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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 18, 2007

Ski Japan: Niseko

By Hans Greimel
Associated Press

Snowboarders from Australia enter the gate in Niseko, on the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan. To attract more foreigners, Japanese ski towns have made prices affordable and the language barrier low.

Photos by SHIZUO KAMBAYASHI | Associated Press

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Located: On Hokkaido, about 2 1/2 hours from Sapporo Airport; bus and train links are available

"The White Room": A term for Niseko snow, known for its exceptionally powder quality due to low water content

Also known for: Night skiing, heli-skiing, food and nightlife

Four linked ski areas: Hanazono, Hirafu, Higashiyama and An'nupuri; a single pass can be purchased for all four ski areas

Peak altitude: 4,294 feet

Vertical drop: 3,310 feet

Runs: 29 miles, served by 38 lifts

Longest run: 3.4 miles

Average snowfall: 52 feet of powder snow from November until April

Accommodation: The full range from share rooms to luxurious chalets

Restaurants: 17

Spas: Numerous, many with outdoor soaking baths

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IF YOU GO ...

General information: www.snowjapan.com

Niseko area: www.niseko.ne.jp

Niseko Powder Holidays travel agency: www.nisekopowderholidays.com, (011) 81-136-23-4844

Ski guide to Central Japan: www.welovesnow.com

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A cable-car line connects a hotel and Niseko's 3,924-foot Mount An'nupuri on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido. Some regard Japan's powdery slopes as the best from Shanghai to Sydney.

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Skiers traverse the slopes of Mount An'nupuri, one of four linked ski areas in the mountain village of Niseko, known for its blankets of deep, dry snow.

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Skiers ride a lift up Niseko's slopes. High-tech infrastructure and reasonable prices are draws there.

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American skiers have the Rockies, Europeans the Alps. And now Japan's powdery slopes are emerging as the top international draw for skiers in Asia and the Pacific.

Even as skiing wanes in popularity at home, Japanese mountain villages like Niseko are trading on their fabulous snow, high-tech infrastructure and reasonable prices to thrive as snowbound boom towns.

"Japan is at the top in Asia in terms of skiing. For good skiers, they know that," said Patrick So, a 40-year-old Hong Kong financier spending a week on the slopes of Niseko's 3,924-foot Mount An'nupuri.

Certifying its winter sports pedigree, Japan has twice hosted the Winter Olympics and offers some 620 ski resorts. While the country lacks the stratospheric peaks of Europe or North America Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain at only 12,385-feet Japan has no shortage of good snow.

"Lots of people have been to the Alps or Colorado," said Neil Riley, who runs WeLoveSnow, a company promoting skiing in the central Japanese resort town of Yuzawa, an easy day trip by bullet train from Tokyo.

"But there's now a lot of bragging rights to say you've been skiing in Japan," he said.

POWDERY SLOPES EMERGE AS HOT INTERNATIONAL SKI MAGNET

Japan first showed off its skiing prowess during the 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo, but the influx of foreign skiers is a recent one fueled by the sport's surging popularity in Australia, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.

In Niseko alone, the number of visitors from mainland Asia rose fivefold to 13,000 from 2001 to 2005, and the ranks of Australians descending on its sister town of Hirafu exploded from barely 200 to 7,600. In 2005, the number of South Korean skiers landing in Japan tripled to 15,000 from the year before.

Niseko's main draw is its consistent blankets of deep, dry powder averaging 45 feet a year. The Niseko resort usually remains open until the first week of May. Even though this winter has been warmer than usual in Japan, Niseko is reporting ample snowfall this year.

Located on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido at a latitude of Siberia, Niseko is routinely buffeted by sub-Arctic winds that storm across the icy Sea of Japan and drape the countryside in snow.

It's much the same all down Japan's western coast rugged peaks buried chest-deep.

The upturn has been great news for Japan's ski lodges, which, like the country's golf courses, expanded at breakneck speeds in the 1980s to match a nationwide rush of well-heeled neophytes. Yet the craze waned with the economic slump the following decade, and is still being undermined by the country's shrinking population.

Today, homegrown skiers and snowboarders number around 7 million, only half the 14 million who snapped on boots during the heyday, according to Morio Tsuchiya, a spokesman for the Japan Ski Association.

"The Japanese ski population is going down as the population ages, so (Japan's ski industry) realizes they have to attract newer skiers from foreign markets," said Neil Riley, who runs WeLoveSnow, a company promoting skiing in the central Japanese resort town of Yuzawa.

Some investors think it has bottomed out and are injecting fresh money into the country's ski facilities, which are known for their sprawling hotels, well-groomed trails and extensive networks of ski lifts and gondolas.

In December, a unit of U.S.-based Citigroup Inc. paid $51.2 million for 12 troubled ski resorts from Japanese conglomerate Seibu Holdings Inc. hoping to revive them.

The same month, Japanese property giant Hoshino Resorts said it would spend $84 million to revamp two failed ski resorts it bailed out in 2003 and 2004.

"There is so much snow here, it has real potential to become something special," said Anthony Mellowes, a property developer from Sydney who was in Hirafu scouting potential condominiums to buy.

"It's fantastic because you've got great skiing plus the different culture," he said.

Japan has long been a turnoff for foreign visitors because of its high prices and towering language barrier. But towns like Hirafu show that times are changing. English permeates everything from restaurant menus and bus schedules to ski classes. Meanwhile, an adult one-day ski pass to Mount An'nupuri's 61 runs, 38 lifts and 29 miles of groomed slopes costs $42.

At Aspen Snowmass, by contrast, a day pass runs nearly double that at around $82.

Tourists also lap up the Japanese twist on the downhill tradition ramen noodles at mountain huts instead of fondue, and ubiquitous hot spring baths to soothe sore muscles.

Yet some differences still take adjustment on both sides.

"When foreigners go to the public hot spring bath, they sometimes like to wear towels or swimsuits. But Japanese visitors just go in naked," said Kitami Itoh, a manager at the 506-room Prince Hotel in Niseko. "Sometimes the Japanese complain about foreigners' manners."