Mount Yotei is a popular destination for travellers both in winter and summer. Photo: Niseko Photography and Guiding
Mount Yotei is a popular destination for travellers both in winter and summer. Photo: Niseko Photography and Guiding

Hokkaido beyond the ski slopes – and why wealthy foreigners are buying homes in Japan’s north

  • People flock to Japan’s north for some of the best snow in the world, but it is also known for its woodlands, lakes and beautiful coastline
  • More travellers are visiting the area in summer, including wealthy elite seeking second homes
Topic |   Asia travel

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Mount Yotei is a popular destination for travellers both in winter and summer. Photo: Niseko Photography and Guiding
Mount Yotei is a popular destination for travellers both in winter and summer. Photo: Niseko Photography and Guiding
It’s a hot, sunny day, and I’m looking out at
Hokkaido
’s mighty Usu volcano about an hour’s drive from Japan’s skiing Mecca,
Niseko
.

I’m learning to crack open a spiky sea urchin shell and carefully scoop out delicate morsels of buttery, bright orange uni. I then remove white medallions of flesh from scallop shells. Both are eaten chopped over rice – a dish that I’m still dreaming about.

“I grew up in Connecticut, [United States], so I’m used to having nature around,” says Hong Kong native and former banker Ian Fong, who founded Hokkaidian Homestead with his Japanese wife Noriko Matsushita last year. “That is why I wanted my daughters to have the same kind of upbringing.”

Serving a mix of European and Japanese delights, the dining and culinary workshop at Hokkaidian Homestead is an immersive experience for travellers. The concept is farm – and sea – to table, paired with lush wines and sake.

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Cracking open local uni. Photo: Aaron Jamieson
Cracking open local uni. Photo: Aaron Jamieson
The region around
Niseko
is known for its food and its natural beauty: volcanic mountains, woodlands, lakes and a glistening coastline. People flock here in winter for some of the best snowboarding and skiing in the world , but in recent times the area has become a drawcard for travellers in the warmer months, too.

“The beauty of Hokkaido is the changing of the seasons,” says Emilia Lopez, another Hong Kong resident. “I love … to go horseback riding and hiking.”

Lopez is the head of property development and sales at the new luxurious Niseko Ginto residential villas developed by the Hong Kong-headquartered Pavilions group. She visits the region often to oversee the development, which includes a plot of land in Hirafu town, a series of private villas and a luxury hotel set to open in 2020.

“In winter, I love the never-ending ethereal white plains,” says Lopez. “In the spring you have foraging; spring onion and different bamboo shoots can be used for tempura and soups. Summer is lush with high clouds, and then in autumn – my favourite season – the colours are so bright you think the maples are on fire.”

“The fields come to life in spring after being buried in the snow all winter,” says Aaron Jamieson, a photographer who has lived in Niseko for 14 years. “For summer it’s all about getting out in the good weather, on the land, lakes and ocean. Autumn is harvest season and is the time to really get into the food.”

Ian Fong and Noriko Matsushita run Hokkaidian Homestead. Photo: Aaron Jamieson
Ian Fong and Noriko Matsushita run Hokkaidian Homestead. Photo: Aaron Jamieson

During low season it’s easy to get a table at the best restaurants in Niseko, such as Raku Ichi, recommended for killer shabu-shabu, and Michelin-starred Kamimura, in the Hyatt House.

Founded by Hokkaido-born chef Yuichi Kamimura, Kamimura serves up French-Japanese delights. Tasty venison tartar is served along with a crab cocktail, steamed Menuke fish and chargrilled Hokkaido Wagyu beef with Kutchan potato galette, watercress and Hokkaido wasabi.

Along with tourists and snow bunnies, the
island of Hokkaidohas also become popular with wealthy foreigners
looking to settle or buy a second home.

First it was the Australians, then the Hongkongers came and now it is popular with Singaporeans who have set their sights on buying up private properties. The result has been a 10-year development boom, which first catered to the middle classes, and now a global elite.

