Explore Hokkaido! Company setting up tours for military community in Japan
Explore Hokkaido! Company setting up tours for military community in Japan
Stars and Stripes was able to chat to Brent Verco from Niseko Military Leave, who is currently setting up tours for U.S. servicemembers in Japan to experience Hokkaido.
Q, So what is Niseko Military Leave and how did it get started?
A. Well, it’s a bit of a funny story.
Niseko Military Leave was started by accident. I grew up in Sydney Australia and moved to Japan three years ago to spend some time in my wife’s motherland and experience the Japanese culture. We looked at a few options but decided to make our home in Niseko, a ski resort located in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido.
Although I had a background in medical tourism, my main businesses in Japan was in healthcare (chiropractic) doing injury management for international tourists through the resort town of Niseko.
When Covid hit my entire business was turned upside down, going back to Australia was an impossibility and to be honest, I was feeling a little low so I came down to Okinawa to clear my head and explore the possibility of working remotely.
To my surprise I found great demand for my services in Okinawa and to even greater surprise, I learned that US servicemembers are aware of what Hokkaido has to offer as a travel destination but are a bit unsure of how to organize travel in the middle of a pandemic where green and red zones change like traffic lights.
I also learned about the strict rules that U.S. forces operate under in regard to leave and travel liberties and the idea of a specific service for the needs of SOFA members began to take hold.
I started to discuss this with my local tourism suppliers, and they were really supportive and understanding in giving a ‘covid money back guarantee’ for SOFA status members should the travel situation change again.
A chance encounter led to some meetings at Camp Foster on the island of Okinawa with the United States Marine Corps and further close relationships were formed.
Q. Can you tell us more about Hokkaido?
Sure. It’s my wife’s home and we spent several years visiting and were always blown away by the natural beauty. Hokkaido really is setting itself up to be the adventure capital of Asia and whilst everybody knows about its great snow, I think the summer activities have not yet received the attention they deserve.
Here are 10 things Niseko Military Leave recommends you try and see when you get up to Hokkaido. Some are well known and others could still be considered ‘secret spots’ from a tourism point of view. The following are in no particular order and we have attempted to strike a balance between summer and winter activities.
1. The Sapporo Snow Festival
The Sapporo Snow Festival has something for the whole family and prior to Covid was becoming an international tourism drawcard, and dare we say, almost a victim of its own success in that accommodation was becoming very hard to find.
The Sapporo Snow Festival first started in 1950, when local middle and high school students created six snow sculptures in Odori Park. By 1959 over 15,000 participants were involved in the construction of ice and snow sculptures and it started to attract hundreds of thousands of guests.
By 2020 over two million tourists walked the main strip of city and enjoyed the festival.
Early February each year the entire main street from Odori Park to Susukino are transformed by 30-foot ice and snow sculptures that literally now takes an army (Japanese Self-Defense Force) to prepare and model.
But it's not just the sculptures, there’s also traditional street food, great music and wonderful shopping. Plus, you can watch snowboarding demonstrations! The festival also has lots of things for kids to do, making it very family friendly.
Sadly, due to Covid the 2020 and 2021 Sapporo Snow Festivals were canceled but in some good news the 72nd Sapporo Snow Festival scheduled for 2022 has been confirmed and will occur in Odori Park and Susukino from Feb. 5-12 (subject to Covid conditions).
We recommend you start your experience in the afternoon and go through into the evening so you can see the transition from day to night and witness the amazing light shows. Remember to dress really warm, on a cold night in Sapporo it's almost impossible to have too many clothes (particularly for kids) - take your down jackets, balaclavas and thick gloves!
Entry to the festival site is free and it’s either a short walk or subway from Sapporo Central Station. Directions are well marked and easy to follow during the festival times.
For more information on the Sapporo Snow Festival there is a great official English website here.
2. White water rafting in Niseko
White water rafting has been a Niseko icon with summer sport lovers for generations and there is no shortage of qualified guides to navigate you safely down the rapids of the Sheribetsu River.
This river is fed from the snow melt of the mighty Mount Yotei and other large ranges and it spans 126 kilometers and it moves about 72 cubic meters of water each second.
The river’s proximity to Niseko means it's a great option to combine with a Niseko family holiday and take advantage of the cheaper prices on offer.
In mid spring around late April its peak flow is considered a grade 3-4 rapid making it suitable for adrenaline junkies seeking a real thrill whilst it summer and autumn it mellows out to a grade 1-2, giving good options for families to take advantage of the breathtaking views whilst not giving the kiddies PTSD.
3. Skiing Rusutsu
Rusutsu is less famous than its sibling Niseko but there are some very good reasons why you should consider some time at Rusutsu (just 40 minutes drive away).
Built back in the boom of the ‘Mercedes 80s’ in Japan, no expense was spared in the construction of the Rusutsu resort with its own theme park, indoor kids’ rids and slightly creepy trumpet playing robots.
But really the reason you want to consider Rusutsu is the quality of the snow when you consider the crowd factor.
With Niseko bathing in its international glory, powder hounds were finding empty runs and untracked backcountry well into the afternoon at Rusutsu. If snow skiing or boarding is your thing you may be tempted to give Niseko a miss in the busy years and head straight to Rusutsu.
