In commercial collaboration with Niseko Tourism by Konstantin Gridnevskiy
Sunrise hike to Niseko Annupuri
“Do we really want to do it?” I asked myself when the alarm rang at 2 a.m. in our hotel room. After filming the night before at An Dining Restaurant, we managed to get to bed only after midnight. And now it was time to wake up already. Not without some effort, we got ourselves ready and into the car and half an hour later we were at the starting point of the trail that led to the top of Niseko Annupuri – a local mountain that overlooks the town – our aim being to watch sunrise from its top.
Having put our names on the trailhead register, we started our 90-minute assent, our headlamps illuminating the way and me chatting away to silent Patrick about any topic possible. I was doing it not in hope of a meaningful conversation, but rather to make some noise – I saw a bear warning sign on the way there and I really did not want to take a chance of meeting a startled animal on this narrow mountain trail.
Luckily, we met none. What happened though was that my headlamp died and I had to walk even closer behind Patrick, still chatting away as we climbed. Soon, however, I noticed that I did not need to do it any more, as the first light from the sun started to fill the sky. We arrived on the top, just in time to witness the awaking of the landscape by the radiant morning sun, which slowly colored in all the mountains and the valleys under us.
We were especially taken by the view of Mount Yotei, which, due to its resemblance of Mount Fuji, is sometimes called Ezo Fuji (Ezo being an old name for Hokkaido). And we were not the only ones to admire the view from the top – several more hikers, climbed up the same morning (I could see that in the trailhead register), whereas one couple camped for the night inside a concrete shelter on the mountain top.
Whereas originally intending to stay there for just after the sunrise, we found it difficult to force ourselves to leave. “I can stay here for days,” Patrick told to me, as he was looking at the landscape beneath us. But, unfortunately, that would have been impossible – we had to go down, as there were more things planned for the day. When ‘checking’ out at the register, I realized that we spent exactly 4 hours there – from 3:14 until 7:14…
MTB Flow Trail
The activity that was planned next was downhill mountain biking. To be honest, I did not really feel like it at all as mountain biking is “not my thing”. It’s not that I have never done it before at all. It’s more that I really feel uncomfortable when it comes to high speeds, sharp turns and surprisingly hard ground (based on personal experience). But I was encouraged to give it a go and that’s what happened next.
To begin with, there are two mountain bike trails on the ski slopes of Grand Hirafu Resort, right in the heart of Niseko. The first one is a more or less traditional downhill course that runs around 3,000 meters with a vertical drop of 475 meters. It offers some ‘serious’ challenge and is not recommended for anyone below an intermediate level. The other one, the Flow Trail, is suitable for riders at different skill levels from relative beginners (like me) right through to pros. It is 1,400 meters long and, while it a relatively new addition to the attractions in Niseko, it represents a growing popularity of such trails (especially in Europe).
The reason why flow trails could be used by almost anyone is the way they are designed. Instead of heading straight down a steep slope, these trails feature winding tracks over a gentle gradient that incorporate jumps, banks and waves, which could be approached by each rider at the speed they desire themselves and which allow for minimal pedaling or breaking – hence the name. It is even said that the banks and turns in particular make such trails feel close to skiing or snowboarding, which is especially suitable for Niseko. And that is the course that we were going to use.
We met with our instructor, Mr. Sato from Niseko Mountain Bike School and Guiding Company, at Grand Hirafu .Base building where he explain what the plan was. The idea was to get kitted, leave our things behind, practice with the bikes at the ‘skill park’ and go to experience the track for what it was before coming back to pick up the equipment and going for the second run during which we could shoot pictures and film. “Sounds good,” agreed Patrick and I without hesitation.
To our positive surprise (the ‘horrors’ of Hanazono Hill Climb from the first day were still too fresh in our memories), the bikes we got to ride were Turbo Levo electrically-assisted mountain bikes by Specialized, which made climbing almost any mountain slope an easy task as they did most of the work. They were also extremely easy to operate – the harder you pedaled, the more support you got. “Just make sure that the green button is on,” warned us mr. Sato, when explaining how they worked. He also told us that as they were so powerful, the Japanese law did not treat them as regular electric bikes any more, which is why we could only use them on private land and not on public roads. And indeed, having practiced using the bikes at the ‘skill park’, which was located at the base of the skiing slope and offered a variety of obstacles with a gradual progression of their difficulty, we were asked to dismount our bikes to take them to the other side of the public road, before we were allowed to get back on them.
