Stranded in Paradise
COVID-19 has impacted every corner of the globe, and with it has come a slew of strict travel restrictions stranding international tourists for uncertain amounts of time. My name is Andrew Carlander, and I was one such tourist who left home in Singapore to ski in Niseko right before the full onslaught of the pandemic. I was denied re-entry into Singapore in April and ended up being stuck In Niseko for over three months until mid-July! But I consider myself very lucky…Niseko and its neighbouring areas during summer felt like an undiscovered jewel, and I enjoyed every minute of my experience that was so vastly different from the winter season. What may be a secret to most international tourists is indeed common knowledge among locals: Niseko is even more enjoyable during the summer season. I was in fact stranded in paradise.
Following the end of winter, I noticed that there are increasingly purer sunny days that lead to warm daily temperatures. The sprawling hillsides and mountains once blanketed in thick white snow rapidly transform and instead spread a lush green carpet of leaves and other flora as far as the eye can see. Hearing chirping birds every morning is a daily occurrence, and I could literally feel Niseko come alive with new life that seemed to be waiting all winter to emerge. But it’s not just the beautiful wildlife—throughout the streets of Hirafu, outdoor seating areas and pop-up food booths to some of the town’s most popular restaurants spring up and allow for perfect al fresco dining under blue skies. The now-clear, wide-open roads between Hirafu and Kutchan, with the green snow-capped Mount Yotei looming in the distance, provide amazing space for cycling at any pace. And how I can forget the aroma of festive outdoor barbeque gatherings in Hirafu enjoyed between both locals and visitors alike every weekend! Honestly, summer days in Niseko are so perfectly comfortable that I found myself wanting to spend as much time outside as possible. And there were certainly plenty of unique activities and experiences around Niseko to spend all that time while always leaving me wanting more.
My personal favourite summertime place is Lake Toya, which is located an easy 45 minutes southeast of Niseko by car. Relaxing days spent at Lake Toya are commonplace for locals, and for good reason. Situated on a volcanic caldera created thousands of years ago, the lake offers unbelievably crystal-clear waters perfect for boating or swimming with a unique backdrop of plump cone-shaped mountains. I even tried paddle boarding on a particularly warm summertime day; the crisp, cool water splashing on my body while traversing mellow waves in the middle of the sprawling lake was invigorating, and I cannot wait to try it again next time I visit Niseko.
For a tasty and hearty lunch, I always loved venturing to Annupuri’s Yugokorotei. This place is famous for the most delicious “tonkatsu” (Japanese-style pork cutlet) in all of Niseko! My favourite tonkatsu set included Hokkaido pickles, a dollop of mashed potatoes, all-you-can-eat miso soup and salad, and a rich, savoury cutlet dipping sauce that can be added with grinded sesame seeds. It was a perfect combination for the juicy and crunchy cutlet. When finished with the meal, I would always opt to use the outdoor onsen (at a reduced price when coupled with lunch) for a soothingly hot dip. Nestled in the forest under some natural green foliage, the onsen here provides perfect relaxation to cleanse your body and mind. Finally, a stop at Yugokorotei would not be complete without a fresh cone of Hokkaido milk soft-serve ice cream and a chat with the local owners. With warm and hospitable personalities, they are always willing to answer your questions and provide the best possible lunch onsen experience in Niseko.
There is no shortage of mesmerizing natural scenery during summer in Niseko. By far the most spectacular natural site that I visited was Shakotan Peninsula, located roughly 90 minutes directly north of Niseko by car. Offering a 360-degree lookout and extensive walking path, this landmark is characterized by tall seaside cliffs overlooking the endless Sea of Japan. It is also known for pristine emerald-green water that flows and touches the rocky shores below as the sun directly shines on it. I will never forget Shakotan Peninsula’s breath-taking views and the feeling it created as the warm ocean breeze brushed against my face. I also personally recommend stopping by one of the local restaurants in the adjacent town of Shakotan to try ‘uni’, or sea urchin, which is a local delicacy harvested in the region every year. Served raw, the pastel orange-coloured uni complements any rice bowl with a beautifully rich and fresh sea salt taste—so fresh in fact, that the uni I tasted was harvested right before my meal!
Towards the end of my stay, I drove approximately one hour northeast by car to the nearby town of Yoichi. During summer, Yoichi is a very popular destination among locals because it contains many fruit-picking farms. Here you can pick several different types of delicious fruits, including plum, apple, and cherry. On this particular day, I journeyed to pick cherries during its peak harvest period and was surrounded by hundreds of magnificent cherry trees with countless dangling, ripe cherries. Truth be told, these were the most delicious cherries I had ever tasted and I left the farm with my stomach about to burst!
Being stranded in Niseko during a large portion of the summer season was a true blessing in disguise. Though I left Niseko feeling a tinge of sadness, this feeling was short-lived as I knew I would return again in the future. I am officially hooked on summer in Niseko.