2005 - Third Time Lucky?
Never to do things by halves I returned again to Niseko – Hirafu, Japan this year for my third consecutive time. I knew there were changes before booking and it was with a little trepidation that I arrived in Niseko.
In particular the expected increased numbers of Australians were of concern. It didn’t take a university degree to figure out that most non-Japanese coming to Niseko were doing so to experience the off-piste powder conditions.
And sure enough there were many more Australians in Niseko. It was not that there had been a huge increase in available beds but it became obvious during my stay that Australians were displacing Japanese from Niseko. Most notable was the absence of the huge colourful school groups that would mainly dominate the lower slopes of Hirafu. The only place I regularly saw large groups of Japanese youth enjoying the regimented, uniformed ski & board lessons was in Annupuri.
OK, so there were many more Australians than in the past and this must have had an effect on the slopes? There were several factors that caused slope conditions to be different from previous years.
Firstly there appeared to be much more lift closure due to high winds. Hanazono 3 lift must have been closed half the time I was in Niseko. This alone placed much more pressure on Hanazono 1, the Triple chair and Gondola.
You may have heard that an Australian consortium has bought the Hanazono lift company together with the ski school, ski patrol, grooming, horse riding, golf course and about 60 Ha of land for development. The consortium then contracted the existing lift people to run the Hanazono lifts. Could the increased wind closure of Hana #3 be due to the contracted locals wishing to take more care for their new employers or was it the damage inflicted by the massive ice & wind storm of February 2004 a reason for more closures this year?
On top of this, there appeared to be more lifts closed for no apparent reason on the lower slopes. For example the single and quad chairs that run parallel to the Gondola were almost always closed. Gondola queues became very long on many occasions and the opening of the single and/or quad would have reduced that immensely. I don’t know if the merger of Kogen and Alpen lift companies (now known as Grand Hirafu) and the resultant lack of competition may have resulted in less lifts being opened but it makes you wonder.
On the plus side of the equation there was a new multi resort lift pass available this year which made it much easier to go in and out of Higashiyama and Annupuri. Together with a more relaxed attitude to off piste riding in both of these resorts there was much more terrain easily available this year for finding that untracked powder.
The most unfortunate changing condition in Niseko is (dare I say it) the Aussie yobbo. Last year saw the first ever car theft in Niseko. This year petty theft was the thing. In a country were the locals leave their houses and cars unlocked we have suddenly found that boarders are having to padlock their boards up when going to lunch or the toilet. Wallets, mobile phones, cameras and the like are going missing and I am told it is yobbo Aussies responsible for these never before seen crimes. Hopefully the authorities will crack down hard and put an end to this before it gets totally out of hand.
Apart from outright criminal activity there were numerous embarrassing scenes of groups of drunken loud-mouthed, testosterone-overloaded Australian males demanding attention from bemused restaurant and bar staff. You have heard of people talking of the “loud-mouth Texan tourist” (my apologises to any Texans reading this) well now there are undesirable Australians really embarrassing all other non-Japanese visitors to Niseko.
When I say “testosterone-overloaded” I don’t mean to point the finger at the younger generation. Many of the crudest and rudest were middle-aged males on holidays “with the boys” and really hassling the locals (in particular the girls). I also noticed several groups of older-than–middle-aged Australians that were just not prepared to take up and respect the local customs. Things like removing your shoes before entering a house or restaurant and changing to lavatory slippers when using the toilet.