Has Japan reached the tipping point?

My first trip to Japan was in 2018. It had been on my shredding radar for years and the only thing that had been holding me back was family duties. I couldn’t commit more than a week away at a time, which is too short for this trip. Once you factor in the cost of flights and time it takes to travel there you really want to schedule 12-14 days to make it viable. This gives you 10-12 days on snow. It might seem excessive and sound expensive but it’s not uncommon for people to have 2 trips to the Alps in the winter. I’ve done the sums, 2 weeks in Japan does not cost more than 2 separate trips closer to home. For the next 3 years I religiously retuned every January for 3-4 weeks, staying around the Niseko region in Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island which is also the well publicised snow mecca. It really does feel like a snow tap has been turned on and almost everyday is a full powder reset. On each trip back I could feel the growth in tourism, whether that be from new hotels, apartments, restaurants and coffee shops. With this, inturn, came an increasing influx of people, both in the town and on the mountain. The queues had become longer. You had to think out of the box and try and outsmart everyone to decide where to go to get fresh tracks each morning. It was still manageable, especially if you mixed your trip with lift access terrain, boot packing and snowshoe/splitboard touring. But you started to feel boxed in and faffing was out of the question. Decision making felt like a tactical military manoeuvre each day rather than a smooth flow, which is how it should be and also embodies the style and art of Japanese riding.

Retuning back to Niseko in 2024 was fantastic to catch up with local friends, but it felt like the area had been injected with steroids. The volume of people had exponentially grown. It was stressful to go riding in the resort area or out of the controlled gates. I can only compare it to an alpine resort in the school holidays, but everyone here is riding powder which becomes super hectic. When everyone is chomping at the bit and frothing it removes a lot of joy out of the experience. There was no pleasure cruising, just mad, fast charging. Wacky races. Very quickly the snow gets chopped up to powder bumps. It was too much for me, the enjoyment was overrun and it was all too over stimulating. I spent the rest of my time slowing down, touring out the back. This still has so much to offer but I don’t always want to earn my turns. I love lift access riding and the terrain, especially out of the gates all over Niseko United is incredible, you just have to share it with thousands of other enthusiasts.

This is not a criticism of Niseko, ultimately they are a tourist destination and have chosen a model that they believe will be highly profitable and aimed at a specific market. It is not a long journey nor time change from Australia. It has become their version of Val d’sere or Verbier. Hundreds of young seasonaires working in all the rental stores, hipster coffee shops, restaurants and ski and snowboard schools. Similarly for China and other Asian countries, they want to experience the Japanese snow. This is the natural evolution of the place. But what is very noticeable is that the local culture, traditions and heritage has been engulfed, swamped and almost buried. We couldn’t get tables in restaurants, they had to be booked months in advance, even if you wanted cheap and wholesome ramen. Some bars would only allow you in with reservations, pre booked time slots on their app. Preparation in advance for socialising is essential, which doesn’t cut with me. My chill was well and truly ripped. I guess I’m not their target market.

So this might all sound like the point has well and truly tipped. In my opinion it certainly has for Niseko United. However, all is not lost. The great thing about Japan is it has hundreds and hundreds of small resorts in many different regions. When I returned last winter, Niseko was at the end of the trip. Prior to that we had been exploring other areas of Hokkaido with a great crew. The feelings and emotions I had when I first arrived in Japan came flooding back. The excitement of the unknown. Experiencing the culture. Inexpensive, niche, calm, relaxed, friendly, quiet and the snow, light and dry and deep. It is so easy to be drawn into the larger resorts, those well documented and marketed, but if you want the full immersive experience then I suggest you steer away from the known and head to the unknown.

I will be running a snowboard adventure trip to Hokkaido, Japan in January 2025, to the unknown. In the next blog post I’ll share some of the highlights from last winters trip.



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