glimpse of the local market, go to the Farmer's Market Niseko Viewplaza (www.facebook.com/ viewplaza, open from April to October, 8.30am to 6pm daily; November to April, 9am to 5pm), bustling with villagers buying sweet melons, odd-shaped pumpkins, fresh vegetables and special homemade jams and juices - all Hokkaido produce.
Of course, for those days when you just want to stay in, the Hilton Niseko Village has dining options such as Sisam Japanese Restaurant; Melt, Bar and Grill; and Ezo Pub, as well as golf and an onsen or hot spring.
Summer vacation in a popular winter spot? Not so far-fetched after all.
The writer's trip was sponsored by YTL Hotels.
The Pure activities are currently under renovation and will reopen from June 28 to Oct 13 (9am to 5pm daily; except Aug 9 to 17, until 6pm; and Oct 1 to 13, until 4pm).
All Nippon Airways (ANA) flies seven times a week to Tokyo's Haneda Airport from Singapore.
From Tokyo, a connecting flight to Sapporo's New Chitose Airport takes 11/2 hours - making it about an 81/2-hour journey in total.
Once in Sapporo, the capital of the island of Hokkaido, it takes about three hours by car to get to Hilton Niseko Village.
Break up the car ride, if you wish, by stopping at Mushroom Kingdom (637-1 Otaki-ku Sangaitaki-cho), an eatery specialising in locally farmed mushrooms, to eat piping hot ramen and buy some of the fungi, which also come in bottled, dried and tea forms.
The hotel can arrange for Pure's adventure activities and can assist with car rentals and day tours to Shakotan and Otaru.