In Deep: Hokkaido's Ski Identity Crisis

 Ski paradise or amusement capital? Hokkaido struggles to make up its mind.  Thanks to Eric Dyer for the photo.

Ski paradise or amusement capital? Hokkaido struggles to make up its mind.  Thanks to Eric Dyer for the photo.

Another edition Cutting Room Floor from a magical 2015 Japan trip with an awesome crew. 

Ever since professional skiers and film companies descended upon Hokkaido, Japan nearly two decades ago, skiers have become accustomed to the moving images of divinely spaced trees, legendary storms, and impossibly deep snow. It has been the Shangri-La of sliding downhill, its still frames pasted longingly in dorm rooms and ski lockers wherever snow flies.

Yet, despite becoming Asia’s top ski destination, Japan’s north island has remained a calm departure from the tourist traps set in the Alps and Rockies. The 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo provided a brief fling with international acclaim, but Japan’s legacy has remained in Tokyo’s neon tubes and the tip of a seismograph pen. The north island has quietly stayed just out of reach, maintaining a simple lifestyle and an unsullied natural paradise of volcanoes and pristine forests spread across six national parks.

However, an influx of developers and large bank accounts are migrating to Hokkaido to change that, investing millions in hotels, mountain villages, and transportation. Ignoring cultural costs for economic potential, they have incited a societal tug-of-war—on one side, big money promising a major payout, on the other, an island clinging to a mountain identity stretching back thousands of years. And, at the center of it all, the best powder skiing in the world.

 The Kirikrew takes flight in Hokkaido circa 2015.

The Kirikrew takes flight in Hokkaido circa 2015.

Hokkaido is no stranger to invaders. For centuries the native Ainu tribes—hunters and craftsmen with Siberian origins—battled and lost their lands to waves of Japanese inquisition, first to trade, then to gold, and finally to forced national unification. It remained a relatively independent entity until it was absorbed into modern-day Japan as a prefecture in 1947, earning it a certain Wild West mysticism that still pervades among mainland Japanese today.  

But the island’s newest conquest comes from foreign shores, carrying ski bags and base layers.  Our group of six steps into Sapporo’s New Chitose International Airport feeling as if we’d reached the final frontier of the ski world, a 16-hour flight away from the status quo. What we don’t account for is how thoroughly we’d been beaten to that frontier. Arriving in Niseko, Hokkaido’s premier resort town, we’re shocked to find convenience stores, pizza parlors, and heated sidewalks hours from any major city. English is everywhere, and we spot more Australian tourists and bright print outerwear than anyone resembling a Japanese skier.

 Deep twilight with Eric Dyer at Kiroro Resort.

Deep twilight with Eric Dyer at Kiroro Resort.

In Niseko, the transformation is well under way. Developers have sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into the destination, including more than 10 large-scale residential projects started since 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal. Upscale apartments in the village list for well over $2 million, and we pass rows of high-rises with foreign comforts ranging from tapas bars to cigar lounges.  With no restriction on foreign ownership or on profiting from property investment, wealthy investors from Asia, Oceania, Europe, and North America have swooped in, hoping to create a luxury resort experience akin to the Alps or Whistler in the heart of an emerging Asian market.

At nearby Kiroro Resort, Sheraton and Tribute Portfolio, a Starwood Resorts subsidiary, have planted their own seeds on the island, taking over the area’s major hotels and all but assuring their future growth on Hokkaido.

Resorts have even begun hiring English-born marketing directors to accommodate the promised rush of Westerners and wealthy Chinese.

It’s disillusioning to say the least, but after spending a couple of days carving deep turns down idyllic ridgelines of Japanese maple and white birch, the draw becomes clearer. Hokkaido is geographically and orographically blessed, with strong, cold northwesterly winds sweeping down from Siberia. Resulting storms pick up moisture off of the Sea of Japan before running full force into the island’s nine mountain ranges. These barrages drop over 500 inches of light, dry powder snow a year (Niseko received 622 inches in 2013), giving it one of the highest annual totals of any ski destination in the world. With a consistent snow period from mid-December to early February, it’s as close to a sure bet as any in the ski world—a fact that many Japanese figured out far before the hotels came to town.

 Night recap with some Strong Zero and Suntori.

Night recap with some Strong Zero and Suntori.

