“Well, just remember this”, he said, getting up off his stool for the conclusion of the lecture, so that he stood a good deal taller than I did: “A country’s like a sheet of paper; it’s got two sides. On one side there’s a lot of fancy lettering—that’s the side that gets flaunted about in public. But there’s always a reverse side to a piece of paper—a side that might have ugly doodlings on it, or bits of graffiti, or goodness knows what. If you’re going to write about a country, make good and sure you write about both sides”.
Advice of an old Japanese man to the author, The Roads to Sata, Alan Booth (1985)
This series of posts will eventually cover a fortnight recently spent touring the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, Hokkaido; if the posts were a lake, they would be broad and shallow, like Furen-ko in the east of the island, never much more than a meter or two deep and a summer haunt of Japanese Cranes, rather than steep-sided and profound, like Shikotsu-ko, a largely lifeless though highly scenic caldera lake in the west.
June 27 and 28: The narrow road to the deep north
Departure was always going to be difficult once I had decided to celebrate my two weeks of liberation from the toad of work with a bottle of Pimm’s and both English and—heresy—French lemonades. I finally struggled out of the flat into blinding sunlight at around 10am, having to drive time-wastingly once around the block to pick up the forgotten baseball cap from Mr. B, an Amsterdam leather and rubber emporium, which it later delighted me to wear in front of many who would have been shocked by its implications, had they had the vision to contemplate them.
The first 100km or so to Utsunomiya took a grinding four hours and I began to fret about the remaining 750km that I had to get under the belt before bed, about whether I would have to drive all night to make the 7.10am ferry the next day. Not long after Utsunomiya, however, the last of Tokyo’s weekend-trippers peeled away to their destinations and the pace of the traffic crept up to close to the 80km/h speed limit. Vehicles were still packed tightly together, though, and the mid-1970s stretch of the Tohoku Expressway around Sendai, the largest Honshu city north of Tokyo, which was showing its age in its narrowness and its endless steep tight curves, proved to be a demanding drive. North of Sendai mid-afternoon, the Tohoku emptied out and flattened off, and as much in celebration as anything else, I eased out into the passing lane, hoping to put more blacktop behind me before dusk descended.
The sirens and the flashing blue lights triggered the usual “you can’t mean me” response, until I looked at speedometer, checked the proximity in the rear-view mirror, and realized with the usual sinking feeling that accompanies traffic violations that, yes, indeed, they did mean me.
Sendai’s finest were clipped and efficient, never straying into brusque or patronizing; they had me clocked at 138km/h (86mph) in a 100km/h (62mph) zone, which I was assured was very fast indeed. The accuracy of the on-board radar I was not going to begin to dispute. That would be a Y35,000 ($375, GBP228) contribution to the Old Boys’ Benevolent Fund if you’d be so kind, payable within 10 days. It’s akin to a fine, they said.
Everyone speeds in Japan, all the time—how can you resist on an empty expressway when the speed limit is set at 80km/h (49.7mph); my foolishness was to stray beyond the bounds of permissible speeding, to become the hammered down upstuck nail—and the nail looks so much the more upstuck when it’s a convertible sports car with the hood down.
So now, with half the day’s journey work still to do, I was running a marathon but with the posture of a participant in a three-legged race, one of my legs tied to the speed signpoles that, now I was obliged to notice them, appeared with monotonous regularity every kilometer or so. Now that only moderate speeding was a possibility, lest I had more points struck from my license to add to the three just garnered, I opted to coattail the fastest-moving vehicle in sight, at a slightly slower speed; at least this way there’d be the emotional satisfaction of demanding of the next brace of cops why they were not in hot pursuit of the car that had been ahead of me. In this fashion I made good time until I branched off the Tohoku deep in Iwate Prefecture onto the Hachinohe Expressway, which was almost completely deserted as the sun took its curtain call to the drapes of the mountains this Saturday night.
The expressway finally ran out of gas just north of Hachinohe, depositing me in the encircling gloom with another 150km to go in the dark on a convoluted route in unfamiliar territory. Long proud of my orienteering prowess, I’ve always abjured allegiance to the GPS tribe; now, precious minutes ticked away as I sat parked close to convenience stores, grateful for their borrowed light, as I wondered whether the Noheji turn-off to Rte 279 might just have been at the dimly lit intersection three traffic lights, a couple of bridges, and an old man walking his dog ago.
