Welcome to the first of a new series of White Room articles coming to you directly from snowy Japan. In each of these articles, we’ll try to update you on the current snow situation as well as introduce you to some interesting aspect of the Japan winter season.
When I first came to Japan nearly 30 years ago, there was hardly any information available in English about skiing in Japan and you hardly ever saw any ‘foreigners’ on the ski slopes. The few foreigners that you did meet were mostly either expats living in the city or those living locally and teaching English.
There may not have been many foreigners about, but the ski slopes themselves were frustratingly busy. The famous ‘ski boom’ in Japan of the 1980’s was a period of some eye-bogglingly over-the-top investment into facilities; facilities that were at the time eagerly used by millions of skiers. Skiing was near the top of the list of fashionable things to do, and waiting for over an hour to ride a short ski lift at popular ski resorts was not uncommon.
Incredibly, at the peak of the ski boom, there were apparently around separate 700 ski hills in Japan!
A lot has changed in those 30 years.
Like many ‘booms’ in Japan, the ski boom couldn’t last. Skiing became less popular, leaving lots of facilities being left relatively unused and many increasingly uncrowded slopes. Snowboarding arrived in the early 90’s and while at first, it took a while to catch on, it did become very popular and has helped the numbers from dropping further. Even now though, and with some notable exceptions, the number of people skiing and snowboarding in Japan is well down compared to what we experienced during the boom years.
There are currently around 500 ski hills operating in Japan and they are dotted over most of this mountainous country, from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south. Due to the mostly mountainous nature of the country, a large proportion of Japanese people live within (at most) a few hours of a ski hill and traditionally many have gone on school trips, learning to ski from an early age. Many of the ski hills in Japan are admittedly very small and locally-run ski hills, but there are also many large-scale resorts featuring modern gondolas, ropeways and high-speed lifts.
Another thing that has changed over the last few decades has been Japan becoming increasingly known to skiers and snowboarders throughout the world. This once ‘hidden gem’ is becoming less so each year.
Many people outside of Japan are probably first introduced to a handful of famous resorts that have been actively promoting themselves to the ‘inbound’ market (often helped along by non-Japanese people and companies that are investing in the areas and doing their own bit of promotion). The most well-known are probably the ski resorts in the Niseko area on the northern island of Hokkaido and the ski resorts in Hakuba village in Nagano Prefecture. But there are now many other ski resorts that are actively starting to promote themselves in English and trying to get the attention of this fast-growing market. At the same time, there are more people who are wanting to visit Japan and looking for alternative places to visit other than the most popular destinations. Luckily, there’s a huge amount of choice and it is still possible to find ski hills where there’s hardly a foreigner to be seen.
Niseko and Hakuba are indeed great places, but Japan is so much more than just those destinations. More on that in a future instalment.
One very important thing that has not changed significantly is the quality and quantity of snow that falls in Japan. Usually consistently huge amounts of it.
The last two seasons were ‘somewhat disappointing’ in many regions, but it’s all relative… compared with many countries, a ‘somewhat disappointing’ season in Japan still often delivers with large amounts of snow that other places could only dream of. We just have very high expectations here! 10+ metres of snow falling at base over a season is not out of the ordinary.
Japan offers an exciting mix of consistent and heavy snowfall, quality of snow and a huge choice of slopes. Add to that the interesting Japan culture and friendly people, it is easy to understand why it is appealing to a lot of people. Including a long-timer like myself.
The 2017-2018 snow season is underway and generally got off to a positive start in most regions – and an excellent start in others. A good example is Niseko where well over 4 metres of snow fell at the base by the second half of December.
If you are interested in how the Japan snow season is developing, keep an eye on these exclusive English-language daily snow and weather reporting from popular regions around the country. They’re refreshingly honest and independent, and posted by Japan long-timers:
Next time I will write more about Japan and update you on the season so far through until the end of January.
See you soon!