By Mike Crane
With snow gently falling in the northern, mountainous regions of Japan, another ski season is well underway. While Nagano, having hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, is a well-known name, Japan is rarely viewed as an international ski destination.
But in a distant resort town across the Pacific a growing number of Australians are slowly getting the word out and trying to change the way skiers view Japan forever. Their efforts are partly inspired by Whistler, and perhaps should be closely monitored by Whistler.
Japan’s second largest and most northern island, Hokkaido, is home to a mere five per cent of the Japanese population. To most Japanese the island is famous for its seafood, dairy products and rolling wide-open spaces. Those who have visited in the winter, however, know that Hokkaido also offers the best skiing in Japan. They know that the air is cooler and crisper than at the more southern resorts and that because of this the snow is far more abundant and consistently drier and lighter.
Hokkaido offers a wealth of ski resorts. It is home to the best of the best and the jewel in its crown is the inter-connected ski fields that make up the Niseko area. Being one of the largest resorts in Japan, it is famous for its abundance of terrain. With an average 12 metres of snow annually, containing a marginal eight per cent water content, Niseko is also arguably home to the finest snow in Japan. Several visitors, in fact, tout the snow to be “the world’s highest quality powder.” With fronts consistently sweeping across the Sea of Japan from neighbouring Siberia, offering near daily accumulations, there may be some creditability to their claims.
Offering more than 1,000 metres of powder-laden vertical interconnected with 38 lifts over four ski areas (Higashiyama, Annupuri, Hirafu and Hanazono) all under one pass, Niseko has all the traits to carve a line as a world ski destination.
And since the early ’90s an increasing number of Australian pioneers have been successfully setting up shop in Niseko. Early comers started out in outdoor sporting businesses, such as rafting, and branched into tour operations, acting as agents for inbound Australian tourists. The most recent have been establishing themselves as property agents for a highly anticipated development boom.
In 2004 things took a significant step forward when, in the first acquisition of its kind in Japan, Australian based Harmony Resorts Niseko Pty Ltd (HRN) established a Japanese subsidiary, Nihon Harmony Resorts KK, and purchased the Hanazono ski area, including a golf course, from Japanese based Tokyu group. HRN brought together several key figures in the Australian ski industry, including a former Australian Alpine Enterprises managing director, with the backing of a group of investors.