Eventually I made it to Mutsu, the last town of any size, and up the waist of the westward facing anvil of the Shimokita Peninsula, skirting the sulfurous fumes and blasted landscape of Osorezan, the Mountain of Dread, and down the very last leg of the day’s journey, through the narrow, deserted streets of a seemingly never-ending unwinding procession of fishing villages clinging tightly to the precious sliver of land between the rocky north coast of the peninsula and the Tsugaru Strait, until the land broadened out and I reached the tuna town of Oma, from which the shortest ferry hop to Hokkaido was mine, the next day, to be made.
It was satisfying to park up in the lot of the Sun Hotel in the serene cool of a late Oma evening, satisfying to have unspooled the entire ribbon of road that connect this, the northernmost point on Honshu, with the metropolises that lay in largely happy ignorance of it to the south, satisfying to know that 99.9% of the 100mn or so inhabitants of the island were now south of me, in the same way that lowlanders might get a premonition of the extraordinary from being at extreme altitudes. Not having eaten all day, after booking in I asked if there might just be somewhere to have dinner, although it was long gone 10pm and this was clearly an early riser of a town. To my surprise, I was directed to an izakaya just around the corner; surprise became amazement as I walked into a very slick operation, with well-kept fish tanks and a gleaming wood counter. Amazement turned to disbelief at the end of the sashimi set meal: I’m no connoisseur of tuna, but I did save the chutoro, the second most regaled cut, for last, and for the first time, as the super-fresh, unseasoned, bitter-sweetness exploded delicately on the tongue and the sunlit rapture of excess broke through the grey fog of tiredness, I felt I finally understood the Japanese affinity with this fish above all fish.
But had some customs declaration for the trip demanded to know “purpose of travel”, I wouldn’t have written “gourmet indulgence” next to it, and one of the overly solicitous counter staff was trying too earnestly to engage me in a conversation of which just then I wanted no part, so I paid up and retreated to the hotel.
I didn’t sleep well that night: it might have been the coffin-like confines of the strictly utilitarian room, it could have been the sphagnum moss properties of the mattress, it may perhaps have been the 4.18am announcement over the village public-address system, whose nearest speaker to my window was about three meters away, that the wakame seaweed boats would not be going out that morning because of the weather. Mostly, though, it was a childlike excitement at a voyage to foreign lands, coupled with a nebulous anxiety that the 7.10am ferry was the only deadline I would have to meet for a while.
I moved to the room’s window sill around 5am and in the still of the fog watched a scene that had a severity that could have come from Millet: old bonneted women, already long up, tending the potato field that ran almost up against the wall of the hotel.
The queue for the boat tickets in the stuffy and overheated ferry building was abuzz with first-timer consternation; some of my fellow passengers had booked online, some by phone, some not at all. Mysterious forms were being filled out by others at the head of queue (what forms? what for? do I need one?) Nobody seemed sure whether they really needed to present their vehicle roadworthiness certificates, nor whether credit cards were accepted. Two men who I guessed to be in their late sixties standing behind me, patently strangers to each other, began exchanging small talk, unusual enough in itself, first about procedural details and then about how they had come to find themselves together in this disorienting queue at the very top of Honshu. One was recently widowed, one it seemed never married, both were from cities far south of where they stood, and as I looked around, prompted by the eavesdropped conversation, I realized that apart from a sad phalanx of leathered-up and rain-trodden bikers, I was almost the only person under pensionable age expecting to hitch a ride on the 7.10am for Hakodate. Which led on to a greater, more satisfying realization: that there was something deliciously illicit about the whole trip. Essentially the only people in Japanese society who have the luxury of both the time and the money (how one can flow but so rarely both) to indulge themselves in this kind of jaunt are the retired, and only a smallish quota of the retired at that. I simply wasn’t supposed to be there, taking my turn in the damply confused queue, which may have been why the concentration of me-directed looks was at its fiercest in the rain-spattered ferry parking lots both in the travel bottleneck here and on the way back from Hakodate.