Another great option is to add a trip to Rusutsu before or after your trip to Niseko.
For more information here is ink to the Rusutsu resort.
4. Nikka Whiskey distillery in Yoichi
The story of Nikka Whiskey is as interesting as the whiskey itself.
It started with a man named Masataka Taketsuru who was born into family of sake brewers. After trying Scottish Whiskey, he become obsessed with trying to recreate the complex flavors of peated whiskey and traveled to Scotland where he became an apprentice at James Calder and even enrolled at the University of Glasgow to study chemistry.
All these things would be unremarkable if the year was not 1918. Travel between Japan and the West at this point was still rare, and it's hard to imagine the hardships he would have endured. Not to mention he decided to Marry a Scottish lass and bring her back to Japan right through the middle of World War Two.
But what is truly remarkable is the Yoichi Whiskey itself.
Blending Japanese attention to detail and respect for tradition with Scottish know-how developed over centuries has led to whiskey that continues to win awards to this day. Nikka won ‘World’s best blended malt’ at the International Spirits Challenge in 2019. To this day, ‘Yoichi Single Malt’ remains my favorite entry level whiskey that drinks better than many other whiskeys twice the price or even higher.
The great thing about the Yoichi distillery is you can taste the great whiskeys yourself at the purpose built whiskey tasting bar.
5. Lake Toya
Lake Toya is only a 45-minute drive from Niseko and It's spectacular both through summer and winter.
Formed out of the remnants of an old volcano and surrounded by one that’s still a little active, you quickly realise you are in a very special space.
6. Ski Niseko
This one is dear to our hearts.
You never forget your first love and for many including myself the reason for coming to Hokkaido in the first place was to ski Niseko.
With over 48km of ski runs there is always something to discover even for us locals who have been riding here for years. Niseko won ‘Japan's Best Ski Resort’ in 2014 and also has many awards under its belt. Talk to anybody serious about the snowsports and Niseko is going to be very near or at the top of their list.
But it’s more than the snow. There is also an X factor about Niseko. Maybe it's the Onsens, the food, the backdrop of Mount Yotei hovering over the town or the vibe of a ski village in full swing, peppered with the rich and famous. Maybe it’s none of those but we still feel a unique engery here once winter comes alive and we hope you get the chance to too.
The ski resort known as Niseko is actually made up by four individual resorts that group together in an all-mountain ticket known as ‘Niseko United’. You can buy a ticket to just one of the resorts at a reduced rate, but our tip is to get the all-mountain pass and really enjoy the whole mountain.
The four resorts climb three different sides of the mountain and meet closely at the top. This means that you can always find a side of the mountain that is most favorable to the wind, light and snowfall that has occurred. In short, a trip to Niseko means you have a very high chance of experiencing amazing Japanese powder snow.
It's also a great place to visit if your Japanese is not up to standard with the resort and surrounding restaurants being well catered towards an international English-speaking clientele.
Most of the nightlife and off-slope activities center around the lower Hirafu village.
The village is serviced by two convenience stores and for a larger range of food the town of Kutchan is an easy 10-minute drive away. Grand Hirafu is the largest resort and still considered the heart and soul of Niseko. If you want to experience a more non-western version of Hokkaido, Kutchan has some amazing local eats and not to mention cheaper prices.
7. Climbing Mount Yotei
Mount Yotei is the undisputed king of the Niseko landscape and was regarded highly by the traditional Ainu people of the area. It's still classified as an ‘active’ volcano but has not seen an eruption since over 1000 BC. Towering at over 1800 meters it's Hokkaido's answer to mount Fuji and you will no doubt spend countless hours staring up at it.
But for others that's not enough.
Only a summit will really be enough for their Yotei experience and they will be rewarded with a bird’s eye view of the crater on its top, taking in 360 degrees view of the area.
In summer it is a demanding but manageable 8 hour return hike and in winter it transforms to a serious backcountry adventure where you can ski or snowboard back down to the base - but you do need the safety gear and backcountry training to navigate your way back down in one piece.
There is also an option to stay in a hut near the summit for a small reasonable fee. (Currently closed due to Covid).
Whatever your season, make sure you research the local weather conditions and ideally use a guide or at least take an experienced local up there with you. When the weather turns ugly at the top of Yotei it can turn real ugly!
A trusted and recommended resource for both summer and winter routes up Mount Yotei is the Hokkaido Wilds website:
8. Yukichichibu Onsen
Yukichichibu is Niseko Military Leaves recommendation for a traditional Onsen experience in Hokkaido although there are many amazing Onsens to choose from.
Located high above Niseko it can be a little dodgy to get up there during the heavy snowfalls of the winter months but those who brave the journey are rewarded with a truly remarkable Onsen experience.
Yukichichibu features a mud bath for ladies and is located near a natural volcanic pond with the strong sulphuric scent that reminds you that this is a very special place.
The water here has a very high mineral content such that the water here matches its ramen - thick, soupy and rich.
