Niseko, in Japan, is a popular ski destination for Asian residents to go in search of Northern Hemisphere winter snow. The area between Mt. Yotei, Mt. Konbu and Mt. Annupuri is filled with winter vacation homes, rental flats, hotels which make Niseko Japan’s no.1 ski resort destination. But Japan’s best kept secret is Niseko in the summer when the winter noise fades with the snow and the green mountains, flowing rivers and lakes give a whole new meaning to the sentence getting back to nature. I stay at one of the area’s best hotels, The Green Leaf Niseko Village to review its offering.
Located about 2h drive from Chitose International Airport, on the island of Hokkaido, near Sapporo, in winter, it is overflown with skiers, snowboarders and snow lovers of all ages and experience levels. There are tracks for all levels and snow schools for beginners. There are shops and onsens galore for the less sports-inclined visitors and lots of other activities on the white powder that don’t involve skis like snowmobile, snow rafting or reindeer sledding.
Unsurprisingly, summer in Niseko is an equally fascinating nature lover’s paradise with mountains, green fields, golf courses, rivers, lakes and plenty of trekking and cycling paths to keep the most adventurous bunnies busy, and to burn off those famous Hokkaido cream cheese tarts! End the days at an onsen to relax those tired legs, and follow with great food, sake and awarded Japanese whiskey to match.
I recently spent some time in Niseko to review The Green leaf Niseko Village and partially the Hilton Niseko, and to bring you the scoop on the best places to stay and things to do in the summer. The verdict? Both the Hilton Niseko and The Green Leaf Niseko Village, owned by one of my favourite hotel brands, YTL, are fanstatic summer nature destinations and the perfect winter ski resorts too.
Choosing between The Green Leaf Niseko Village and the Hilton Niseko
Both hotels are located 15min walk or a quick gondola ride from each other. In the summer, the walk is pleasant and easy and if you don’t want to walk, there is a free shuttle service.
At the Hilton Niseko you will find the trusted quality of the international brand and the highest level of luxury of all the Niseko resorts. Both hotels are located at the Niseko Village, a group of fashionable boutiques and restaurants for evening meals or shopping, and near Pure Niseko, an outdoor entertainment park. Two golf courses are only a buggy ride away. If you do not rent a car and want to have everything within easy reach, this is a great base to explore summer in Niseko. Needless to say, this is also a great location for ski lovers as the gondola service up Annupuri starts right off both the Hilton Niseko and The Green Leaf Niseko Village so you can literally ski up from your room. The area around Niseko Village is also quieter than other parts of Niseko ski resort like Hirafu which can be noisy and crowded with skiers in the winter. In the summer, the entire area is tranquil and peaceful.
Arrival at The Green Leaf Niseko and Hilton Niseko
Niseko is located two hours from Chitose International and Domestic terminals. Whether you are flying in from Tokyo, like most international visitors, or you are landing directly into Chitose, you will need to drive for about 2h to reach the hotels. Both hotels offer an affordable group bus service that has two schedules daily on each direction. If the timings work for you (and they may not), this is indeed the best way to get there as taxis are incredibly expensive. Tickets can be booked via the hotel and rates are about USD35 per person each way. They use minivans to fetch guests.
Alternatively, you can book your own private taxi which costs almost USD300 each way so rather hefty price unless you are able to share with three other friends. In that case, you can book it for the time that is convenient for you.
Lastly, you can also access Niseko by train, from Chitose, but that is the most time consuming option requiring, in most cases, a change of train in Sapporo. Sadly, if you arrive outside of the bus pick up times the train is the only affordable option so you might be forced to take it. Or better yet, make sure to book a flight landing on time for the bus, it should not be difficult if you come from Tokyo as there are multiple flights every hour.
For real independence, something you might want to consider during summer in Niseko, I recommend you book a car from the airport instead. The drive is easy and Google Maps works just fine. That will give you the chance to drive more leisurely and stop to smell the roses and admire the beautiful landscapes around the lakes and forests.
In all cases, watch the countryside go by and see if you spot a “Bambi” like deer by the side of the road like I did!
The rooms at The Green Leaf Niseko Village
The Green Leaf Niseko is a low rise building against the towering Annupuri mountain above and has been recently renovated. The rooms face either Annupuri, where you will be able to ski in the winter, or Mount Yotei, one of the many pincturesque and perfectly conical Japanese mountains that looks exactly like Mount Fuji.
The building has only five floors and about 40 rooms per floor so each corridor is very long. At the end of each floor there are two corner suites which have a living room space, kitchen and a separate bedroom. Other than those, all the rest of the rooms are identical.
I loved the large windows which gave the room the feeling of being inside nature. Like in many other traditional Japanese hotels not belonging to international chains, the bathroom is a prebuilt unit. I found this very strange at the beginning because the bathroom truly looks and feels like it has been slotted in later, but I found out that it is actually the way hotels are built in the country. It reminded me of our hotel in North Korea which was exactly the same, although in that case it is probably because the bathrooms were replaced for more “modern” versions after the hotel was built.
I liked the room. It was spacious, especially considering Japan’s capsule hotel philosophy, decorated in light tanned wood colours and white linen reminiscent of Nordic design, clear lines and simple decor. Local artists have added paintings and nature’s bright green just complemented the decor perfectly.
Each room also comes with a traditional Japanese bathrobe to be used at the onsen, as well as a pair of slippers and towel for the same purpose. The bathrobe was large enough to wrap around me twice easily, I guess it must be very useful in the winter! Thankfully, the bed was comfy and soft and the pillows were made of an ergonomic natural filling that helped with enjoying sound sleep. I also appreciated the blind curtains as the sun rises at 3am in Niseko in the summer – I am an early riser but maybe not that much.