And then the ascend started. As promised, it was rather easy. The harder I pressed on the pedals, the faster I went. The trail seemed to be rather broad and, in what felt like no time at all, we were up to the starting point of the flow trail.
And that’s where my problems started. I was either going too fast or way too slow. I was breaking where I should not have or I was just doing something strange with my bike. I was definitely feeling too stressed and uncomfortable. Seeing this, Mr. Sato tried to help me as much as possible. I had already told him about my fears before and he tried to be very supportive. He offered me suggestions and pieces of advice and complemented me, whenever I did something right. And he did it with amazing patience and positivity.
I would even say with too much patience and positivity. It could be a cultural thing, but I even felt a bit uncomfortable for being praised whereas I knew that I did not deserve it. And it was not about being modest or anything like that. I really did not do well. It was really not happening for me. And there was no way I could see myself doing it for the second time. Just thinking about it made me feel panicky. “Can we please stop?” I asked them. “I do not think I will be able to go down another time.”
And that was a bit of a problem – we still had a job to do, but we did not have our equipment with us. That is why Patrick, who was rather good and definitely enjoying himself, volunteered to cycle down to fetch what we needed, whereas Mr. Sato and I stayed on the top and observed other riders. Quite a few of whom were rather young children on regular mountain bikes, who did not have any problems at all and were clearly enjoying the experience. All this seemed to be so easy for them – this made me feel even a bit jealous.
In the meantime, Patrick was back. He had his backpack with him and he was breathing heavily. “Your green light is off,” Mr. Sato pointed at the bike. It turned out that Patrick cycled up without the assistance. “That explains why it was so difficult to go up this time,” Patrick laughed.
After we finished filming, it was time to go down. “Here, try them on,” said Mr. Sato and handed me his sunglasses. “They are magical.” And indeed, either they were magical or I had just rested and calmed down in the meantime, it felt significantly easier to descend after that. I even tried to take some banked turns (with mixed success though).
Before taking leave, we thanked Mr. Sato again for all his patience and flexibility. “I believe soon MTB is going to become one of the biggest summer activities in Niseko,” he told us proudly. And, whereas mountain biking is definitely not my cup of tea, I did not see why it would not be true.
Paddling Ducky on the Shiribetsu River
The last activity for the day, which happened to be my ‘cup of tea’ and to which I was really looking forward to, was paddling on the Shiribetsu River, the main river in this area that runs through Niseko and Kutchan. This time we did not use our packrafts though and joined a ducky tour organized by Hanazono.
We arrived at Hanazono Activity Centre, which is located a bit outside the city centre next to the rapidly developing Hanazono Resort. There a bigger group of tourists (mostly Japanese) was preparing for either a ducky or a rafting tour. We also met the guides, who assisted us with the preparations. One guide, Chris, took us under ‘his wing’ and helped us to get ready.
Rafting is actually the most popular outdoor activity in Niseko and depending on the time of the year there can be grade-three or even grade-four rapids when the 4 meters thick snow layer melts during spring. Spring rafting can be done from early April but since we had already August the river was also fine for less experienced people.
Even though it was in the middle of summer, we were told that the water in the river was rather cold and we were given drysuits to put on. After some brief instruction on how to use a kayak paddle (by the looks of it some of the participants were new to it), we got onto a bus and took off in the direction of the put-in point, which was about 20 to 25-minute drive from there.
Having slept only two hours the night before, it was no wonder that the warmth and snugness of a drysuit, with a PFD on and the white noise of the bus engine overlaid with the sounds of incomprehensible conversations of the people around us, made me sleepy and I gradually drifted away… just to wake up to the explosion of activity at the put-in point.
We covered a distance of 7km and there were lots of quite areas. The staff was also very experienced, and we also stopped once and stacked the rafts on top of each other so we could all jump from this raft tower into the river which was fun!
Once we returned to the HANAZONO Activity center, we went to the changing and locker rooms after we rinsed off our foot on the feet showers.