In our second part of a glance at golf we look at another 3 fantastic courses in the Niseko area, Fukui (Niseko Golf Course), Hilton and Niseko Golf & Resort. These 3 great courses are all easily accessible from Hirafu and the journey to Niseko Golf and Resort a charming scenic drive through rural Japan.
The first of the 3 is Niseko Golf Course, known by locals as Fukui due to it's location in the district.
The Hilton is the second course featured and is one of the area's most popular, in part due to its close proximity to Hirafu and the Hilton Hotel where it is located in Higashiyama / NIseko Village.
Hiking options in Niseko are endless, whether you enjoy hiking trails in the summer or you are looking for a bottomless powder experience in the depths of winter. We recently went for a mix of the two, hiking Mt Weiss in the last week of April.
Weiss is a smaller mountain to the north west of Mt Annupuri which is home to the Hirafu, Hanazono, Niseko Village and Annupuri ski fields. It was once operated as a skifield and still has the original lift system from this time which is now rusty and defunct.
Weiss is now home to a cat skiiing operation, Niseko Weiss Powder Cats run by the Hanazono company. The sking here during the winter is excellent with plenty of powder and lines down the old ski runs that were cut for the original ski field. The terrain here is oriented toward those beginning to ski powder and intermediate skiiers and boarders looking for all you can eat powder! A days cat skiing here will literally provide you with an entire mountain of fun.
Above we see the view to the east starring Mt Yotei, Mount Annupuri and Mount Iwaonupuri (closest to the dog). To get to this point with snow shoes in spring conditions took just under 2 hours, during the winter the hike would take a little longer as powder snow is a bit harder to trek through. Given it's quite mellow pitch it would be easy for touring skis and split boards too.
After a false summit or two you find your self at the very top, with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, the Sea of Japan, Iwanai Town, and the Shakotan Peninsular out to the right of the picture above. To the true summit the hike wasn't too strenuos with just 1 mildly steep pitch to get us puffing, and worth every step for the views and sunshine we were greeted with.
It is rumoured that one day the lift will be replaced at Weiss and there will be a new lift system put in place that will start from the base of Hanazono connecting the two resorts. This will open up 1000s of acres of beginner and intermediate terrain which is great news for everyone who enjoys skiing in Niseko. If you'd like to know more about Weiss or you'd like to add cat skiing to your next Niseko adventure please feel free to get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Tucked just below Niseko Vilage on the Higashiyama side of the tracks is a couple of hidden local gems, Milk Kobo and Prativo Restaurant. Milk Kobo not surprisingly is a bakery and icecream shop specialising in dairy based delights. The crowd favorites are their delicious cream puffs or shou-cremes, a delicious puff of delicate sweet pastry filled with a not too sweet creme custard that leaves you hanging on every bite.
The restaurant has a quaint country feel and if their sought after signature shou -cremes aren't your cup of tea they have a superb selection of alternative sweet delights including a delicious yogurt drink in various flavours and a variety of tasty cakes.
If none of these options are ticking any boxes there is always the ice cream, ooohhhwww the ice cream. Soft serve cones or gelato in an array of flavors, Milk Kobo has you covered. And don't miss the cheese tarts straight out of the oven!!
Once you have your ice cream in hand, head out side to enjoy this on the grass front row center to some of the best views of Mount Yotei in the district. Milk Kobo is located here - https://goo.gl/maps/cp8UbeSaYfr86mhm7 just a 15 minute bus ride from Hirafu Village. Milk Kobo is open year round but maybe closed over the new year.
Across the world the Niseko area has become famous for it's incredible snow and fantastic resorts but there is more to Niseko than just amazing skiing. In the summer time golf is a pastime enjoyed by locals and tourists a like and below we take a look at a selection of the areas prime courses.
The first of which is A- Brand located between Akaigawa and Yoichi town. A-Brand commands beautiful views that extend all the way to the sea of Japan and a rolling course with a Scottish feel.
The second course, Hanazono is one of the closest to Hirafu. Stunning views can be enjoyed from the fairways and the restaurant which serves Greek Souvlaki.
Rusustu Golf 72's Riverwood course is well treed and just a stones throw from popular ski resort Rusutsu, which outside of winter operates an amusement park complete with roller coasters!
Restaurant options in Niseko keep getting better and better every year. The range of places and different foods to try is fantastic, whether you are looking for a quick bite on the street from one of the food carts in the middle village or you are ready to be seated for a full degustation at Michellin starred Kamimura. The choices can almost be daunting so if you're looking for a quick go to and you'd like to try a quintessential hokkaido comfort food, it doesn't get much better than soup curry.