The ferry itself was as dismal as expected: most passengers splayed themselves out on the acres of tatami mats, where some slept and many simply lolled, the journey to be endured not enjoyed. A few smokers and other exiles sat outside in ones and twos toward the stern, staring aimlessly at the ropes and pulleys, girders and gantries, the nuts and bolts of the ship. The sole retail concession, a hole-in-the-wall affair, shut up shop a third of the way into the journey—not that it sold anything of interest, just flyblown souvenirs, chewing gum, and instant noodles. A sink swilled with what at first I took to be vomit, but then realized was the unconsumed noodle soup, discarded as instructed by my fellow passengers. Undeterred, I alternated between port and starboard decks, marveled at the grey-blue tone poem of water, fog, and sky, and thrilled to the occasional sight of flying fish and their madcap scampers over the surf.
Soon enough Mount Hakodate reared up through the fog, which cleared as we neared the port at Nanaehama, just west of Hakodate itself, and I was sprung into a cloudless summer morning onto a road of alien width, the skylarks babbling an endless welcome.
Heading north on Rte 5, I made a quick detour just outside Hakodate (1980 population 345,165, estimated 2009 population 284,910, projected 2035 population 193,572) to Lake Onuma, which comes recommended as one of the top 25 sights of Hokkaido (outside of Sapporo) by no less an authority than the Japan National Tourist Organization. One end of the lake features a hundred or so little islands, a handful of which are connected by bridges; it made for a pleasant enough stroll, with the morning sunlight dappling through the fresh greenery and Mount Komagatake in the background.
Pleasant was all it was, though, and I was soon back on Rte 5, heading for my first encounters with places such as Oshamanbe (1980 population 11,004, estimated 2009 population 6,386, projected 2035 population 2,978) whose names betray their origins with the Ainu, the original occupiers of the land, in their implausible collision of Japanese syllables and near-complete illegibility. Oshamanbe, for instance, is derived from the Ainu “Osamamupetsu”, meaning “the place where the river mouth flattens out”, to which the Japanese assigned three Chinese characters meaning, roughly, “long”, ten thousand”, and “part”, and which the naïve traveler might stab at reading “Chomanbu” or perhaps “Nagabanbe”; the quicker witted one, recalling that “long” is occasionally read “osa” in surnames, would get closest with “Osamanbe”. Places with “horo/poro” (from the Ainu “poro” for “big” or “vast”) and “betsu” (from the Ainu “pe’tu” for “river”) are particularly common. I came to delight in these Ainu Hokkaido place names—the wonderful coincidence of Niikappu, the definitive closing plosives of Kunneppu and Okoppe and Otoineppu, the harshness of Rausu and Urausu, the percussiveness of Shakotan and Shibecha and Shikaoi, the rustling leaves of Rusutsu and Wassamu—and could not keep from myself a trace of disappointment whenever passing through places such as Fukagawa (“deep river” in Japanese) whose conventional names carry no air of mystery and offer no hint at an older, preindustrial connection with the land. Indeed, Hokkaido’s place names are its most tangible legacy of the Ainu, now that they have been almost entirely extinguished as an ethnic group by disease and assimilation, although it’s not clear that the average “dosanko” (ethnically Japanese native of Hokkaido) gives more than the most occasional of passing thoughts to place names, any more than the average Australian might to Wollongong, Wagga Wagga, or Whyalla.
On the road to Oshamanbe through the towns of Mori (1980 population 23,467, estimated 2009 population 18,433, projected 2035 population 12,192) and Yakumo (1980 population 26,359, estimated 2009 population 19,355, projected 2035 population 12,452), it was clear that something had gone disastrously awry with the roadside economy, with at least a third of the restaurants, coffee shops, and similar establishments, known in Hokkaido as “drive-in”, closed for good and in various states of disrepair, a situation made all the more alarming as Rte 5 is the only way to get from the rest of Hokkaido to Hakodate by road, down the chicken’s neck—this was not some dusty byway long bypassed with an expressway. After Yakumo, with its straggle of unlovely prow-beaten fishing villages and the first taste of the destruction that has been wreaked on the Hokkaido coastline, I turned inland with relief, though remaining on the—now almost deserted—Rte 5, and headed for Kuromatsunai, officially a town but really no more than a loose agglomeration of villages and hamlets, occupying the same area as a large provincial city such as Fukuoka.
