Take a fresh look at your lifestyle.

- Advertisement -

Analysis | Everyone wants to ski in Japan’s powder snow, except the Japanese


For the first time since the pandemic hit, Japan’s ski slopes are once again crowded, filled with Australians, Hong Kongers and other tourists who have been unable to enjoy the world-famous powder snow sometimes cringe-inducingly referred to as “Japow.” ”

But while it may be one of the last great snow destinations, fewer and fewer Japanese people can be found on the country’s most beautiful slopes. The number of locals skiing or snowboarding at home has fallen by more than 75% since its peak in 1998.

On the face of it, things have rarely looked better for the sport. Their profile has been boosted by Japan’s record number of medals at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, with Ayumu Hirano winning the country’s first snowboarding gold. Thanks to the influx of tourist money in the pre-Covid boom, the largest resorts are investing in new facilities for the first time in decades. On a recent trip to the Rusutsu resort in Hokkaido, I discovered bubble-era kitsch like animatronic robots gradually being replaced by luxury wines, craft beers, and Instagrammable light shows. Compared to the snowless slopes of the Alps this year, Japan’s best runs are covered in deep powder, especially after a recent massive snowstorm that paralyzed much of the country.

And yet only 3% of the population now say they ski or snowboard, up from 14% in 1998. Smaller resorts have gone out of business, and numbers have dropped by a third since 2000.

Skiing in Japan has its origins in 1911, when an Austro-Hungarian military major is said to have given the first lesson to locals in Niigata. As the economy began to grow after World War II, it became a symbol of newfound wealth and boomed in the bubble economy of the 1980s. The winter sports population peaked at 18 million in 1998, when Nagano hosted the country’s second Winter Olympics and the rise of snowboarding provided an additional boost. New ultra-fast train lines and highways are bringing once distant destinations within reach of the 36 million people of the greater Tokyo area. Sapporo, the host in 1972, is looking forward to a bid for 2030.

How many locals will participate by then? In 2020, only 4.3 million said they ski or snowboard, according to the Leisure White Paper published by the Japan Productivity Center. The pandemic has pushed that further, with individuals staying home and school trips being cancelled.

Sure, it’s harder for those in more southern parts of the country to keep up the habit. Falling snow levels have devastated resorts in Kyushu and southern Honshu, with some crowdfunding each season to stay open. These resorts, which cater to local residents and often have only a handful of lifts, are further challenged by rising energy prices, especially if they have to provide artificial snow.

Yet the same decline is reflected in some of the most beautiful snowfields. The problem is simple: these are expensive hobbies and can be hard on the body. The latter is displacing the increasingly aging population from the market; the former means fewer young people, with already tight salaries, can easily enjoy it.

According to a survey, the cost of equipment, travel and accommodation are the biggest reasons for not enjoying winter sports. Enthusiasts will understand: it can be a seriously demanding hobby on the wallet. Although the country has an impressive network of ultra-fast trains and regional airports, domestic travel is not cheap. Add to that the costs of renting or buying equipment, a Sisyphus task that requires something to be replaced every year. According to one study, a one-day lift ticket costs an average of 6,000 yen ($46). The Rusutsu resort raised its prices by a whopping 35% this year – something has to be paid to build those craft beer bars.

It’s a vicious cycle in which resorts have to raise prices, driving locals further away in favor of foreigners, who stay longer and spend more. Overseas money is also crucial to support a number of resorts and ski towns. None is more prominent than Niseko, the Hokkaido village where the number of foreign visitors has increased forty-fold since Australians first spread word about the powdery snow in the late 1990s.

It’s likely to become more in demand as resorts dry up elsewhere. JR East will soon extend the Shinkansen further to Hokkaido, transporting passengers from Tokyo to a station just minutes from both Niseko and Rusutsu. Some forecasts say climate change will actually increase snow in Hokkaido and other mountainous areas in the northern interior, even as snow becomes rarer further south.

Japan has tried to halt the declining winter sports population, including by offering 19-year-olds free ski passes for a year. A recent report from Deloitte recommends enticing older skiers who may have given up by enhancing the surrounding experience with quality restaurants rather than typical cafeteria fare. However, the same report also recommended targeting tourists from Southeast Asia and China, who have little opportunity to ski at home but have a lot of money.

All this contributes to the increasing dichotomy of the market. Looking at Niseko, resorts that can cater more to the taste of wealthy foreigners. Once a sleepy ski town modeled after classic European destinations, Nozawa Onsen is now full of flat whites and avocado toasts, and has become more accessible from Tokyo with the opening of a nearby bullet train station in 2015.

As smaller resorts disappear and money focuses on other areas, ski spots can increasingly resemble the luxury hotels of the Maldives or Bahamas – favored by wealthy tourists, but without locals.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Skiing just feels wrong these days: Andreas Kluth

• Begging companies to raise wages is not the answer: Gearoid Reidy

• Skiing in your neighborhood shopping centre? Why not?: Leticia Miranda

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and Korea. Previously, he led the breaking news team in North Asia and served as the deputy chief of the Tokyo bureau.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.