The gondola lifts are churning uphill in Niseko, Asia’s premier ski destination – but there’s not a patch of snow in sight. It’s a hot summer day. And those journeying uphill are not carrying skis or snowboards, but mountain bikes. At the top, challenging downhill dirt paths await.
‘Since Niseko has already got a name in winter for ski and action sports, it’s easy to transfer that lifestyle to summer,’ says Claude Balsiger, director of Allegra Tourismus, the Swiss company that developed Niseko’s mountain biking infrastructure. ‘Australia, New Zealand, North America and the Alps, they’re already far ahead in mountain bike tourism. But in Asia there’s still not much around. Niseko could be known as Asia’s most successful mountain bike resort within five years.’
But let’s back up. Just 20 years ago, Japan would not have entered many conversations about ski holidays, let alone mountain biking. Over the past decade, turbo-charged by barely believable images and videos beamed around the world via social media, it has come to the skiing world’s attention that Japan gets a lot of snow. How it remained a secret for so long is a bit of a mystery, but it might have something to do with the fact the Japanese themselves didn’t realise what a sought-after natural resource they had to offer to increasingly snow-starved skiers from other parts of the world.
While skiers and snowboarders in Asia can now rejoice that there are world-class slopes just a short flight away, Niseko offers something else to get excited about: its green season. When skiing wraps up in early May, the lower elevations are taken over by dense green vegetation, and skis and snowboards are replaced by mountain bikes and hiking boots. Niseko transforms into an outdoor adventure hotspot, complete with all the luxury accommodation available in the winter.
‘Winter is what drew attention to this part of the world, but for me the potential of summer is what is really exciting about Niseko and the rest of Hokkaido,’ says Greg Hough, owner of Explore Niseko, an activity booking agency. Hough says summer tourism has slowly but surely picked up over the past decade, and the range of activities is ever increasing.
When you consider the enjoyment that the snow-covered terrain brings to skiers, it’s easy to understand why mountain bikers get excited on the opposite side of the year. Downhill and cross-country trails criss-cross the mountain and can be accessed via a hardy set of legs or the gondolas, which are fired up in peak summer.
Two years ago, local government officials, having visited Switzerland for research, piloted the construction of a modern mountain bike flow trail on a small ski hill. Flow trails are designed to suit a wide range of skill levels from relative beginners right through to pros. Rather than heading straight down steep mountains, these winding tracks offer a gentle gradient featuring bumps and banked turns, allowing riders to cruise down or attack to their desire and skill level, with minimum pedalling and braking necessary. Following the successful pilot, last summer two new flow trails were built: one on the resort’s main slope, and another winding through lush forest on relatively flat terrain.
But it’s not just mountain biking. Niseko is filled with outdoor fun in the sun after the snow melts. In fact, the first activity to get under way in spring is rafting: 15 metres of winter snowfall needs to go somewhere, and a look at the swollen, rushing Shiribetsu River in April reveals exactly where. The run-off creates whitewater rapids in spring, before subsiding in summer to offer a gentle rafting experience for all ages.
Outdoor family activities abound here. Tree-trekking – which uses elevated adventure courses – has taken off in Niseko in recent years. There are now two courses, one being Japan’s biggest with 100 platforms, all four to eight metres off the ground and connected by bridges, ropes and obstacles. The other incorporates a four-kilometre zipline – the longest in the country. Meanwhile, there are also long treks through the area’s wooded trails up Mount Annupuri or Mount Yotei – legendary among skiers for their snowfields in winter but part of many hikers’ summer goals.
Courtesy of NAC Adventures
In the nearby coastal town of Yoichi, just a 30-minute drive away, visitors can experience fruit picking in orchards that offer varying produce at different times of the year. Summer is harvest season for strawberries, cherries, plums and peaches. Yoichi, long known for its whisky production, is also home to a promising wine industry, with winery tours available. And those seeking outstanding meals won’t be disappointed. Covered by tracts of farmland and surrounded by pristine coastline offering an abundance of fresh seafood, Hokkaido is known across the country as the food bowl of Japan. So, as well as a sense of adventure, visitors to Niseko in the green season are advised to also bring a healthy appetite.
Air Rabbit / Getty Images
Finally, underlying all the activities and luxuries on offer is the sheer beauty of this heavily forested region dotted with lakes. Mount Yotei looms majestically over farmland laid out in squares of yellows and greens. ‘There is an endless list of outdoor activities to keep visitors entertained, but the area’s natural assets are a draw card in themselves,’ says Hough. ‘It really is an undiscovered paradise.’
Hilton Niseko Village
This is Niseko’s premier all-season hotel with a golf course, a shopping village, hot spring baths and an adventure park to help the kids work off some energy.
Many units of this new hotel are equipped with kitchens. It’s located in the main village of Hirafu alongside Japan’s biggest tree-trekking course.
Splash out at this Michelin-starred French degustation restaurant, which offers exquisitely prepared and presented dishes made with local produce and seafood.
This lively izakaya restaurant serves all your Japanese favourites – the sukiyaki with Hokkaido seafood is a highlight – as well as seasonal specialities.
Pure Adventure Park
Jump, climb and slide on giant inflatables, walk between trees on elevated platforms, fly along Japan’s longest zipline, go horse riding and more.
Niseko’s top summer tourist attraction, Milk Kobo is a dairy farm with shops, eateries and an ice-creamery. Its cheese tart is a must-try.
Cathay Pacific flies to Sapporo from Hong Kong five times a week