A back-to-nature hotspot on the island of Hokkaido

The volcanic cone of Mt Yotei, Hokkaido island’s very own version of Mt Fuji, dominates the landscape almost everyone where you go in Niseko, a collection of four resort villages at the foot of Mt Niseko-Annupuri, around two hours’ drive west of Sapporo. Renowned for its powdery snow (and lots of it) in winter, as well as its gastronomy, architecture and cosmopolitan vibe, in summer Niseko transforms into a paradise for back-to-nature fans and those escaping the heat of Asia’s capitals.

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From powdery snow to an alpine retreat

From November to May, Niseko is blanketed in up to 15 meters of snow, drawing skiers and snowboarders to the 47km of groomed pistes that criss-cross Mt Niseko-Annupuri and link the four resorts of Hirafu, Hanazono, Annupuri and Niseko Village.

The terrain is varied with long runs, moguls, snow parks and wooded areas. You can trudge to the peak of Mt Niseko-Annupuri (1,308m) in 20-minutes from gate 3 at the resort boundary. Be sure to stop for a hot chocolate at the Lookout Café, a short snow-plough from the Niseko Gondola, with its contemporary slatted-wood interior. On the descent, order a katsudon (a bowl of rice topped with a pork cutlet, egg and vegetables) at Boyo-so, the oldest hut on the mountain.

Off the back of Mt Niseko-Annupuri is backcountry heaven (Niseko is awash with English-speaking guides who can accompany you), and the wider area also offers cat skiing, snow kiting and cross-country skiing. Non skiers can fill their days snowmobiling, snowshoeing and tobogganing, while families should head for the tubing park at Hanazono or the kids’ park, in Grand Hirafu, which has sledges, snow strider balance bikes and tubes.

In summer, Niseko becomes a green mountain idyll with sunflower fields, cattle grazing and lots of hikers, mountain bikers and road cyclists (the Tour de Hokkaido passes through every September). The road cycling loop of Mt Yotei is recommended for its picturesque viewpoints, traditional homes and a mountain spring on the south side where you can fill up your water bottle and try a slither of fresh tofu at the adjacent workshop. For hikers, it’s a six-hour climb to the top.

There is off-road cycling through woodland along the Shiribetsu River, white-water rafting on its meltwaters, and canyoning in its tributaries. Sea kayaking on the Sea of Japan, in the Niseko-Shakotan-Otaru Kaigan Quasi National Park, is a magical way to spend half a day. Afterwards, take a dip in an onsen: the Hilton Niseko’s rotenburo (open-air hot spring) has an uninterrupted view of Mt Yotei.
If Hokkaido is ‘the breadbasket of Japan’, producing much of the country’s staple food products, then Niseko is its culinary capital. Restaurants of note include 12-seat Rakuichi Soba, run by soba master Tatsuru Rai (queue early and order the duck soba); Kamimura, a Michelin-star French restaurant by chef Yuichi Kamimura which has a children’s menu; and for ambience, The Barn by Odin, a bistro built as a modern glass and steel version of a Dutch-roof barn (order the flame-grilled Wagyu sushi). Say ‘kanpai’ with a thimble of Niseko Shuzo, the local sake, or a Nikka Whisky from the historic (and open to the public) Yoichi Distillery in nearby Yoichi city.

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