Kuromatsunai (1980 population 4,532, estimated 2009 population 3,219, projected 2035 population 2,296) has more than a faint air of La France Profonde about it: unobtrusive wooded hills long cut across by curling rivers and given modest cliff faces, hedged fields dotted by rolled hayricks (with a wrapped-in-plastic Japanese touch), cow barns and five-pole fences, and excellent ham in the Michi no Eki state-run roadside rest-stop. Like the rest of rural Hokkaido, Kuromatsunai has had to try and adapt to the changes of the last few decades: fewer jobs on the farms, the departure of the young for the cities, largely never to return, and the resultant thinning and graying of the population. Kuromatsunai has played to what might seem to be the thinnest of pretexts—it has the northernmost beech forests in Japan—and yet seems, by not thinking too big, to have made a success of this, with beech forest walks, beech study centers, and beech campgrounds, and was selected this year by the Asahi Shimbun as one of the 100 villages in Japan doing the most to preserve biodiversity, stop global warming, and encourage the sustainable use of natural resources.
The charms of Kuromatsunai had by no means palled, but I was anxious to get to my first real destination, so on I sped through the neighboring town of Rankoshi (1980 population 8,055, estimated 2009 population 5,530, projected 2035 population 3,362) to the promised powder paradise of Niseko, pausing only to take in the magnificence of 1,898m Mount Yotei, Hokkaido’s Mount Fuji.
Niseko: Addictive white powder changes economies, lives
The ski resort of Niseko straddles rural Niseko (1980 population 4,567, estimated 2009 population 4,673, projected 2035 population 3,716) and the small town of Kutchan (1980 population 18,893, estimated 2009 population 15,410, projected 2035 population 12,810), which is the capital, despite its diminutive size, of the Shiribeshi subprefecture. People have been skiing in the area since at least the 1920s and the development of the resort followed a familiar enough pattern in the 20th century, with a few twists along the way: back in 1964, the enterprising and aspiring mayor of Kutchan had the foresight to twin his town with what must have been then the decidedly swankier resort of St Moritz. Forests were cleared on the flanks of Mount Annupuri to make way for pistes, winter sports got a boost from the 1972 Winter Olympics, held in nearby Sapporo, hotels went up to cater to the burgeoning ranks of skiers that emerged with growing affluence, more forests were cleared, this time at the bottom of the runs, and the land smoothed and shaped and teased into bunkers and greens and fairways, and by 1982, when the monstrous 506-room Niseko Higashiyama Prince Hotel was completed, Niseko was a fully fledged resort town, albeit one almost entirely unknown to the outside world.
That was largely how things remained through the 1980s and the peak of the bubble economy in 1989, which foreshadowed the peak in Japan’s long ski boom around 1995. But all the while a hitherto unobserved cultural undercurrent was taking shape, bursting out into a little eddy or swirl here or there, unseen by anyone except locals and initiates, as Niseko meandered on.
The first handful of Australians arrived in Niseko in the late 1980s, drawn by its world-class powder, and some of them stayed. Niseko became known among certain circles of the ski cognoscenti in the 1990s for its sheer volume of snow—15m a year according to Forbes Traveler, which rated it the second snowiest ski resort in the world in 2007—as well as a relatively indulgent attitude to off-piste skiing, usually frowned upon in Jobsworth Japan, its early embrace of snowboarders, who were once viewed as little better than hooligans by snootier resort rivals, and its comparative abundance of après-ski activities—in many a Japanese ski resort a noodle restaurant open after nine at night is a cause for celebration.
Still Japan was perceived as too difficult and troublesome by all but a hard-core; most preferred to take their summer skiing pleasures in Canada and the US: Kutchan visitor records have just 214 Australian tourists visiting in FY3/02. The events of 9/11, however, cast a pall on the attractions of North America, and Niseko’s momentum began to build in 2003 and 2004, with Australian visitor numbers surging to 4,201 in FY3/05.
This would appear to be no more than a snowflake in a snowfield when set against the 1.4mn-1.5mn visitors recorded annually by the resort over the last decade, but the Australians have had an impact out of all proportion to their lowly headcount. First of all, they linger; around a million of the 1.5mn visitors in FY3/09 were day-trippers, with the remaining half a million, both foreigners and Japanese, staying for a paltry average of 1.4 days, while foreign visitors taken separately, stayed for a more leisurely average of 5.7 days (and Australians for a positively indulgent average of 7.6 days), so they have come to account for fully 20% of all the nights spent by tourists in the resort.