A small quiet street in Lake Toya, Japan. Photo: Aaron Jamieson
A small quiet street in Lake Toya, Japan. Photo: Aaron Jamieson
Hongkonger Fran Lam and her British husband Sion Millet live in Shanghai and have built their second home in
Furano
, another ski resort area in Hokkaido. They started visiting in 2008, loving the skiing, and quiet, untouched nature.

Over the years they tried other resorts around the world. “But we realised the quality of snow, culture, food and lack of crowds, meant Hokkaido ski trips were always the best,” says Lam.

They bought some land, built a house and soon saw the demand from other interested buyers, so they decided to develop their leftover land into flats to sell. “We went from a second home idea to property development, and are in the middle of designing the plans,” Lam says.

Mt. Annapuri in winter. Photo: Aaron Jamieson
Mt. Annapuri in winter. Photo: Aaron Jamieson

There has been a spate of luxury developments popping up across Niseko to feed demand from the uber wealthy. And getting a slice of the increasingly fashionable Niseko pie doesn’t come cheap. Prices for the Pavilions’ Niseko Ginto residential villas and land start at US$3.6 million.

“The trend has moved from independents discovering this place and carving out a little place for themselves, to luxury brands driving the next round of tourism,” Jamieson says.

This boom in development, and resulting revitalisation of areas around Hokkaido, has meant that areas like
Niseko
have managed to escape much of Japan’s famously strict attitude towards immigration.

“It has actually been well integrated with the Japanese community, the development has had a good uptake with them,” Jamieson says, adding that the mix of foreigners into the local economy and culture has been harmonious so far.

Rather than begrudging change, most locals are seeing how new tourism and trade has regenerated and invigorated their small towns.

Kutchan Potato Festival in Niseko, Japan. Photo: Niseko Photography and Guiding
Kutchan Potato Festival in Niseko, Japan. Photo: Niseko Photography and Guiding

Niseko in the warmer months

In August and September, months of harvest in agricultural Hokkaido, a number of festivals take place in the town. Fireworks light up the skies during the celebrations, including the must-see Niseko Autumn Food Festival (September 12-15).

To burn off all the calories you will inevitably consume, you can take advantage of Niseko’s perfect climate during summer and autumn and head for the hills, with temperatures averaging from a comfy 15 to 25 degrees Celsius (59 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit).

August sees the Hanazono Hill Climb, an exciting race that gets steeper as it goes on, while in July the annual Niseko Classic bike race has evolved in recent years from a local event to an international six-race biking event. Information on both events can be found at vacationniseko.com.

Kayaking around Shakotan Peninsula. Photo: Aaron Jamieson
Kayaking around Shakotan Peninsula. Photo: Aaron Jamieson

For those who prefer small groups or going solo in the great outdoors, a 4-5 hour hike on Mount Yotei (known as Hokkaido’s version of Fuji) is an adventurous way to spend the day.

If you prefer the water, stand-up paddleboarding and sea kayaking are memorable ways to explore hidden coves along the Shakotan peninsula.

Visiting an onsen is a must in the region whatever the season. While especially charming in winter, steaming with snowflakes falling around you, a good summer onsen surrounded by nature is also enjoyable.

Aaron Jamieson during a photography tour in Niseko. Photo: courtesy Aaron Jamieson
Aaron Jamieson during a photography tour in Niseko. Photo: courtesy Aaron Jamieson

Jamieson runs photography workshops (aaronjamieson.com) around Hokkaido all year round. He says that autumn, when the leaves change into a kaleidoscope of colours, is his favourite time to run them.

“The forests are vast and there is just this endless scenery and a tapestry of colour,” he says. “We head out for five to six days and explore some of the most untouched corners of the island.”

Fireworks at a local festival in Niseko, Japan. Photo: Niseko Photography and Guiding
Fireworks at a local festival in Niseko, Japan. Photo: Niseko Photography and Guiding

Getting there

Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines fly direct from Hong Kong to Sapporo in just over five hours.

Staying there

Visitors are spoilt for choice in Niseko. There is a Hyatt House Niseko, Hilton Niseko Village, Ki Niseko and Aya Niseko, and a new spate of luxury developments landing. Apart from the Pavilions Niseko hotel, The Ritz-Carlton and the Park Hyatt are coming, as well as Aman Resorts.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Northern exposure