Although one does not come to Niseko to spend time in the room, the bedrooms at The Green Leaf Niseko Village were comfortable, modern and airy with fantastic views one could spend hours watching.
The food at The Green Leaf Niseko Village
During the summer, as this was the first year the hotel opened for the season, only the lounge was open at the hotel but dinner options are far and wider at the Niseko Village or at the Hilton Niseko which can all be booked and accessed on a short walk or the hotel’s shuttle.
At the Niseko Village there were a few choices of restaurants from a local barbecue style do-it-yourself Hokkaido meal to a Southeast Asia restaurant, a patisserie and ice cream parlour, a seafood restaurant and a Japanese sushi, teppanaki and tempura bar. But the food was excellent as well at the Hilton. The main restaurant, located on the 2nd floor, offered wonderful Japanese cuisine with sushi, grilled meats, ramen, rice dishes, noodles, Japanese curry and a large buffet for dinner. The views were similar to the ones we had from our room with semi circular waist to ceiling windows staring at Mount Yotei through the lush trees and forest. Seeing the sun very slowly go down at dinner was fantastic.
We found the food to be fantastic at every meal. Good food cannot be served with the best drinks and the Hilton Niseko had a great drinks list. We particularly enjoyed a bottle of Japanese wine from Hokkaido, local sake and Japan’s best Hibiki whiskey.
The facilities and activities at The Green Leaf Niseko Village
Both hotels have a gym in which to exercise but, really, you should go to Niseko to enjoy the outdoors rather than to stay in. In order to help you organise all your excursions and explorations, there are a few local companies in town but, at The Green Leaf Niseko Village there is also a Nature School where they can help you book any outdoor activities from walks and treks to white water rafting, horse riding, climbing, cycling or canoeing among others.
For the young and old, Pure is a great place to go release some endorphins. Designed mostly for the little ones in the house, Pure is an entertainment park adjacent to the Hilton Niseko. You can buy a day pass which will give you access to the zip line, tree trekking, climbing, slides and the bouncy castles, golf cart paths or mini golf. They can also organise horse riding and hot air balloon trips if the weather is good. You could spend half a day being a child again.
Golf is traditionally, the main appeal for those flocking Niseko in the summer. There are two golf courses within easy reach from the hotel, the Niseko Village Golf Course and the Niseko Golf Course. The hotels can book tee times and organise everything you need.
Colder weather invites into cuddling up and enjoying a cup of hot chocolate. You can do so at the Tomioka lounge, at the lobby level, where you can contemplate Annupuri mountain, the green slopes and cuddle up on the comfy and decadent leather sofas. This was my favourite way to end the day, albeit with whiskey rather than hot chocolate.
Onsen and spa at The Green Leaf Niseko Village and The Hilton Niseko
Guests staying at either of the properties can use the onsen or spa at both the Hilton Niseko or The Green Leaf Niseko Village. I tested them both. The Hilton’s onsen is larger as the hotel has twice as many rooms, and the outdoor area is a bit more beautiful, set among the greenery and with views over the forest. The onse at The Green Leaf Niseko Village is a bit smaller and the outdoor area is made of large boulders where one can relax like a mermaid (and cool down from the hyper hot water temperatures). In the winter, the surroundings are covered in snow for that postcard perfect view. But you will not be able to snap that photo op as, obviously, the onsens do not allow any photography as everyone is in their birthday suits. The atmosphere of the open air “rotenburo” as the outdoor onsen are called, is said to project the image of a perfect Japanese hot bath and both The Green Leaf Niseko Village and Hilton Niseko onsens are the most beautiful in the area.
Onsens are known for the benefits of mineral rich mountain hot spring water. In Niseko, the water comes from the deep Earth at 52 degrees and it is cooled down to between 41 to 42 degrees Celsius, so you do not spend a lot of time in there. In the winter, the clash in temperatures in the water, which can easily reach -20 degrees, make the hot dip pleasant but in the summer, although it is never hot in Niseko, the temperatures demand a quick bath before one starts turning blue and creased up. They are a wonderful experience and a great way to immerse yourself, literally, in the local culture. Onsen are also naked places so everyone will spend proper time showering and bathing before getting into the water and go in like they came into the world. So maybe, it is not for everyone.
Worthwhile to note that, whereas the bar at The Green leaf Niseko Village does close early (9pm), the onsen are in fact open all night long and close in the morning, 9am to 1pm, for cleaning and maintenance so they are the perfect place to watch the starry night, Niseko does have incredible skies clear of pollution or bright lights.
Both hotels also have their own spa although only the Hilton’s operates in the summer and it is open until late. Treatments include all the usual suspects and prices match Japan’s high standard of living.
Living in Southeast Asia I often crave nature. Sure we have jungle and greenery, especially in Singapore where one just needs to hop on a taxi ride for 20min to reach the large MacRitchie Reservoir and park, but the smell of pine trees, the sound of birds chirping, and the towering cool mountains are not a typical sight. Neither is the cool weather that Niseko enjoys, even during the summertime, when you will need a fleece at night and long sleeves during the day.
Niseko is the perfect summer destination. Pure air, lots of outdoor activities to embark on, fabulous Japanese food and the luxury of YTL hotels. I found The Green Leaf Niseko Village to be the perfect place to base yourself for a few days of exploration. If you like the look of an international brand, the Hilton Niseko is a great choice too. Summer in Niseko is the perfect outdoor escape you didn’t know you could enjoy in Asia’s summer. It is also peaceful and tranquil, a great way to reconnect with nature.
Once in a Lifetime Journey was a guest of The Green Leaf Niseko Village. As always, all opinions are our own.