Second, the new generation of—perhaps slightly less intrepid—Australian holidaymakers were less than impressed, it seems, with the dowdy selection of accommodation options that the Japanese had put up with for so long: the regulated mealtimes (what do you mean, you don’t want to eat at 7pm, do you think this hotel is run for your convenience), the dated, characterless rooms with no view (or worse, a view of the hotel kitchens, as I had), the quaint onsen hot-spring bathing customs and their intricate tapestries of rules (please sir, don’t let your yukata bathing robe drift open in the lobby, it tends to cause offence), the vending machines and the Astroturf and the electric massage chairs and the whiff of polite disapproval that lingers in the air and then clings to the chintz curtains, just as the fetid smoke of smokers past does in the smoker-friendly bedrooms.
What the new Australians wanted was what they had become accustomed to in ski resorts in the rest of the developed world: condominiums and chalets to buy or for rent, to which they could return after a night on the tiles to no-one’s frown, from which they could depart in the morning at a time of their own choosing after a breakfast of their own making, condos and chalets with space to sprawl and lounge and invite friends over, to be invited in their turn, and what the new Australians wanted, thanks to some canny Australian entrepreneurs, they got.
The result was real estate pandemonium: the price of a square meter of land in Yamada, Kutchan, near the liveliest quarter of the resort area, Hirafu, rose by 33.3% in the year to July 2006, the largest percentage gain for a piece of real estate in the survey anywhere in Japan, a feat repeated in the year to July 2007, with a 37.5% increase, and again in July 2008, with a 40.9% increase, by which point that square meter had risen in price to Y31,000 from Y12,000 just three years earlier. In contrast, Sapporo residential land prices rose by just 0.7% in the year to July 2008, while they fell in all of Hokkaido’s other main cities: by 2.9% in Hakodate, 5.7% in Otaru, 1.9% in Asahikawa, and 3.1% in Obihiro, for instance. Australian visitor numbers continued to soar: to 7,696 in FY3/06, 9,418 in FY3/07, and 13,157 in FY3/08, and increasingly the Australians, abetted by the strength of the Australian dollar and the equity in their own homes built up by Australia’s long bull market, were looking to buy, not rent: asking prices for 120m2 condos in the right locations climbed from Y30mn-Y40mn (currently US$315,000-US$420,000) into the Y50mn-Y75mn (US$525,000-US$800,000) and beyond range, not far off central Tokyo levels.
Tell-tale signs of excess had already begun to emerge in March 2007, when the Japan Times was reporting that a Toowoomba eye surgeon had bought a four-bedroom condo for Y50mn the previous year, stayed in it with his family over Christmas, and was renting it out for Y100,000 (currently US$1,050) a night for the rest of the winter season. Our ophthalmologist signed off his brief interview with these chillingly illogical words:
“If you are a short-term speculator, it’s a risky market because some see it as an Australian bubble,” he said. “For me, it’s a good investment because it’s also backed up by capital appreciation.”
Just a few days later, the Japan Times carried another article on Niseko, eager to show, it would seem, that the fount of unreason had Kool-Aid for all:
Some people, however, worry that the current trend is just another real estate bubble in progress and say that signs of speculative buying aimed at short-term profits are emerging.
Hajime Sekiguchi, chief of Kutchan’s tourism division, brushed aside those concerns.
“Unlike hotels, condominiums have separate owners for each unit,” said Sekiguchi. “They won’t be able to sell off their properties all at once.”
For a while after I arrived in Niseko, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to file a story at all; I drove around the prim and lifeless Niseko village and its archly Swiss railway station (1965) for a while, before realizing that this was all far from where the action was.
My next destination was the Niseko Higashiyama Prince Hotel, simply because it was such an obvious blot on the landscape. Prince-brand hotels ran into enormous post-bubble troubles entirely unconnected with Niseko, and in March 2007 an arm of US investment bank Citigroup bought the hotel and leased it to Hilton Hotels, who refurbished and reopened in July 2008 as Hilton Niseko Village:
This luxury resort has something for everyone, from families seeking adventure to those dreaming of a rejuvenating retreat. Designed by Arnold Palmer, our 18-hole golf course is surrounded by beautiful forests and overlooked by the iconic peak of Niseko Annupuri. Go horse riding out in the fresh northern air or white-water rafting down Shiribetsu River. Slip into our open hot springs beneath bright blue skies and verdant Mount Yotei, or slip off to the spa for some indulgent pampering.
