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Saturday, June 2, 2012
Japan's great outdoors becomes Oregonian's office-cum-playground
Outdoor Japan website founder Gardner Robinson at home on snowy slopes, sandy beaches
By KRIS KOSAKA
Special to The Japan Times
Gliding through powder across Mount Hakkoda in Aomori Prefecture or scanning the surfers at Shonan Beach in Kanagawa Prefecture, Gardner Robinson's life and work merge so completely that on the clock and on the slopes are one and the same.
Founder and editor of Outdoor Japan Media, an extensive website, including the print magazine Outdoor Japan Traveler, Robinson connects people interested in travel and outdoor pursuits across the country.
Robinson grew up in Oregon, a place known for its nature and wide-open spaces. "Obviously the Pacific Northwest has a lot of beautiful spots, so I grew up fishing and camping, waterskiing and playing lots of sports, like basketball, football and tennis. I always loved the outdoors, but I really got into it at the University of Oregon when I joined a program called Pacific Challenge."
This travel study program from Australia and New Zealand accepts students for a university term abroad. "The entire program is based around outdoor adventure or adventure travel, like hiking, rock climbing or mountain biking and white water rafting, even bungee jumping," he explains. "At one point I remember water skiing across a lake in Queenstown and watching my friend bungee jump out of a helicopter. There were lots of ways to challenge yourself and it introduced us to many new experiences. I got to know the organizer well, and he hired me on as an assistant guide the next year."
After finishing his degree in journalism and English literature in 1994, Robinson hoped to combine his passions and find work as a travel writer after graduation. A different job opportunity arose out of his sports background, however: "A friend introduced me to the Pacific Island Clubs resort in Saipan. (They) were looking for someone with a tennis background. I still had the travel bug. I didn't know where Saipan was, but it sounded like a good adventure."
Robinson worked in Saipan for a year. "It was my introduction to Asia and about 80 percent of our guests were Japanese. I met a lot of great people and learned a little Japanese." Robinson visited Japan for the first time in 1996 as a representative of the resort at a travel show, and when his contract was finished, he decided to backpack with a friend through Asia for a few months before heading home to the United States.
Back in Oregon, Robinson weighed opportunities, but he couldn't forget the natural beauty of Japan. It was also the fall before the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. After considering a job offer in Singapore, he settled on a return to Japan.
He soon found work teaching English at a language school and junior high school in Nagano. After settling in there, Robinson immediately began exploring the outdoor life around him. "I fell in love with the mountains, the hot springs, the snowboarding. The snow is good in Oregon, but you get so much powder in northern Nagano, with its uncrowded slopes. My friends and I used to call it the hot water syndrome, the 'sickness' of not being able to leave Japan's hot springs. In winter, we had a pretty simple existence. Every weekend, bomb up to the mountain, snowboard all day, hot springs, get up the next morning, do it again. A week of work, and back to the mountain."
Robinson naturally made many connections with others active in the outdoor lifestyle. He began writing travel and outdoor features for various English publications in Japan, and launched a website in 2000, the official start of Outdoor Japan. "I launched the website at the very beginning of the Internet boom. I was really just trying to fill a void, connecting people with the companies that were doing these really cool outdoor activities in Japan. There was no place for the customers and the companies to come together and find each other."
Realizing he wanted to stay more long-term in Japan, Robinson joined Image Publications in 2001, the publishers of Tokyo Weekender, a weekly magazine started in 1970 by Susan Scully and Corky Alexander. "Corky had been around since the '50s. I feel so lucky that I got the chance to hear his stories about old Tokyo and the changes. I was their online editor, and launched a travel section in the Weekender called Travel and the Outdoors."
Alexander encouraged Robinson to also develop his Outdoor Japan website, and the site steadily grew. After Alexander's untimely death in 2004, Robinson stayed on with the company until it folded and Tokyo Weekender was later sold. It seemed the right challenge to "go all in" and focus full time on Outdoor Japan. He launched the print version of Outdoor Japan Traveler Magazine in October 2005, the first bilingual outdoors lifestyle and adventure travel magazine in Japan. "We got a lot of feedback from our readers and advertisers through the website, so we did it backwards. We slowly grew the website, and I became confident that a print magazine could also do well," he recalls.
