Merely 7 months ago, we were in Niseko in the deep of winter for our ski trip and everything was buried under several feet of pure white snow. As Niseko came into view this time round, we were startled by the stark contrast. Mount Yotei looked naked without its imposing snow-capped peak, the ski slopes of Mount Niseko-Annupuri were all green, and the roads and buildings were clearly visible and not blanketed in white. Without the snow, Niseko looked just like any other Hokkaido town we had driven past; neat and green with patches of wildflowers.
We had booked a studio apartment at Powder Tracks for 2 nights. Powder Tracks is a small walk-up block in Hirafu, just a stone's throw from the property we had rented for our ski trip 7 months back. The apartment was managed by Niseko Central whose office was located further up the hill at another apartment block called Yama Shizen East.
After obtaining our keys from Niseko Central, we made our way into our apartment at Powder Tracks. The temperature was about 30 degrees celsius in Niseko that day and the apartment was hot and stuffy. We looked around for the air-conditioning unit, only to discover that there was none! No fans of any sort were available either. The windows could only open a tiny slit, and a group of people were preparing for their BBQ party in the garden directly beneath us. We knew we would be roasted to death that night if we were to remain there.
We marched back to our car with all our belongings and returned to Niseko Central's office to request a change of apartments. As it turned out, none of their apartments had air-conditioners. After some back and forth, they finally found us a unit at Yama Shizen East with a window which could open a little bigger than a slit and 2 tower fans. We were grateful for their efforts, and I learnt from that episode to never assume that air-conditioners were a given at any vacation properties. We had paid S$158.04 per night for our studio apartment, inclusive of parking. The apartment was fairly spacious, but sleeping without air-conditioning in high summer was an uncomfortable, sticky experience.
Over the years, Niseko Takahashi Dairy Farm has built its Milk Kobo business into a world-renowned establishment. Visitors from all over the world throng the confectionery for their cakes and pastries. Without a set of wheels in winter, we had to give it a miss during our ski trip. This time round, we made sure it was first on our list of pitstops for Niseko.
A burst of colourful wildflowers greeted us after we parked, and the irresistible smells from the oven beckoned us into Milk Kobo. Were the cream puffs, cheese tarts and cakes as good as they smelt? Sinfully, yes!
One of Milk Kobo's sister establishments, Prativo, offered a good brunch deal and we had our lunch there. For JPY1,550 per person, we had a choice of main course, and all-you-can-eat salad and dessert. Castella cakes were being sold at Milk Kobo at JPY650 each. Those same cakes were laid out at the dessert buffet at Prativo, and we could eat as much as we could handle. Having said that, a recent check of Prativo's website showed a price increase to JPY1,650 for the buffet brunch and the buffet seems to be limited to just salad now. No mention of dessert...
During our last trip, we had also heard great things about Teuchi Soba Ichimura, but didn't manage to dine there. We made it a point to have lunch there on this trip as well, and it was every bit as good as what Niseko residents had let on to us. In fact, if I'd to choose between eating here or at Prativo, I'd opt for this in a heartbeat and buy some cakes and pastries from Milk Kobo to go instead.
Another Hokkaido delicacy which we were recommended was soup curry. Back home in Singapore, we're all used to curry being coconut based and of a creamier and thicker consistency. The idea of curry being a thin, broth-like consistency sounded vile to us, so we weren't planning on trying it.
As it turned out, we were out exploring the neighbouring town of Kutchan one evening when we came across a soup curry restaurant called Markie Curry. Strangely, we felt drawn to taste soup curry at that moment and we entered the restaurant. We were the first 2 customers that evening and the waitress took time to go through the menu with us in halting English. She highlighted to us that we could choose our own level of spiciness for the curry, from a scale of 0 to 30, with 30 being the spiciest possible. Hubby asked for her recommendation and she giggled and said: "For me, number 2.", before sticking her tongue out and wiping her brow to indicate that Level 2 was already too spicy for her. Immediately, Hubby responded that he wanted Level 30. The waitress sucked in her breath and let out a yelp! Clearly, no one had ordered that before. Eventually, she persuaded him to reduce it to Level 20 and I ordered Level 10 for myself.
As we waited for our food to arrive, more and more people started coming in. By the time our food was served, the restaurant was almost entirely filled. So what did soup curry taste like? Well, it tasted exactly like Maggi Mee Extra Spicy Curry flavour (also known as Maggi Mee Hot Heads). If you're a fan of that like me, you'd enjoy it. Level 10 to me was not spicy enough, and Hubby found Level 20 tame. For Singaporeans, it'll probably have to be Level 30 or nothing.
Niseko in winter is a skier's paradise, and in summer, the slopes turn into mountain biker's dream. Other than that, there's hiking, horseback riding, fishing, hot air ballooning, etc. What caught my eye though was whitewater rafting, my favourite summer past-time.
We signed up for the 3.5 hour guided rafting trip on the Shiribetsu River with Niseko Adventure Centre (NAC) online and got a 10% off deal. We paid Y5,535 each after the discount, and the trip lasted from 1430 to 1800 hrs. We arrived at NAC to check in at 1400 hrs, and were briefed, issued wetsuits and booties to slip into, and driven to the launch site. Each raft could seat 8 plus a guide. There were 4 couples in all, including Hubby and me. Our guide was an enthusiastic Nepalese young man who spoke fluent Japanese. He cracked jokes in Japanese throughout the trip, and we laughed along even though we didn't understand a word he was saying.
I had read that Shiribetsu River was capable of producing Grades 3 to 4 rapids, but what we experienced were more like Grades 1 to 2 rapids. We bopped down the 7km stretch of the river and enjoyed the scenery from the raft. Towards the end of the trip, the guide made us stand up to rock the raft so some of us would go overboard. That was probably the most exciting part of the trip. Shiribetsu is not a river I'd raft again, but it was an enjoyable half-day adventure nonetheless and I was glad we got to experience it.
Our second trip to Niseko saw us checking out Hirafu, Niseko Village, Hanazono, Annupuri and even Kutchan. We tasted Niseko's delicacies, rafted Shiribetsu, found interesting hypermarts and hardware stores, and looked at various pieces of property. Would we return to Niseko? In the winter, probably.