This luxury resort had nothing of interest for me to slip into or off to, however, and I turned tail in the congested car park. As I approached Hirafu, the scale of the property boom became more and more evident. At first it was the discreetly bilingual signs outside the terraced chalets with their suburban feel.
Then came more imposing properties, ones that might not look completely out of place in Aspen or Courchevel.
These places are not designed for the domestic market; the Australian presence was becoming palpable.
The Niseko Company, with its achingly fashionable slate rectangle of a signboard, has a website so exclusive that nothing so vulgar as the rental prices of the properties on its books are even disclosed, although the website designer’s marginal literacy is: “Soothed by the panorama of the surrounding snow-covered trees, tranquility is the best way to describe the 3 semi-detached contemporary condominiums”.
Finally I arrived in the center of Hirafu, essentially nothing more than a T-junction, with the leg of the T leading straight up the side of Mount Annupuri for a few hundred meters to end in a jumble of car parks and ski lifts. There was no shortage of For Sale signs around; Lodge Ronde promises a great commercial/development opportunity, with a recently refurbished restaurant/bar/ski shop and 10 guest rooms.
The main drag these days has a dramatically split personality; on one side are the real estate agents catering to the foreigners:
and the developments they have wrought.
Is there anything that the supermodel thin and determinedly lowercase lettering on the center flagpole isn’t giving away about the state of the West in, ooh, the summer of 2007? Aren’t you Gaggenau? You can learn more about how to acquire an Alpine lifestyle with infinite growth potential (their words), by skiing in and skiing out of The Vale Niseko website.
On the other side of the street, we step back in time to Ginreiso, where a night’s stay—and breakfast—will set you back a princely Y6,000 ($63). The website boasts of the large communal bath and the hotel’s own potato field, not that there’s anything to be ashamed about either.
The large vacant lot in front of Ginreiso (opened 1968) hints that all is not well on the other side of the street, and indeed the hotel immediately next to it, Uranaka (1969), looks to have gone for good.
Uranaka was not the only one; another of the eight or so mid-sized hotels on the strip had been closed for a good year or two. Next to Uranaka was the 165-room Hirafutei (1977), where I ended up staying.
Clearly no beauty, Hirafutei was fairly full, in part perhaps because it has survived and in part perhaps because it has an authentic hot spring of its own. Occupying half a dozen tatami rooms on my floor that Sunday evening was a party of pensioners who had all been in the same year of the same elementary school in the nearby village of Kyogoku (1980 population 4,276, estimated 2009 population 3,444, projected 2035 population 2,282) some fifty or sixty years previously, and they were having a rare old time, propping their doors onto the musty corridors open, traipsing in and out of each other’s rooms, knocking back sake, and singing sotto voce enka ballads a cappella. They were Hirafutei’s core customer base, at least in summertime, I felt; I was the only foreigner staying there, as far as I could tell from breakfast the next morning.
I sensed I had the measure of Niseko by now; the only thing that was wanting was a conversation with a foreign resident. All afternoon I had kept lookout, but the few foreigners I had spied were frustratingly distant, driving past at speed, unloading shopping from the back of a car with intimidating dogs, or having a barbecue on a remote balcony. Then on a remote and otherwise forested road, I came across Ian, cooler-clad can of beer in hand, watering his newly sodded lawn in front of his newly erected house and complaining about a local variety of horsefly, the Japanese name for which he couldn’t recall.
