There are probably lots of very technical ways to measure the maturity of holiday resort areas. But in the case of ski resorts, the simplest – and most accurate – test is to look at how many visitors they attract in the period between winters. Whistler, it is now said, has more visitors in the summer than in the winter.
In Niseko, the non-summer period is shorter than many competing ski areas, with snow sports generally possible from mid-to-late November right through to late April. And with phase-in and phase-out periods at either end, the Spring/Summer/Autumn period offers a very exciting range of leisure possibilities that are at last being well promoted – and recognised by holidaymakers looking for a vacation with a difference.
Some adventure businesses based in Niseko are now reporting annual growth in the summer visitor market of more than 15%. So it is safe to say that Niseko really is now on its way to real year-round international resort status. It is the volume of off-season business which really inspires investors to put money into infrastructural development that in turn reinforces the winter season and completes the cycle of success.
Niseko built its well deserved reputation among foreign visitors because of its seemingly endless supply of magical powder snow, which is a commodity not normally associated with images of Asia. But it is Niseko’s proximity to Siberia – sort of like standing in front of a giant refrigerator with the door open – that makes it so unique. When the north-west monsoon blows outwards in winter over the narrow stretch of water that separates Hokkaido from the Asian mainland, it picks up just the subtlest amount of moisture which falls as that all that wonderful, fluffy white stuff out there.
In the summer time, the reverse weather pattern occurs, with the Asian mainland sucking in cool air from the North Pacific Ocean, passing right over Hokkaido and dramatically moderating the stifling humidity that characterises most of Asia in during the warmer months of the year.
The Japanese have known this for a long time, and have made Hokkaido the number one domestic summer holiday destination during the period from June to August. They travel all over the island, of course, but for anyone reading this who’d like to put a toe in the water and
try Hokkaido out of ski season, you don’t have to go very far from the comfort of Hirafu, Higashiyama, Annupuri or Hanazono to experience a holiday filled with fun, adventure, and sheer scenic beauty.
With such a great supply of excellent accommodation now available in the area, it is possible to enjoy rafting, fishing and swimming in pristine, crystal clear streams in the summer, go mountain biking or trail riding – or simply road cycling – on safe, low-traffic roads in cool clean air, paraglide from some of Mt Annupuri’s higher points, simply relax in the areas many outdoor onsen (hot spring) baths, or go exploring local fishing villages and traditional port towns like Iwanai and Otaru.
In spring, which brings an explosion of amazingly fresh shades to the surrounding forests, most of these activities overlap with the end of the snow. So you can seriously contemplate having an early morning ski/board, a raft ride down the river early afternoon, and a mountain bike ride and soothing onsen to round out the day.
Between summer and winter, you can take out the skiing out of the equation, but all the rest can be indulged in one of the most spectacular red, yellow and gold autumn environments to be found in this part of the world.
The local Japanese are the same friendly, helpful people all year round, and – with seasonal variations – the food is the ‘icing on the cake’, as it were.
In later editions we’ll look at seasonal holiday travel opportunities further afield in Hokkaido, but we can guarantee that nobody will be disappointed by starting within the comfort zone of Niseko.