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Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012
Lawyer enjoying best of all worlds after infatuation with skiing leads him to Niseko
Aussie takes slippery slope to Hokkaido
By KRIS KOSAKA
Special to The Japan Times
Matt Dening, 44, grew up on sunshine in a small beach town south of Sydney. Like most Australian youths, Dening played "all the regular sports — swimming, cricket, rugby — but not really well."
"I never had one sport I was completely interested in, but I was always outdoors and active. My father was a builder, so if I wasn't working outside with him, I was playing sport with my brother."
Yet one sport would change Dening's life, bringing him across the ocean to Japan, where he now serves as managing director of a real estate development/tourism company in Hokkaido's Niseko area.
Nothing in his early life indicated Japan. After graduating from high school in 1984, Dening worked at the local government office, fueling a desire to run his own business and study law. He graduated from Wollongong University in 1995 and began practicing law with several small legal firms in coastal towns close to home. "I wasn't with any huge firms, just local companies dealing with small business law, litigation, real estate, what I call retail law."
Dening enjoyed practicing law, and his early adult life seemed to be running along smoothly toward a promising career. In 1996, however, a girlfriend invited him to go skiing for the first time, and Dening's life suddenly veered.
As he explains, "Going down that first hill was amazing. Something about the mountains, the snow and cold, the adrenaline of being on the edge of control. I knew immediately this sport was for me."
Dening moved to Canberra in 1997 to take advantage of its two-hour access to ski hills. He kept his day job, opening his own practice with a partner, but skied in every free moment he had.
Both on and off the hill, he gradually built success. Dening learned to parallel and grew confident with steeper runs; off piste his law firm was flourishing just as well. "We started with just ourselves and one secretary," Dening recalls of his law practice. "But in four years we grew to five additional lawyers and eight support staff, with offices in different locations around New South Wales."
Unknowingly, Dening began refining skills for his future, not only improving his edging and control downhill, but also expanding his legal knowledge on commercial properties and business law.
Mount Yotei, Dening's mountain of the future, lies near the town of Kutchan in southern Hokkaido.
In 1999, Kutchan -one of the municipalities surrounding the Niseko ski area — enjoyed relatively quiet popularity. Niseko was known among serious Japanese skiers for the exceptional snow and splendor, and the town's only other tourist claim was its original gosetsu-udon noodle made from potato flour.
The ski boom of the 1980s and early '90s had faded with the collapse of the bubble economy, and it was to this rural paradise of powder that Dening traveled, by chance, for a ski holiday.
He and a friend had been looking through an Australian ski magazine when one small advertisement caught their eyes: "At that time, only one company offered ski tours to Japan from Australia, and it just seemed like somewhere different to try with an easy time-difference. We didn't know much about the snow."
His first impression of that white still burns vividly in memory: "I remember being on the bus up to Niseko and seeing more snow than I had ever imagined was possible to be in one place.
"Driving along roads with walls of snow on either side was surreal and so far from anything I had ever experienced. As a child and young man, I had always been fascinated and read stories about the polar explorations, the dog-sledders, landscapes of snow and ice. Living in Australia, of course, there is nothing like that — just the beach and desert and endless summer. So coming here was amazing, to experience what I had only read about."
The skiing as well proved amazing, but Dening was equally captivated by Japanese culture. "Never having traveled a lot, and never having been to Japan before, there was a certain level of nervousness. But the people in Niseko and Hokkaido were wonderful," Dening recalls. "To experience Japanese hospitality and manners, it was something completely new and unexpected for me."
Dening returned to Australia newly determined to center his life around a mountain. He sold his practice to his partner in 2002 and moved to New Zealand. Settling in Wanaka near Queenstown in the South Island, Dening enrolled in a ski instructor academy at Treble Cone Mountain.
His certification opened up the world of skiing, but his memories of Niseko lingered. Dening decided to spend a season in Kutchan, finding work any way he could.
"On a working holiday visa, I was a guide, a bus driver and a host. I guided people around the mountain, or picked them up at the airport in a bus or drove them to the hot spring baths. I had one day off the entire three months and pretty much worked from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day," Dening remembers. "I absolutely loved it. It was such a great time. Every spare moment I spent skiing, and that's the year I probably learned how to ski properly."
