A Changing Niseko

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Up in Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture of Japan, two hours away from Sapporo, lies a ski area named Niseko, otherwise known as ASIJ’s February Ski Break Campus. Niseko is one of the most popular ski destinations for students and families, especially those who love waist-deep powder and shabu-shabu.

Photo by Creative Commons

After years of being known by expats as Japan’s hidden skiing gem with incredible powder, the world has discovered Niseko, leading to some changes, including new hotels, new tourist demographics, and new infrastructure. A few years ago, the only people on the mountain were Australians, expats, and local Japanese; now people from all over the world are coming to see the beauty of Niseko.

Photo by Emma Rekate

One of the biggest changes has been the number of tourists each year. Every year the bases are more crowded, the lift lines are longer, and the rental shops are busier. According to the local government, Niseko Town, in 2008 the area had about 31,600 visitors who were staying in hotels. Almost ten years later in 2017, the number had nearly septupled, with 218,500 hotel visitors. Up until a few years ago, the main groups of people visiting Niseko were Australians and expats from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Tokyo. However, more recently many Chinese and Europeans have discovered it as a ski destination. Not many Americans have made their way over yet, but the secret is getting out.

 

Photo by Creative Commons

With the dramatic increase in tourists staying in Niseko, the number of hotel rooms will increase as well. In the coming years, two new major luxury hotels will be added to the area. In December 2019, a new Park Hyatt is set to open at the base of Hanazono. The new hotel will not only provide more rooms for the increasing number of visitors but will also popularize and significantly change that side of the mountain from a quiet area to a bustling intersection of skiers and snowboarders. In addition to the Park Hyatt, the former Shiki Hotel was bought out and remodeled, renamed Hyatt House. Only a few kilometers away, at the base of Mount Niseko-Annupuri, a Ritz Carlton Reserve is set to launch in 2020.

Alongside these two luxury hotels, many condos and smaller hotels have opened in Hirafu. Right in the heart of the town, the well-known food truck parking lot is being bought out and turned into a new luxury onsen hotel. Across the street from the Hyatt House, what was once and open area of land, is now being turned into condominiums for rent or purchase. It may seem like these new developments are taking away the essence of the original town, but it will help the local and national economy, provide more jobs, and promote all that Niseko and Japan has to offer.

Photo by Creative Commons

The need for more places to stay is not the only effect of the increase in tourists. There is also improved infrastructure of the main town, Hirafu, and on its slopes. Although Mount Niseko is quite expansive and there are several high-speed quad lifts, with the word getting out about the wonders of Hokkaido powder, the lines will continue to get longer and the runs will continue to be more crowded. According to an employee at Rakuichi, a restaurant near Hirafu, there is a rumor going around about the resort installing a gondola in Hanazono connecting it to Moiwa ski resort.

Photo by Emma Rekate

Currently, the resort encompasses Annupuri, Niseko Village, Hirafu, and Hanazono and during the season the mountain can get quite crowded. Adding Moiwa will help distribute tourists, making the mountain seem less crowded. Additionally, there are a handful of ski lifts that are quite old and are being replaced. One of the most impactful lift renovations was at the base of Hirafu where many beginner skiers and snowboarders took lessons. The original lift, Family Pair Chair Lift next to the main road in Hirafu, only took two at a time, not very far up the mountain, and not that fast. As of 2017, the lift was upgraded to a high-speed quad lift, which not only holds more people but also expands the area of which people can learn to ski or snowboard. If the ski resort continues with upgrades like these, then it will take on ever-growing crowds more safely and efficiently.

 

Though Niseko’s prime powder is now attracting people from all over the world, the changes taking place will benefit many in the long run. While it means more crowds, its facilities will cleaner, safer, and more efficient. The secret of Niseko has finally been revealed to the world, and it’s just a matter of time until more skiers come over to Japan to see its beauty.