The average 40-degree temperatures are the perfect combination to relieve tired stressed and sometimes cold bodies and I’m sure you will agree any story told in an Onsen becomes infinitely more interesting.
Unfortunately, tattoos are still forbidden in traditional Onsens such as Yukichichibu so if you have anything other than a very small one you may want to give this experience a miss.
The blue pond
The blue pond is located a few hours' drive north of the city of Sapporo and somewhat of a distance to most of the other must-sees on this list.
It's also a bit of an interesting story.
The blue pond was never meant to be a tourist attraction. It started its journey as a man-made overflow reserve designed to take the pressure of the river should there be an eruption. However natural minerals from the rock leached into the water and with the now dead forest now poking up through the crystal blue water making it a shutter bugs dream.
Further information can be found on the Shirogane visitors center on the link here.
10. The Niseko Food festival
The first Niseko Food Festival was launched in 2017 and it has been growing rapidly ever since.
A brainchild of the Niseko Tourism Board it involves all of Niseko's hospitality and entertainment community coming together right on harvest season so it's ‘Hokkaido fresh’.
About fifteen of Niseko’s most famous restaurants and bars will showcase their special dishes for the festival using the freshest autumn harvest produce. Different live performances every day from local musicians also make it a great festival for letting your hair down and seeing the local culture in full bloom.
You can choose between woodfired pizzas, authentic Indian curries or go for more of the modern Japanese fusion coming out of Niseko. There are also a number of local beer breweries also ready to strut their stuff as well as ginger beer and other non-alcoholic options.
What about when to travel to Hokkaido. When is the best time?
We think the easiest way to think about this question is to divide your plans into ‘Winter travel’ and as the locals up here call it ‘Green Season’ - which is essentially travel anytime from April to late November.
The Niseko ski resort typically opens around the last week of November to the first week of December and runs through to early June.
Based on the previous 10 years of data you can be pretty much guaranteed Early Season top to bottom snow from the December 4-18.
Niseko’s Peak season is usually deemed to start December 18 and run through to March 20. Spring skiing runs from December 20 to around May 5.
Further information can be found on the Niseko United website here.
It’s also important to remember that Peak Season attracts a higher lift price as well as higher accommodation costs due to increased visitor demand.
Of course, it’s also classed as Peak Season for a reason as these are the dates where you are almost guaranteed to experience the epic powder and snowfalls that make Niseko famous. For more advanced riders the backcountry gates usually open around January 1 and offer amazing access into the unpatrolled wilderness of the backside of the mountain.
If you are traveling with younger children, we strongly recommend you consider early spring skiing too. Spring skiing for kids has some advantages. It’s cheaper than Peak Season and the days are often a little more sunny and warmer, making it much more comfortable to be out the slopes.
So, in a nutshell, we are blessed with a relatively long winter season up here in Niseko but our hot tip is to try for anytime from the December 10-18 to get the best value, Peak Season for the very best soft powder snow, or consider early spring for families on a budget.
Here things get a little more exciting.
It’s our opinion that Green Season travel in Hokkaido is still one of the world’s best kept secrets in how much fun can be had up here. We think Niseko in particular is well on its way to becoming the ‘New Zealand Queenstown of Asia’ with its focus on adventure tourism.
Summer here in Niseko really kicks off from mid-June. The days are warm without the humidity that can plague Okinawa and Tokyo over this time.
White water rafting is our top pick here in early Summer with the peak flow around late May to early June. You can raft here all Green Season but it becomes more of a scenic family outing more suitable for children from July onwards. There is also great swimming to be had in some of the large freshwater lakes. Due to some thermal heating, Lake Toya is often a more comfortable swim than its colder cousin Lake Shikotsu. The alpine hiking is also world class and mostly bear free.
The fly fishing and golf is also great from early summer onwards and is certainly a more comfortable experience.
For those wishing to see Autumn in Hokkaido, late October is amazing. Early Autumn is also harvest season so the food is all fresh from the farm.
We are of the opinion that the colour of the autumn leaves in the forests up here is far more pretty that the cherry blossoms of May and certainly worth finding a nice Onsen hotel in the mountains to watch the colors transform. Autumn temperatures are also the most pleasant in Hokkaido with warm days and crisp evenings but not so cold that being outdoors becomes uncomfortable.
Spring can be very nice in its own way and you will certainly have a great time in Hokkaido then but it’s not our first recommendation to see Hokkaido if it’s your first trip.
Melting snow can be muddy and brown the striking greens which really don’t come out until early May. Not that it sucks here by any means, it’s just that there are other more spectacular times to visit if your schedule allows.
Getting to Hokkaido
Hokkaido is serviced by its main airport The New Chitose Airport.
Okinawa Peach Airlines offers a direct daily service and there are many other services if you are travelling from Honshu.
From the airport it's about a 40-minute fast train into Sapporo city and two hours' drive or bus to the resort town of Niseko. During the winter months a direct bus services the Niseko area.
Where can our readers find further information?
You can check out our website or feel free to send us email any time at email@example.com. We are also just happy to have a chat about what can do and see in Hokkaido even if we can’t assist with your booking.
A link to our upcoming Autumn Food Festival guided tour on 16th-20th September can be seen here.
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