Niseko - Rise from first tracks to tourism powerhouse!
Even with Covid-19 the future is looking bright for Niseko, as is often the case there is a silver lining with everything. We are now seeing the growth of the domestic market as the government has announced fantastic incentives for Japanese residents to holiday at home. As as you can imagine with a large population who have been stuck in their small homes for all this time they are now looking to find exciting new areas in Japan to go away too which have lots of space, Hokkaido & Niseko are now high on their list for this. This is just another step in the incredible story of the rise of Niseko, read more and find out its history and where the town came from....
Given its copious dumps of powder, it’s perhaps surprising that Niseko’s star didn’t shine earlier. After all, the area’s possibilities were spotted by some of the earliest pioneers of skiing in Japan. That goes all the way back to Lieutenant Colonel Theodor von Lerch Edora of the Austro-Hungarian Army who visited the Niseko area in 1912, first climbing the Fuji-esque volcano Mount Yotei, then skiing down it to become the first recorded skier in the area. Then, in 1927, the Otaru Shimbun newspaper (now the Hokkaido Shimbun), reporting on a visit by Prince Chichibu, called Kutchan the ‘St Moritz of the East’.
This was high praise indeed, comparing the area’s nascent winter sports scene with that of one the most famous of all resorts, host of the second Winter Olympics in 1928.
The St Moritz connection was then formalised some decades later, in 1964, when Seikichi Takaashi – mayor of Kutchan at the time – met the mayor of the Swiss town while on a visit to Europe and the two agreed to twin their towns. By then Niseko had its first ski lifts, and further expansion came steadily over the ensuing decades as Japan’s burgeoning economy fuelled a boom in leisure pursuits, including skiing as well as golf. In the heady years of the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of ski resorts were laid out across the country, many with tower hotels run by well-know chains such as Prince and APA positioned at the bottom of pistes for ease of access. In the summer, these places switched focus to golf. These hotels were also often sited to take advantage of any natural hot springs in the area – onsen, as the Japanese call them – for bathing in these steaming, mineral-laden pools, is a national obsession. In many cases, the onsen was an even greater driver for domestic tourism than the snow on the slopes above. Railway access was also key to this booming demand, with those areas closest to the country’s biggest cities best served, and the first to get the shinkansen bullet trains as they came into service. Hokkaido had a large city in Sapporo but lay far from Tokyo and was so sparsely populated that for decades it was served by only local trains for the most part.
Then came the prolonged downturn in Japan’s economy that began with a property bubble in 1991. Strapped for cash, the Japanese turned away from the slopes and eschewed exorbitant golf course memberships. Domestic resort investment dried up, forcing many smaller resorts to shut down lifts or even close entirely, a situation evident even today in many less accessible corners of the country. Onto this unpromising stage stepped a group of intrepid Australians. In contrast to Japan, their country was beginning a long upward swing in its fortunes. Fired by their characteristic urge for adventurous travel, they were on the lookout for the best skiing in Asia: where they could ski in the Aussie summer, and without the jetlag of travel to the States or Europe. The data was unequivocal: Niseko got more snow, was more reliably than anywhere else, and it was powder to boot, a far cry from the often sludgy mush that passed for snow at home. Besides the undeniably great powder though, the area needed work if it was to become a tourism mecca. With fewer Japanese coming so far north, they looked to an international clientele: expats based in Asian hubs starting with Hong Kong and Singapore, and beyond them, the increasingly affluent local populations of those cities.
Accommodation was an early challenge. Many of the existing beds were in tower hotels that were popular with local consumers, promising guaranteed standards of comfort and service, but turned off many foreign visitors. There were some charming independent chalets and ski lodges, based on the European model, but beds and bathing options were usually Japanese-style and general standards were on the rustic side. Instead, the new client was a worldly and relatively affluent Australasian, European or North American. Many were used to the flexibility of mountainside condos. Managed by hospitality specialists to ensure high standards of amenities and care, they are perfect for how many of them wished to travel: in parties of friends or multiple families, wanting the choice to eat and entertain ‘at home’.
It was clear that for Niseko to grow, a new identity would need to be forged. International developers began to buy up plots and erect modern condos, featuring picture windows and balconies on the exterior, and widescreen TVs and fully appointed kitchens inside. For some, they were second homes, to let when their owners were away; others were for year-round rental. Canny locals also sensed the change of direction. While international investment was changing things at the foot of the mountain, on the slopes themselves, another revolution was coming.
All that snow that piles up every winter in Niseko brings a burden too: keeping skiers safe on the slopes. That burden falls on the shoulders of the local ski patrol (Snow Angels), advised by the Niseko Avalanche Institute. As the resort grew in popularity and attracted more international visitors, the institute recognised that many skiers and boarders were ducking ropes to access the wonderful powder among the trees and in the backcountry. They, therefore, came up with the Niseko Rules, a code that made it crystal clear where and when it was safe to access those areas. This made Niseko the first resort in Japan to adopt regulations that permitted riders to access country beyond the ropes, primarily through the use of gates that are opened or closed depending on weather and snow conditions.
These changes in Niseko set the resort on the path to meteoric growth but this all fit well with a wider backstory too. Though Japan has been a perennial favourite in the region for its temples, food and aspirational culture, growing affluence and sophistication throughout Asia in the 1990s and 2000s brought changing expectations of what Japan could offer. Allied to that, the new millennium has seen a growing interest in wellness, including a greater focus on enjoyment – active or otherwise – of the outdoors. This caused many in the short-and medium-haul tourism markets such as Hong Kong and Singapore to look anew at Hokkaido. The wide-open spaces, fresh air, pure mountain-fed streams and rivers, and abundant and delicious produce of land and sea started to drive experimentation: some visitors came to explore with fly/drive tourism, others opted to take to the snows.
Japan’s continued slow climb out of economic stagnation was another factor, causing the tourism authorities to question the country’s long-held caution about opening up to the world. For many years it had been a laggard among OECD countries in attracting and facilitating foreign visitors. It became clear that tourism, far from being an afterthought, had a strategic role to play in the country’s future. Hitherto unsuspected gems such as Niseko, and Hokkaido as a whole, poised to explode in popularity, were the perfect catalysts.
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Steve White - has more than 25 years’ experience in the publishing industry, much of it as an editor-in-chief for the Hong Kong subsidiary of SPH (Singapore Press Holdings). Specialising in the adventure and luxury travel sector, he headed up Action Asia magazine and contributed content to the group’s other brands including AsiaSpa, LP Luxury Properties and Jet Asia-Pacific, as well as for a slew of other regional titles.
As an acknowledged expert on travel in Asia, he has been called on to appear at seminars and conferences around the region. He is a regular visitor to Japan and especially enjoys Hokkaido and snow boarding in Niseko