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Friday, Nov. 17, 2006

HOKKAIDO SKI PARADISE

Hirafu-Niseko's powder melts hearts


By MICHIRU YOSHINO
Contributing writer

There are many international-class skiing resorts in Hokkaido, but perhaps none to rival Hirafu-Niseko. Located roughly 100 km west of Sapporo, the area, which is especially popular among ski-loving Australians and expats, is home to three skiing areas: Niseko Annupuri, Niseko Higashiyama and Niseko Grand Hirafu.

News photo
The Weisshorm, one of Niseko's range of peaks, is the venue for various outdoor activities, including winter sports. (c) ORIONPRESS

With the slopes turning white under a blanket of snow, the six-month skiing season begins in mid-November in Hirafu-Niseko. The snow there is exceptional, and cannot be compared to the watery, heavy snow you may find at many other skiing resorts. In fact, Niseko's powder snow is so fine, with a water content of around 8 percent, that it is ranked among the world's best.

So check your bindings, and top up the wax on your skis and snowboard.

The three skiing areas' courses are equally attractive: Niseko Annupuri has 13 runs, with the full distance from top to bottom extending 4,000 meters; Niseko Higashiyama has 14 runs totaling 5,000 meters; and Niseko Grand Hirafu, the largest of the three, has 29 runs stretching 5,600 meters. Each skiing area is fully covered by high-speed lifts and gondolas, allowing skiers to choose any type of skiing they want.

News photo
Foreign snowboarders exchange tips on one of Hirafu-Niseko's many slopes, which are famous for their exceptional powdersnow. KYODO PHOTOS

Hirafu-Niseko also has numerous "onsen (hot springs)." The water bubbling up from the boiling lava in the depths of the Earth has a variety of medicinal effects, and a dip in the hot water will quickly soothe away the chills, and any aches and pains after a full day on the slopes. The magnificent views of volcanic Mount Yotei, Hokkaido's equivalent to Mount Fuji, serves as an extra attraction, accentuating the scenery from the skiing slopes and the hot springs. Perhaps then it is no wonder that the area has become such a favorite winter sports destination for so many people.

Although quite popular by the end of the 20th century, the number of Australian skiers to the area sharply rose after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Before that fateful day, many skiers from Down Under headed for Canada's slopes. The geographical proximity and one-hour time difference with Australia added to Niseko's appeal. And the reputation of this fine skiing resort quickly spread by word-of-mouth and over the Internet among Aussies.

Ross Findlay who was one of the early Australian arrivals, established a rafting company with just two rafts in 1995. His Niseko Adventure Center (NAC) has expanded to provide adventure sports of every kind. From spring to autumn, NAC offers white-water rafting, kayaking, mountain-biking and outdoor education. In winter, there's skiing, snowshoeing and backcountry trips to lesser-known ski terrain.

News photo
The exterior of JR Niseko Station located some 100 km west of Sapporo. The station opened in 1904.

Many Australians and expats flock to the restaurants and drinking quarters that dot the landscape to savor to their hearts' content a variety of Japanese food, Western dishes, and the full menus of liquors and sake. Consequently, couples and families alike are apt to become fans and repeat visitors to Niseko.

Figures back such an assumption. During the winter of 2005 to 2006, over 470,000 people visited the area. This was almost a 10 percent increase over the previous year. Of the total, almost 100,000 were foreigners -- a 63 percent rise over 2005. In addition to Australians, more and more visitors are recently coming from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

To welcome and accept more overseas visitors in a professional manner, the local tourist association has joined hands with a private travel agent. As their first step, they have facilitated lodging reservations for Asian visitors by consolidating their home page in English, Chinese and Korean.

Taking another step to turn Hirafu-Niseko into a more attractive resort that also appeals to nonskiers, the locals are starting to eye women and young people as their next potential target.

Condominium construction boom

As Australian -- and other foreign -- tourists prefer to stay longer, and in more spacious accommodations, than Japanese, condominium construction in Niseko is booming. For instance, an Australian entrepreneur led the way by establishing a real estate development company in 2003. According to Japanese media reports, construction of four buildings for 30 households is almost complete, with a five-story condo for 36 households scheduled to open in January 2007.

Viewing such movement, other companies are following suit. According to Japanese media reports, another Australian company headquartered in Tokyo recently revealed plans to build a megaresort facility in the neighboring Hanazono area. Another Australian firm has teamed up with a company in Sapporo to construct a five-story condo, with hot-spring baths and saunas, for over 100 households. Completion is set for summer 2008.

The local Japanese are committed to balancing development with the natural environment. Designating Kucchan, the town with jurisdiction over Hirafu-Niseko, as an area of beautiful scenery, construction of buildings over five stories high is restricted. "Ultimately, we hope to turn Niseko into an international resort like St. Moritz in Switzerland, the sister city of Hirafu," is the shared goal of many townspeople.



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