Ski Japan: The Birth of an Industry

Tourists head to Japan for many reasons: the shopping and night life of Tokyo, the temples of Kyoto, the scenic beauty of Hokkaido. But skiing? That's not something most travelers immediately associate with Japan. The country's national ski industry, which exploded during the boom years of the late 1980s, collapsed in the 1990s and hasn't recovered since. Not even the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano could spark interest; Hakuba, one of the country's major resorts, has seen the number of skiers fall by nearly 60 percent to 1.2 million from its peak in 1991.

Now the country's ski resorts and travel industry are stepping up their efforts to lure holidaymakers back to the slopes. Businessmen are promoting their resorts at travel fairs around the world and launching English-language Web sites. Major hotels and lift operators have hired a number of English- and Korean-speaking staffers to help first-time visitors—who come mostly from Australia and elsewhere in Asia—feel at home. Local hotel owners have also begun running shuttle buses to give foreign guests a chance to see more than the slopes, ranging from Japanese-style casual restaurants called izakaya to hot springs. They are flaunting their relatively low prices, sparse crowds and no lines. "We are hoping to create a cycle where our guests will invite more guests," says Shinichi Shiojima, president of Hotel de La Neige Higashi-kan, located in Hakuba.

It's not a tough product to sell. Japan is blessed with towering peaks that see piles of powder every winter. Hakuba has seven ski resorts, including Happo One and Hakuba Goryu, but other resorts like Shiga Kogen and Myoko are not far away. They rise more than 2,000 meters high, with a vertical drop of about 1,100 meters. "The mountains are really big and the snow is very similar [to British Columbia's Whistler]," says James Robb, a Canadian ski instructor who moved to Hakuba in 1999, after watching the Olympics. Compared with Australia, "it's much cheaper, bigger and not crowded here." Indeed, lift tickets are available for about $40 per day—about half the going rate in Vail or Zermatt—and there are no lines except during the New Year holidays.

Niseko, on the northern island of Hokkaido, has been a hot spot since 1995, when Australian ski instructor Ross Findlay established an outdoor adventure center there focused primarily on river rafting and skiing. Word spread about the mountain's superior powder, and skiers began flooding in from Australia. Now it is one of the country's most international resorts, with 26,000 foreign visitors in 2005. Local ski-industry experts in Hakuba expect to see a 20 to 50 percent growth in the number of foreign visitors over the next few years. "We are beginning to see some hope for our future," says Fukuichiro Yamada, vice chairman of Hakuba Chamber of Commerce at the foot of the picturesque "Japan alps" in Nagano. "Our hope is that foreigners will serve as a big shot in the arm for reviving Hakuba." And help make skiing a main attraction in Japan.