Our Summer Escape

A long-stay experience in Niseko.

Tsung Chung Kao Guest Profile Photo

Japan, here I come!

I am Tsung-Chung Kao, an engineering professor at the University of Illinois and the University of Taiwan. I often travel around the world during my summer vacation with my wife. In the past, we usually went to European countries. However, in the summer of 2015 I took a trip up to a short trip up to northern Hokkaido a conference I attended in Tokyo; this trip reignited a long-lost curiosity for Japanese culture and sparked a very real desire to learn Japanese.

Searching for a summer-long escape

After returning from my conference trip, I immediately started planning for a long-stay in Japan—I had to find an area in Japan with comfortable weather and where I could stay for two to three months. Our main objectives were to avoid the summer heat in Taiwan and to really experience Japanese culture while learning the language at the same time.

With this in mind, I reached out to some of my past and current Japanese students for their recommendations. With my students mostly recommending large cities, it was my own search on Google that propelled my plans forward in the end. The majority of results that came up were aimed at Japanese retirees and for a foreigner such as myself, I was concerned about day-to-day communication. I reached out to Hokkaido Tourism Organization for some help, and they recommended I look into Niseko.

They suggested the Niseko area to me for two main reasons: one, it’s a very international area with a large population of foreign nationals residing there; and two, Niseko already hosts a large long-stay population during summer.

With careful consideration and hours of additional research, I decided that Niseko was my ideal summer long-stay destination.

Tsung Chung Kao Studying With His Wife

My wife and I, hitting the books hard during our first month!

Back to school

We arrived in Niseko in early June and had decided that for our first month we would focus on learning Japanese. We went to a local language school for Japanese lessons on the recommendation of our hotel. The school is run by Julian Bailey and his wife Yoshiko. He teaches English and she teaches Japanese.

We had three classes with Yoshiko-san every week and each class was for a total of one hour. After the class, we would return to the hotel, review what we had learned in class and complete the homework assignment for the day. When we were not busy studying, we would take walks and enjoy the wonderful Niseko surroundings. Sometimes we would go to Kutchan Town and do some grocery shopping.

Our hotel had a great onsen on site and it was one of the activities we enjoyed the most over the course of our stay. I always carry a device that monitors my daily exercise and sleep levels. Prior to our stay, my normal sleep pattern was 50-50 deep and light sleep. Going to the onsen every day, my deep sleep level improved to between 70–80%.

We spent our first month in Niseko learning Japanese, strolling around the Niseko area, going to onsen and being entertained by Japanese nighttime television. We woke up each morning feeling very happy, satisfied and ready for another big and fantastic day in Niseko.

Tsung Chung Kao View From Hotel

The view of Mt Yotei, wearing a cloud cap, from our hotel room.

Explore Hokkaido

After the intensive study schedule of our first month, my daughter and son-in-law came to visit us from the United States. We rented a car so that we could drive around Hokkaido and visit as many of the famous and scenic parts of the island as we could—during the weekdays we continued to attend our Japanese classes.

We visited Lake Toya, Lake Shikotsu, Otaru City, Cape Kamui and drove along the Shakotan coast. We also tried to go to places that tourists rarely visit, such as Iwanai Town, Kyogoku Town and Tomari Village. We were lucky to visit Kyogoku Town during their Shakkoi Matsuri. The locals use the Mt Yotei spring water to make tofu, which has become very well known.

Summer full of memories

If you were to ask me what the most memorable part of my summer long-stay was, I would have to answer that it was the people we met during our trip.

From the start, Yoshiko and her husband were incredibly kind to us. They introduced us to many of their friends and a lot of their Japanese students ended up becoming our friends too! We got to learn a lot about Japanese daily life, the Japanese job market, social issues and more through our conversations with all of them.

Over the course of our two-month stay the staff members at the hotel had become like a second family to us! Their service and spirit were always amazing and they made sure to take very good care of us over the course of our stay.

As time passed, we befriended other long-stay guests in Niseko with whom we exchanged different cultural points of view and practiced our Japanese. There were also many long-stay get-togethers held in Niseko we were able to attended two of them. Each time, there must have been at least 100 couples and it was very fun to meet so many people. We made a few friends over the months and have even started writing letters to each other—they practice writing in English and we practice writing in Japanese!

No matter where we went, all of the Japanese people that we met were very polite and friendly to us; and once they learned that we were long-stay guests, they became even more enthusiastic about us. Going out to dine out at restaurants became a chance to make new friends. We regularly went to an izakaya called Ebisutei and the staff would all pitch in to help us order in the correct Japanese. I will always remember the fun and incredible memories we have made over this trip!

Food! Food! Delicious food!

There are many amazing restaurants throughout the Niseko area and they are often quite reasonably priced. We enjoyed dining at the sushi restaurant Hanayoshi and our other favorite is a yakitori restaurant in Kutchan Town called Torimatsu. The owner was a very generous person and we were always surprised by the free appetizers he would serve us, ranging from a nice plate of sashimi to a whole crab one time!

Additionally, there are many famous local soba and udon restaurants, like Yoteizan, Hozuki and Yukitei which we greatly enjoyed. All of them had amazing noodles and yet were very reasonably priced.

Tsung Chung Kao At Mr Mishimas Shibazakura Garden

Tsung Chung Kao with his wife in the midst of Mr. Mishima's shibazakura garden.

Niseko—I will return!

For the longest time, my blood pressure rate has usually been at about 140—that's borderline high for my age. After my two-month long-stay in Niseko, my blood pressure had decreased to about 120! What was the reason you ask? Truth be told, I am not certain either; was it because of the beautiful nature, the perfect serenity, or the delicious and healthy diet? Maybe it’s a bit of all of the above. After this unforgettable long-stay experience, we have gained so much more knowledge about Japanese culture and society and have also learned some of the fundamentals of the Japanese language.

We are excited to be returning to Niseko again this summer. We can’t wait to see all of our friends from last year and to resume our lessons with our Japanese teacher. There is so much to look forward to; places to explore and new foods to try. One of our biggest anticipations is continuing to explore Hokkaido. Even in the two months that we have already spent in Niseko, we know we have only begun to scratch the surface of this wonderful area. See you again this summer.

Tsung Chung Kao Guest Profile Photo

Tsung-Chung Kao

Tsung-Chung Kao is an engineering professor at the University of Illinois and the University of Taiwan. He is a world traveller and recently rekindled his love for Japan during his summer-long adventures in Niseko, Hokkaido.