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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

THE ZEIT GIST

Booze-fueled antics take gloss off Hokkaido ski resort boom

Foreigner-led influx helps Niseko prosper, but locals residents have mixed feelings


Special to The Japan Times

For Niseko resident Shigeru Uehara the times are changing. The well-reported influx of Australian visitors and businesses to the region over the past few years has brought significant change to his community.

Snowboarding in Niseko
TREVOR CLARKE PHOTO

This is a change that, by all accounts, appears likely to intensify and is both warmly welcomed and cause for some minor concern.

While working with Niseko Home Design for roughly five years, Uehara has noted several developments. "First of all it used to be only in the winter time that we saw foreigners working in town," he says.

However, Uehara noticed that there were now many, older foreigners arriving during the summer months and looking at property in the area. Kutchan district figures show that the number of non-Japanese visitors to the resort area has risen more than 11-fold in the past six years, with 80 per cent of these arriving from Australia.

In fact, during winter, the town of 15,796 people sees more than 7,000 Australians arrive on its doorstep. Uehara says about 50 per cent of his clients are Australian customers looking to enter the housing market.

"It used to be higher, but now we have more people coming from other countries like Hong Kong," Uehara says. "It's getting more international now, a lot of Malaysian people too."

Has all this change been positive? "For the most part yes I think. Definitely economically it's a lot more active than a few years ago. There are also some people, especially those not directly involved with the economic boom, who are a little bit negative. A lot of Japanese who used to live here for a long time are starting to leave."

The character of the area is changing in other ways too, but not necessarily for the better. "There are a lot of new bars opened. Again that's one of the reasons a lot of locals are moving out," he says.

"In fact, only a few days ago my friend and I were in the village and were hassled by some drunks. Having an experience like that so recently makes me think it is happening quite regularly."

For now minor incidents like this are concentrated in Hirafu village, the primary destination for most Australian visitors. One walk around the village at night during peak winter season is time enough to notice the overwhelming and predominately Anglo Saxon population frequenting the drinking spots.

Although hard evidence of visitors' misbehavior is lacking, rumors abound of the occasional bar fight and public nuisance -- a trend that was absent from Niseko before the Australian boom began.

Shigeharu Takao has been visiting Niseko from Sapporo for countless years, and is another who has noticed the aggressive changes. "It's changed a lot over the last few years. About three or four years ago, lots of foreigners started coming," Takao says. "Hirafu now is completely changed from four years ago. We don't go there anymore."

Despite his own disinclination for the Hirafu nightlife, Takao is not overly concerned. "After skiing, going for a drink is not a bad thing. So is relaxing with a video. So it's really not a problem. If everyone enjoys it that's great."

Jason McGregor, an Australian expatriate living in Japan who has been coming to Niseko for over five years, agrees. "When I first came up here I honestly thought about that problem: the Aussies are going to misbehave and carry on especially at night," McGregor says.

"They aren't really disrespectful but maybe their way of enjoying themselves is different from the Japanese. So maybe it's a bit of a culture shock for the Japanese. But if they are willing to take our money they have to be willing to take us as well I suppose."

The Niseko Aussie phenomena has been reported on by most major news agencies in Japan, often with some bemusement as to just why this particular skiing region is so popular.

For most Japanese, other ski resorts are just as attractive and perhaps even more accessible. But for many in Australia, the trip to Niseko, facilitated by Qantas direct flights to Sapporo, is much easier on the wallet and body than traveling to Europe or North America. It's also arguably comparable, on the same grounds, to a week in the snow at one of their home resorts.

McGregor explains another essential part of the attraction of Niseko for those from Down Under. "I think when the snow is falling here it's probably the best snow on the planet," he says. "And coming here is probably not much different to driving to the snow for many Australians, so why not come?

"Now there are a lot of Aussies everywhere. Obviously one of the benefits is that a lot of businesses that were closing down are now thinking about expanding. The money coming in there is huge."

Indeed, the boom has seen the value of property in these areas double in a few short years. In the ski villages close to Hanazono and Hirafu, three-bedroom condos are reportedly going for between 30-40 million yen on average.

Now Niseko, which for many years was considered quite the backwater, is the only place in Hokkaido where property prices have risen. And for those locals who are involved in the economic surge, it seems they are generally happy to accept the changes taking place.

Naoya Wada grew up in the region and says the developments have clearly altered the feel of the landscape. "There have a been a lot of new buildings constructed, especially in a modern style. But that's a good thing," Wada says.

The increased property investment and construction boom has seen new and spacious western-designed houses begin to dot the landscape. "Economically it's been a great for the community," Wada also notes.

Another change is the re-definition of who is a local. Wada notes that in the past few years many people, especially from Honshu, have begun calling themselves locals despite distinctive Kansai and other regional accents. "Real local people don't mention the fact they are local," Wada claims.

For the future Wada hopes Niseko can retain its character while continuing to prosper on the back of the current boom. But this might be easier said than done.

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