Soup curry is said to have originated in Sapporo all the way back in the 1970's and draws influence from Thai, Indonesian and Sri Lankan cuisine. Soup Curry, along with Ramen is a food Sapporo is famous for and now there are literally hundreds of soup curry stores accross Hokkaido. Each one has it's own take on the dish and every shop its own unique charm.
So what exactly is soup curry? The variations are endless but it is essentially a spicy curry flavoured soup full of vegetables and at least one protein the most common being chicken or pork but sausage. Seafood and hamburger steak are also common variations. Vegtables and meat are often partially sauteed or deep fried and then finished in the soup before serving. The soups base may be pork, chicken but can also be prawn or vegetable.
Go to vegatables are kept simple and you will usually find potatoe, carrot and pumpkin. But these are just the beginning, have you ever tried lotus root, okura, shimeggi mushrooms or natto? In the saftey of a spicy broth, nows your chance!
So where can we find soup curry in Niseko? Tsubara Tsubara is Hirafu's own soup curry go to. Located in Izumikyo this popular restaurant is busy for lunch and dinner throughout the winter. They serve authentic soup curry as well as a variety of Nabe (hot pot) options as well as a number of traditional japanese dishes such as Grilled Hokke (Atka Mackeral). Tsubara Tsubara has english menus, bookings although not usually needed can be made 1 month in advance and they do takeout!
Tsubara Tsubara is located here which is within walking distance of the following great Holiday Niseko properties ~ https://holidayniseko.com/lodge-mori-apartments, https://holidayniseko.com/shiki-and-koyuki, https://holidayniseko.com/star-chalet, https://holidayniseko.com/yukine.
Sakura is the Japanese word for cherry blossom. You may heard this in the media recently because the people of Tokyo have not been able to attend the annual cherry blossom or Hanami celebrations due to Covid-19. Here in Hokkaido cherry blossom viewing and revelry comes later, this year it is forecast for April 20th but from around mid February there is another sought after sakura in Hokkaido too, the Sakura Masu or Cherry Salmon. Fisher folk flock to the coast, mostly to the sea of Japan in pursuit of this beautiful and very delcious fish. The cherry salmon's scientific name is oncorhynchus masou which is in the same genus as the more well known and feasted upon chinook or king salmon. One of the most famous and popular places to catch sakura masu is the Shimamaki area just 90 minutes drive from Hirafu Village.
Shimamaki is a small seaside village most famous for sakura masu and it's spotted relative the ame masu or spotted char and one you may have heard of, the Shimamaki Snow Cats cat boarding operation there, we featured an article on this last year that you can read here. Every year the Shimamaki Village holds the Spring Cup, an annual fishing derby with prizes for the largest fish caught between March and April. Although things get a little warmer in March and April, fishing at this time can still be very cold. Snow is common in March as are subzero temperatures so you need to be dressed for the cold, neoprene waders are a bonus and goretex or simlar jackets are a must as are multiple layers of merino, warm gloves (with heated hand warmers) and the wooliest sox your Mum can knit you.
If the temps aren't enough to put you off keep in mind th best time to catch the quarry is at dawn around 05:45am in mid March. So if you are driving from Hirafu it is an early start indeed!
Below the author with a 4.5kg spotted char that was large enough take 3rd place in the Spring Cup last year. If you are visiting Niseko between March and May and would like to try their luck catching one of these fantastic fish let your Holiday Niseko agent know and we can do our best to assist you. If fishing from a boat is more your thing there are a number of charter operations operating out of the Shakotan and Shiraoi areas that are also easily accessed from Niseko. Tight lines!
Foxes are a common site here in Hokkaido and can often be spotted in the early morning or evening and it's not uncommon to hear their eirie howl or scream at night. The character below was spotted from the spare room window early one April morning. Upon realising he was in front of the lense this little red fur ball became coy and camera shy and after a fleeting moment of curiousity bounded off into the snow covered brush faster than you can say Boggis, Bunce and Bean.
So are Hokkaido foxes friendly? As cute as they maybe unfortunatley Hokkaido foxes shouldn't be treated as friendly. In recent years foxes have found easy meals from tourists at hot spots like the Lawson Convience Store in Hirafu but this is a big no no, please don't feed the foxes. They are a wild animal with very sharp teeth and are known to carry a particularly dangerous parisite called echinococcus. It is also important foxes stay in the wild rather than seeking food from urban environments. For these reasons it is important not to encourage foxes to interact with people be they at the ski resort, in towns or at the golf course!
The foxes you may be lucky enough to see around Niseko will be the Hokkaido red fox or kita kitsune (北狐) or by their scientific name Vulpes vulpes schrencki. When not being fed by tourists that shoud know better the kita kitsune will usually eat birds, rats, rabbits and during the fall will indulge themselves on fruit and nuts (wildly foraged and guaranteed organic of course).