Our stationmaster Yoshi moved to Hokkaido 20 years ago from his native Osaka, a move he attributed  “to being closer to nature”.  In the two decades since, he has hand-built a series of guest cabins, carved out a bath from an old-growth log, and, as one does when buried under 40 feet of snow every winter, started skiing.

After he finishes chopping wood and shuttling guests around Niseko, he throws on his faded white, purple, and gold jacket, hops in his Toyota minivan, and heads up for some runs under the lights. Yoshi doesn’t consider himself a hardcore skier, but the sport is firmly engrained in his weekly routine.

It’s a tune we hear from many locals. Mountains are a way of life here, and while investors work overtime to sell the resort experience, a culture of homegrown skiers and snowboarders keeps ski areas humming throughout the island countryside.

Ancient Ainu myth contends that life itself began on a remote Hokkaido peak, and it’s difficult to ignore the spiritual pull toward the volcanic ranges crisscrossing the island.

 Yoshi and the cabin he built by hand. Twenty years later, and he's still in love all that snow. And his shovel. Photo at right, courtesy of Eric Dyer.

Yoshi and the cabin he built by hand. Twenty years later, and he's still in love all that snow. And his shovel. Photo at right, courtesy of Eric Dyer.

“I love the mountains, it’s a very special place,” says our friend Taku, a ski patroller at Kiroro Resort near the coastal town of Otaru. “I used to surf, but after my friend died in the water, I stopped. I wanted to have that same feeling again, so I started snowboarding. I have been [in the mountains] ever since.”

Taku has seen the developmental waves ebb and flow throughout Hokkaido, including the real estate bubble of the early 2000s, the inevitable crash in 2008, and the economic shockwaves of the 2011 Fukashima earthquake disaster. He says that all of the rich that once frequented the Hokkaido hills returned back to mainland Japan, leaving only “the dedicated skiers and snowboarders”.

Those committed downhill enthusiasts, like Taku, are now the backbone supporting a new wave of foreign inquisition that threatens to replace simple mountain life under glitzy mountain villages. As a ski patroller, Taku helps enforce the resort rules and manage risky slopes to keep guests safe, while other Hokkaido locals run lifts, punch tickets, and prepare lodge food. He says despite his long hours, he often still gets to ski fresh powder after his shift ends around 2 p.m. But, with the annual number of foreign visitors to Japan doubling since 2011, the golden window of Japan’s quiet powder Mecca may be dwindling.

The boon also raises infrastructure concerns for a ski community rapidly outgrowing its roots. While resorts build mini-malls and luxury lodging to accommodate swelling numbers, rental shops are five years behind their overseas peers, lacking many of the modern powder ski technology and safety equipment offered at North American and European resorts.

Safety itself is another impending issue. As skier visits rise, skiers and boarders are pushing beyond the resort boundaries and into unmanaged avalanche terrain. While there have been minimal burials and avalanche deaths in the region thus far, only one website, Niseko Snow, is offering a detailed snow conditions report, and their reach only covers a fraction of the island. Taku is working to establish backcountry safety regulations and access gates outside of Kiroro, but he is fighting against time. From the lifts we see the skeletons of avalanche paths and wonder how long until those paths are paved in human tragedy.

But for a seasoned powder skier there is magic in this in-between period. As investors create adult playgrounds at the base of Hokkaido’s ski resorts, the island’s ski experience is still wild and beautiful, if even for a few seasons longer.

 Night and day. New and old.

Night and day. New and old.

In Rusutsu, one of Niseko’s neighboring resorts, we buy our lift tickets in a shiny hotel lobby, walk past an animated talking tree, coast up an escalator, and by the neon lights of a candy store. After exiting the sliding doors we walk through a corridor of illuminated arches and snow animals, avoiding kids and sleds as synth-pop and a high-pitched woman’s voice serenade us eerily from somewhere in the trees. It is only then that we find the gondola, riding across the valley and up, away from the base circus and into Japan’s bottomless playground. 

No one knows how long the bubble expands before it bursts. The Hokkaido ski secret is out, and big money has undoubtedly positioned itself for an unstoppable offensive. Whether or not there will be room for the Yoshi’s and Taku’s in the coming years remains to be seen, but as developers work to transform Japan’s fabled north island, there is still time to get out and enjoy the ride.