Ian, like a few Australians I’ve met in out-of-the-way places, runs his own Internet company, or rather has female minions run it for him back in Australia while he gets on with the important things, such as his lawn. He had been coming to Niseko on and off for a decade and a half and had lived in Japan, now, he said, for a total of four years. Without it wanting to appear too much like an interview, I asked how Niseko was faring in the wake of the collapse of the Australian dollar, which halved in value against the yen in the space of a few months in 2008. “Well”, he said speaking with the authority and boosterism of a Kutchan Tourist Board representative and displaying an impressive command of the numbers, “We’re expecting visitors to be down by around 40% this year, but we’ll still have 10,000 or so Aussies through over the course of the winter”. How, I wondered, was the property market holding up given that prices had effectively more or less doubled for Australians. It had taken a bit of a hit, he conceded, “but to be honest, I think most people are using what they’ve bought as land banks”. Did he have any idea roughly how many foreigners were living in the area permanently? “There’s about a hundred, a hundred and fifty of us. Not just Aussies, you know, Americans, Canadians, even a few Poms”. Was there a bar or somewhere in town where people got together? “”Well, not really. We have a few barbies at each other’s places, you know.” Gingerly I broached the question to which everything else had been a preamble: what was it exactly that appealed about living in Niseko? “Of course, it’s the lifestyle, isn’t it?” Uttered with a faint air of incredulity that anyone could be such a simpleton as to have to ask. I explained that I had come up from Tokyo (“Ooh, I don’t like it down there”) the previous day, was only staying in Niseko that night, and was heading off to Yoichi in the morning. “Yoichi? What are you going to do there?” I muttered that I was planning on drinking a lot of whisky and made my excuses.
Dinner that evening was at Jojo’s, which forms part of the Niseko Adventure Center, established by one of the first Australians to arrive, Ross Findlay, who is generally credited with playing an instrumental role in putting Niseko on the map and who was employing some 70 people as early as 2003. Although I didn’t know about its background at the time, the foreignness of the establishment was easy enough to divine from the colorful climbing wall that extended up from the ground floor store through to the first floor restaurant and from the large balmy deck where I ate al fresco, which is close to a contravention of the law in Japan, watching dusk envelop and night subsume the magnificence of Mount Yotei.
Jojo’s was empty when I arrived; a party of two Japanese men and a woman in their mid-twenties arrived sometime later and sat next to me on the deck. One of the men had recently returned from a long stay in the UK; he began a tirade about British food, with particular spleen reserved for the traditional English breakfast. It really doesn’t taste good at all, he informed his companions, it’s so heavy on the stomach, and to be served it day after day, well, it just gets so monotonous. His companions murmured sympathetic noises for their poor friend’s plight as they ordered their burgers and fries.
I had to move to a lounge seat inside, the better to reflect, briefly and unprofitably, on the state of the youth of Japan, and then on Niseko, which it would be no exaggeration to say is the only place in Japan since WWII whose physical fabric has been appreciably changed by an influx of foreigners and which could, with the wind in the right direction, become a hothouse experiment in cultural miscegenation.
One of the consequences of Niseko’s arrival as an international playground, and more generally in its success in retaining its domestic appeal, has been its demographic stability: Hokkaido has around 180 administratively defined villages, towns, and cities; of the 160 or so municipalities that are not part of Sapporo and the five other largest urban areas, the population is falling, often precipitously, in every single one, save Niseko and one other. Kutchan’s official statistics record 287 foreign residents as of end-June, 1.8% of the population, and Niseko just 76 (1.6%), but without foreign tourism and the attendant jobs it brings, it’s hard to see how the mild population decline that was showing in the census numbers for 1995-2000 could have been turned back, as it has been.
As with any gold rush, the charlatans and chancers have been drawn to the flame: Tokyo condominium developer Zephyr caused consternation in 2007 among the good people of Niseko with plans to build a 43m high condo complex in contravention of voluntary zoning restrictions; fortunately it obliged them by going bankrupt in July 2008. Concerns have been raised about Niseko locals being priced out of the property market, but the boom has been so localized these fears seem largely misplaced. For some, though, the transformation has all been a bit much:
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.” (Japan Times, March 2007)
I was convinced when I left Niseko the next morning that the boom, originating in the obsessive passions of a sliver of winter sports fanatics from a far away land and stoked by a reverse carry trade, if you will, in the easy money days of the middle of the decade, was doomed to a spectacular bust. It may still be, but over the last couple of years, visitor numbers from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Canada, the US, and other points of the compass have been quietly building, so much so that in FY3/09, Australians accounted for only 45% of foreign visitors, down from 73% in FY3/05. It may just be that, however fitfully, imperfectly, and implausibly, Niseko becomes one of the holy places where the races meet. If they go there anymore.