If you are lucky enough to find yourself close to a fox it will likely behave as this one did and after giving you a cursory glance will disappear into the nearest bunch of trees. Sometimes though they will sit and watch you with curiosity equal to your own. In this case we reccomend you enjoy the moment, take a picture if you're quick enough and go your seperate ways, please don't feed the fox.
Check out the little guy below, foraging the way he should be.
Have you ever seen the sun rise across Mt Yotei, Niseko's very own volcano? If you've visited the area the 1,898m snow covered peak is a pretty hard to miss! That said with the snow we get in Niseko it is not unusual for it to be in the clouds for weeks on end. Any avid skiers or boarders upon seeing Yotei for the first time can't help but wonder what it would be like to ski down it. As Mt Yotei is designated as national park heli or cat skiing is not possible so for most this as as far as it goes as the only way up is to to put one foot in front of the other and hike to the summit.
The easiest way access the peak is via the trail head on the Makkari side of the mountain. This allows you to drive a significant part of the ascent. The car park is just a 15minute drive from Hirafu to the south east.
As you pull into the car park the Summit is in plain sight but looks a long way off! A little daunting but the beginning of the hike is flat and provides a nice warm up for what is to come!
The start of the trail is flat and then begins to meander up through the trees. The snow was firm under foot here and the boot pack was well stepped. Mottled morning sunlight flickered through the trees and our group of 3 began to space out as each of us found our stride.
Up and out of the tree line the sun was beaming down and about now it was getting hot! Upon finding a nice spot to rest it was time for a drink, to lose a layer and take in the views, which were incredible.
Onwards and upwards from here and this is where things started to get a little tougher. We follow the ridge up which is wind blown and a bit icy making traction a bit of an issue for a short section. Here we met some other hikers, one of which was battling with the section on skins and touring ski. As a group of snowboarders our weapons of choice were snowshoes which are generally the preferred choice (rather than split boards) for Yotei due to this iciness and the steep pitch of the last 3rd of the climb.
The top 3rd and especially the top quarter of the climb is where things get really tough, you've already been hiking for at least 3 hours and the pitch only gets steeper as you climb higher. This is combined with soft sugary snow make each step a challenge and really drains your energy, it's here that you need to dig deep to push forward and dig deep to find that muesli bar in your pocket for one last charge for the summit.
And then you're there, the first of our party summited in 3hours and 45minutes, I snuck in at just under 4 hours. We'd started at 07:00am there were others who had also just summited that set out at 04:30am which shows the time it takes does differ from individual to individual. How ever long it takes the summit looks the same and is just as satifying to get to, especially on a blue sky day like the one we were lucky enough to experience.
The rewards of making the summit don't stop at incredible views and sense of accomplishment, you also get to enjoy the champagne powder the crater holds. The 1500m descent down to the car is a pretty good time too!
In the light of uncertainty surrounding the current global situation Holiday Niseko would like to offer our future guests an extended flexible cancellation policy.
Holiday Niseko is currently offering a money back guarantee on bookings made after March 25th 2020, with a refund given on cancellations made before July 1st, 2020 (*conditions apply).
* Cancellations must be made on or before July 1st, 2020.
** A ¥5000 administration fee will apply to any cancellations.
*** Applies to any applicable booking made after March 25th 2020.
**** Applies to all Holiday Niseko managed properties plus a large selection of options across the village
If you are interested in seeing some options for the 2020 /2021 winter please feel free to contact us anytime - email@example.com
After a short fuel stop in town I continued on around the south side of Lake Toya, stopping only to take photos of active volcanic vents steaming from the top of Showa-Shinzan and other views of Lake Toya. The Eastern side of Toya has one of my favorite campsites in Hokkaido. The Nakatoya campground is a wonderful place to relax by the lakeside with a very convenient onsen located on site, and well stocked camp store. The Eastern side of Lake Toya is noticeably quieter than other areas around the lake. Nakanoshima (the island in the middle of Lake Toya) blocks the view to the well lit resort area giving a boost to the view of the night sky from this side of the lake.
Japan, like much of the world, has a huge problem with light pollution. Getting good views of the night sky requires hours of driving to the most remote parts of the country. Even then, it may be insufficient to get the pristine, unobscured view of the night sky that many people in more rural areas of North America often take for granted. After living in Tokyo and Sapporo for most of my time here, being able to see the stars has been a breath of fresh air compared to living in the city.
Early March motorcycle riding is inevitably going to be quite cold. I have found my lower temperature limit to be between 2C and 4C depending on if the sun is out. If I wanted to start riding in lower temperatures I will definitely have to invest in a set of heated gear. In the five days since my first ride of 2020, there have been days where the roads are completely clear but the temperatures are simply too low to consider going out on the bike. It would certainly be nice to be able to take advantage of those days with crystal clear blue skies, even if it is a little cold.