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Saturday, March 17, 2007

JAPAN LITE

Winning formula prevails in the midst of diversification


As I near the end of my winter stay in Niseko, I am left with a nagging question: Has Niseko been ruined by tourism?

The Explorers

Niseko was first discovered by brown bears and later settled by the Ainu, the original inhabitants in Hokkaido. In the late 1900s, Niseko was discovered by Australian explorers who were making their way north looking for an overland passage to Canada to go skiing.

Fatty's bar in Hirafu-Niseko
Fatty's bar in Hirafu-Niseko is actually in an old truck. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

After limited success, they gave up and jumped on an airplane and flew to Japan.

The discovery of white gold -- powder snow -- quickly put Niseko on the Australian map as a new territory. These early Australian explorers set up businesses that kicked off the tourist trade and started the Australian White Gold Rush in the beginning of the 21st century.

White Gold

Sports-minded Australians started coming to Niseko in droves in their airships, lured by proximity (no time difference), and wishing to avoid the rugged, high altitude of the Canadian Rockies. Not only did they come to ski and snowboard the famous powder snow, but they also started a land purchasing frenzy akin to how the Japanese purchased Rockefeller Center and other real estate in the United States during the 1980s.

The explorers imported cheap labor from Australia, mostly young people on working holiday visas, who were willing to pay their own way to get here and accept paltry wages with barely enough money to drink themselves silly every evening at the local pubs.

Admittedly, fortune-seeking Australians started opening local businesses with no regard for local Japanese culture and mores. They wanted things done as cheaply and quickly as possible. They bought with the intention of selling to make a quick few million yen.

The Land of the Rising Sun was now the land of rising real estate prices. By 2006, Kutchan, the district in which Niseko is situated, had the highest increase in land prices in Japan. Between all the tourists and new property owners, Niseko soon became a melting pot of Queenslanders, Sydneyites and Melbournians. In Australia's bubble economy, nothing could go wrong.

But, of course, not everything is perfect. Skis and snowboards started going missing now and then as a few bad tourists took advantage of extra baggage allowances on their Qantas flight home.

A few more bad tourists started fights in bars, and once a property owner's son hit a Japanese passerby with his BB-gun. Heads wagged, the locals said "Ehhhhhhhhhh?" and police reports were filed in broken English.

Many say that Niseko is already ruined. But is it?

During the entire Australian takeover, the Japanese have continued quietly doing business as usual. In an environment now dominated by money-toting Australians, the Japanese have not raised their prices, they have not tried to accommodate tourists who prefer beds and Western style toilets, and they have not even attempted to learn English.

They have not renovated, expanded nor rebuilt their buildings to keep up with the new luxury accommodations. Instead, they have continued a winning formula that has worked for them for hundreds of years -- communication from the heart. Honesty, sincerity, smiles and bows are the basis of all relationships.

The Hokkaido Japanese are not out to get rich. They are happy being their humble selves. They do not have to be bigger, better or wealthier. They value their culture and are happy to help foreigners understand their customs while always accepting their guests' faults and fumbles without a word. They know that success does not determine happiness. And greed has no place in their culture.

Has Niseko been ruined? No way, Jose! It has been diversified. Niseko offers more chances for foreigners to experience the unique country and culture of Japan. And hopefully, we will learn a thing or two about the virtues of being humble.



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