Celebrating its 12th anniversary online this year, Robinson's original modest site has grown into an extensive bilingual media network, offering travel tools, guides and information catering to hikers, bikers, festival-hoppers and hop-lovers.
Another feature of the site is the column The Local Brew, of which Robinson explains with laughs. "It's just a part of the Pacific Northwest, a part of the outdoor lifestyle. You go mountain biking or skiing or snowboarding or hiking or you might go golfing, and then you go to the local micro-brew pub and have a beer." Robinson and a friend recently opened a small craft beer bar on the slopes of Nozawa Onsen in Nagano Prefecture, called The Craft Room, just one more reason for him to head to the mountain.
Seven years ago, Robinson started hosting annual events to help Outdoor Japan readers get out of the city. Snow Splash and Summer Splash are outdoor events with live music and activities to bring people together in nature from all parts of the nation. This year's Summer Splash will be held June 30 at Canyons Alpine Lodge in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture.
Another reason Robinson blends work and play? It puts him in touch with like-minded people all around the country, from Japan's world-famous rock climbers to snowboarders. He met his wife in Yamagata, also home to one of his favorite ski spots. "Gassan is closed much of the winter since you can't get up there to it with all the snow. A buddy and I headed out there on April 25 from Tokyo, leaving in T-shirts and shorts; halfway there, it started raining, and as we drove up the hill, it was pouring snow. The next day, we're riding powder during Golden Week. It's hard to remember when you're in an office building, but Japan has so many outdoor opportunities, easily accessed from Tokyo."
Although Robinson has enjoyed watching the growth of the current outdoor craze in Japan, evidenced by "yama girl" (fashionably attired girl hikers) or the Niseko ski resort boom, he has ridden several waves of challenge. "The days of trying to print a million copies of a magazine and getting them out there, surviving on advertising alone, is pretty much gone, especially with digital media. Outdoor Japan Traveler is going back to our digital roots in the sense that we are putting all of our magazine online now and really trying to get the information out there in any way for our readers and sponsors to make the magazine more accessible to more people."
Work is thus not all play as Robinson has had to make adjustments, especially after March 11, 2011. "We've always done a ton of travel stories — the magazine is all about travel, outdoor sports and lifestyle, but we really wanted to broaden the scope and reach out to more of the accommodations and organizations in the travel industry really affected by the disaster."
Despite the obstacles, Robinson is optimistic: "Last winter was a scary season for everyone in the travel industry. No one knew what kind of response to expect, if prebookings would follow through, and in some areas there is still a struggle, but other areas did very well. It was such an amazing winter this year, and the people who came were treated to perfect conditions for skiing and snowboarding, even very late in the season.
"There have been so many ordinary people doing extraordinary things," he says. "Overall, since the disaster last year I've been amazed at how people have responded. Of course the courage of those directly affected has been unbelievable, and those in the travel industry, many that we work with, were hit hard, but have been doing their best and its great to see travelers now coming back."
Robinson recently branched out into consulting and other forms of media, together with Outdoor Japan Media staff helping the Japan National Tourist Organization prepare videos to advertise the many outdoor wonders of Japan. But he has never wavered from his path as a traveler, promoting travel.
"I once wrote in an article, 'Perhaps the noblest reason to travel is to expand one's humanity,' and I really believe that. People who visit Japan seem to make a connection and perhaps the outpouring of support Japan received was partly due to that. But that's the beauty of travel. It enables you to feel more deeply for the people and the places you've been."
Whatever places Robinson visits next, he can guarantee he'll be hiking up to pristine powder slopes or enjoying the beach life near his home in Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. "I love traveling in Japan. It's safe, dynamic, with four diverse seasons and such diverse landscapes, from scuba diving in Okinawa to the powder snow in the mountains," he said.
For more information visit www.outdoorjapan.com