Niseko at a Crossroads

Features Hokkaido Travel Winter sports - February 18th, 2012

By John Barton

“How amazing it is that this rich and beautiful country,” said the American businessman and agriculturalist Horace Capron in 1872, “the property of one of the oldest and most densely populated nations of the world and in such near proximity, approachable on all sides by water, with harbors innumerable, should have remained so long unoccupied and almost as unknown as the African deserts.”

Up to the early 1990s, the same could still have been said of Hokkaido’s Niseko, a mountainous and spectacularly beautiful area on the western edge of the island encompassing two small towns, several ski resorts, golf courses and large tracts of farmland.

Since then Niseko has risen to international prominence, principally as a winter resort replete with some of the most enviable powder snow in the world.

In 2007, Forbes magazine judged Niseko as the second snowiest place on earth with an average snowfall of over 15 meters.

What accounts for this rise to international recognition as the go-to spot for serious skiing? In the early ‘90s, a group of Australian ski lovers and entrepreneurs who realized the potential of the area, set up tour companies and invested in land, launching developments that raised the profile of this Japanese outpost.

While the Australian market undoubtedly underpinned the early development, and, according to the Niseko Promotion Board, remains the dominant group in terms of winter visits, there has been a noticeable change in the last two or three years.

Check out this video from Niseko – courtesy of Eye On Asia.

New visitors and investors have emerged, principally from Asian markets — especially Hong Kong — to invest, build their own houses and look at larger scale developments.

The involvement of players such as Capella, YTL and Pacific Century Premium Developments are bringing in institutional-level investment, suggesting that there will soon be a new era of accelerated growth for the area.

“These are the key underwriters of the long term development of the area,” believes Jonathan Martin, chairman of Niseko Alpine Developments. “They bring the horsepower, vision, and the capability to drive Niseko to the next level. Without them, Niseko could fade into a slower growth profile.”
It would be naïve to think that the future success of Niseko is inevitable though.

The biggest challenge, as with developing any pristine environment, is retaining its intrinsic charm and character.

There has to be sensible, market-led-yet-sustainable development, and continued leadership, vision and cooperation from business, residents, local organizations and government at all levels.

“It is essential that both the public and private sector combine their resources to ensure the local area’s services and facilities satisfy the needs of the emerging Asian markets,” says Daniel Welk, General Manager of The Hilton Niseko Village.

“Niseko has competitor destinations, and the area can not rely on prior successes in order to achieve future ones.”

Martin adds, “The opportunity exists for Japan to create a world class alpine resort environment within the confines of Southeast Asia.  …  (the government) just needs to realize it and act.”

Niseko has been on an amazing journey and is now undoubtedly more familiar to people than the African deserts.

But now its future needs to be negotiated carefully to ensure that the very virtues that brought Niseko to where it is do not become diminished on the road to further development.

John Barton lives in Niseko where he works for Meikle & Associates. Barton is also a freelance writer and the author of several books.

Boarding in Niseko

What Hokkaido’s Got

Niseko has been the talk of foreign skiers in Japan, Asia and Australia for
the past several years. What has brought so much attention to this small
and remarkable corner of the world?

The Winter — The skiing, boarding, and snow mobiling are all just amazing as the snow is some of the best in the world.

The Summer — Across the island, Hokkaido is a stunningly beautiful place with so much to do, from outstanding golfing, rafting, hiking, kayaking, horse riding to hot air ballooning and more.

The “Hokkaido” Brand — Supported by a government-sponsored tourism initiative promoting Hokkaido, Niseko benefits from the wider exposure of the region’s unspoilt scenery, fresh food and clean air and water.

Location and Access — The international airport in Sapporo has plenty of direct flights to locations including Hong Kong. The time zone and relatively travel times mean that most Asia-Pacific travelers will not suffer too much from jet lag.

The Country — It is not only Hokkaido, it’s Japan with its reputation for safety, cleanliness and superb food.

Ski season get-aways and going-ons

Evergreen Outdoor Center, Ski season

Evergreen Outdoor Center

• Founded by David Enright, a long time resident of Hakuba, the Evergreen Outdoor Center has been operating guided tours and instruction in the Hakuba area since 2000. Evergreen has been instrumental in developing outdoor activities, ecological tours and mountain safety courses in the region.

•    Evergreen seeks the growth and development of the human spirit through personal interaction with the natural environment, physical challenge and team work, with a strong emphasis on individual needs and safety. The center’s instructions courses include: Avalanche safety in backcountry terrain and techniques of skiing and snowboarding (at the resort).

•    Specially designed kids ski lessons are available (and can include a nutritious hot lunch). Daycare is available as well for parents wishing to enjoy the slopes at their own pace.

Getting there
Happo One Resort in Hakuba, which is easily accessible by bus and train from Tokyo and is about 3.5 hrs by car

For more info:
Call (0261) 72-5150 or visit

Hilton Niseko Village

Hilton Niseko Village

•Hilton Niseko Village is on the doorstep of 48 km of manicured slopes with 61 ski-runs, 38 lifts and gondolas and more than 30 km of challenging off-piste back country.  The light, powdery snow in Niseko can reach a Snowfall of up to 12 meters in one season.

•    The Hilton hot spring includes an indoor and a stunning outdoor bath where one is able to experience nature at its best, thus combining deep relaxation with panoramic views of changing scenery and Mount Yotei.

•    The Wakka Spa offers unique menu and products to provide guests with a balance of mind, body and spirit.

Getting there

The hotel is a 2-hour drive from the Shin-Chitose international airport in Sapporo. Sky bus runs shuttle buses from the airport to Hilton Niseko village at the hour daily during the winter season.

For more info:
Tel: 81-136-441111   Fax: 81-136-443224 or visit

Niseko Landmark View

Niseko Landmark View

•    A 2-minute walk to the Hirafu Gondola is the only thing that keeps Landmark guests from the famous Niseko powder. All the creature comforts of a hotel can be enjoyed in contemporary luxury, with an option of two or three bedrooms on six levels.

•    Every condominium has floor-to-ceiling windows to showcasing Mount Yotei, Hokkaido’s answer to Mount Fuji. There are two condominium styles: Deluxe and Premium, the difference being the floor level and interior decoration. Premium condominiums are located on floors 4-6 and have been designed with superior quality furnishings.

•    As well as accommodation, Landmark can assist with lift passes, lessons, ski and snowboard rentals, airport transfers, day trips, car rentals, onsen tours and more.

For more info:
Call (136) 21 2500 or email

This article first appeared in Tokyo Weekender in 2010