Dening became convinced of the world-class level of Niseko's snow, and he noticed an opportunity for real estate development aimed at the international ski holiday scene.
On the lifts he met an Australian couple, Simon and Joasia Robinson. "My future partners had recently lost their catering/restaurant business in severe bush fires in Canberra, and they were equally impressed with Niseko and looking for the next adventure in their lives," Dening says. "We decided to start building Western-style apartments in Niseko."
The first apartments by their company, Hokkaido Tracks, were finished in 2003. Dening moved full time to Hokkaido, also marrying that year his Nagoya-born wife, whom he had met trekking in New Zealand.
Personal and professional joy ran parallel: their first son was born in 2004, and business at Hokkaido Tracks snowballed: "We didn't start the real estate boom in Niseko, but we have been here from the start," Dening says, although their modern, international apartments certainly provided a catalyst for the astounding growth of the Hirafu Ski Resort and surrounding areas in the past eight years.
Both ends of the globe recognized their contributions in 2006, awarding Hokkaido Tracks an Australian Import Award for their support of Australian building companies and materials, and the Investment Award from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
The company quickly expanded to include two divisions, Tracks Holidays and Tracks Development. Dening manages the Holidays side, and is responsible for ensuring each ski vacation meets the same Japanese hospitality he encountered on his first visit. "We handle everything, bringing people in, the lift tickets, restaurant reservations, driving services, recommendations on backcountry skiing specialists, basically every aspect of the customer's holiday."
The Development side works with the local community and foreign investors on long-range projects. As an observer from the beginning of the surge, Dening admits there were problems and struggles.
"The biggest obstacle is long-term planning and vision for the town," Dening believes, but the 2008 Lehman Brothers shock may have helped the city in the long run.
"After Lehman Brothers, properties and development fell off along with the tourism. A ski holiday is definitely discretional spending that gets cut in tough times, but it gave the town a chance to re-evaluate and make long-range plans."
According to Dening, last year's ski season again enjoyed growth in tourism, although, like the trend in many other parts of Japan, the number of visitors to Niseko this year is down about 25 percent. Dening remains upbeat: "We all expected a drop this year, but so many places in Japan are facing more difficult times, and we are confident the snow and hospitality will bring people back next year."
Yet Hokkaido is not only about snow. "Road cycling is world class in Hokkaido. The roads are quiet, the scenery amazing, drivers are respectful and polite. And in Japan, there's always a convenience store or cafe for a stop along the way." Dening added summer tours to Tracks Holidays: "Our goal is to fill our apartments, and we try to think of any way to encourage people to take advantage of the many great aspects of nature in Hokkaido."
Obviously a fan of the mountains, Dening is also quick to point out the increasingly urbane appeal of this small village. He calls Kutchan "Japan's only cosmopolitan" town. "I get the best of all worlds. I get to live in the natural countryside of Japan, with all its advantages and the kind people of a countryside town, at the same time enjoying an international resort with residents, workers and guests from all over the world."
In 2010, Dening and his wife decided to divide their time for two years between Australia and Niseko for their small children and their family overseas: "We spend the Australian winter and summer school holidays in Niseko at our home here, and I continue to work year round at Hokkaido Tracks. We wanted to introduce our children to Australian culture and give them a strong base in English as well as Japanese. Our plan is to move back to Japan full time and have the kids back in Japanese school in 2013."
Dening sees a bright future for Niseko, and he intends to be part of the trek: "I am incredibly proud of what we've accomplished here, we being myself, the people in our company, and also all the other foreigners and Japanese who have been working and building businesses here. It's a great thing for Hokkaido and Japan to have this fantastic international resort.
Though Dening says Niseko is still in the very early days of its development, he is confident that it "will keep growing, expanding and improving as an international destination. It is already highly regarded and visited by people all over the world, and the natural gifts of the mountain are here to stay."
For more information on Hokkaido Tracks, see their website at www.hokkaidotracks.com