Analysis | Everyone Wants to Ski Japan’s Powder Except the Japanese
On the surface, things have rarely looked better for the sports. Their profile has been elevated by Japan’s record haul of medals at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, with Ayumu Hirano winning the country’s first snowboarding gold. Thanks to the influx of tourist money in the pre-Covid boom, the largest resorts are investing in new facilities for the first time in decades. During a recent trip to Hokkaido’s Rusutsu resort, I found bubble-era kitsch such as animatronic robots being gradually replaced with upscale wines, craft beers and Instagrammable light shows. Compared to the snowless slopes of the Alps this year, Japan’s best runs are covered with deep powder, especially after a recent massive snowstorm that paralyzed much of the country.
And yet, just 3% of the population now says they ski or snowboard, down from 14% in 1998. Smaller resorts have been going out of business, with the number operating down by a third since 2000.
Skiing in Japan traces its roots back to 1911, when an Austro-Hungarian military major is said to have given the first lesson to local people in Niigata. As the economy began to grow after World War II, it became a symbol of newfound wealth, and surged in the bubble economy of the 1980s. The winter-sports population peaked at 18 million in 1998, when Nagano held the country’s second Winter Olympics and the rise of snowboarding provided an extra boost. New bullet train lines and highways put once-distant destinations within reach of the 36 million people in the greater Tokyo area. Sapporo, the host in 1972, is eyeing a bid for 2030.
By then, how many locals will take part? In 2020, just 4.3 million said they ski or snowboard, according to the Leisure White Paper published by the Japan Productivity Center. The pandemic has depressed that further, with individuals staying home and school trips canceled.
Certainly, it’s harder for those in more southerly parts of the country to maintain the habit. Declining snow levels have devastated resorts in Kyushu and southern Honshu, with some taking to crowdfunding each season to stay open. These resorts, catering to nearby residents and often with just a handful of lifts, are further challenged by rising energy prices, particularly if they have to supply artificial snow.
Yet, the same decline is reflected in some of the finest snow fields. The problem is simple: These are expensive hobbies, and can be hard on the body. The latter shifts the increasingly older population out of the market; the former means that fewer young people, with salaries already squeezed, can easily enjoy it.
The cost of gear, travel and lodgings are the biggest reasons for not enjoying winter sports, according to one survey. Enthusiasts will understand: It can be a seriously demanding hobby on the wallet. Even if the country boasts an impressive network of bullet trains and regional airports, domestic travel isn’t cheap. Add to that the cost of renting or buying gear, a Sisyphean task in which every year something needs to be replaced. The average cost of a one-day lift ticket is about 6,000 yen ($46), according to one survey. The resort of Rusutsu raised its prices by as much as 35% this year — something has to pay to build those craft-beer bars.
It’s a vicious cycle in which resorts must increase prices, further pushing locals away in favor of foreigners, who stay longer and spend more. Overseas money is also crucial to prop up a number of resorts and ski towns. None is more prominent than Niseko, the Hokkaido village where overseas visitors have surged 40-fold since Australians first spread word of its powder snow in the late 1990s.
It’s likely to become more in demand as resorts elsewhere dry up. JR East will soon extend the Shinkansen further into Hokkaido, whisking passengers from Tokyo to a station just minutes from both Niseko and Rusutsu. Some predictions say climate change will actually increase snow in Hokkaido and other northern inland mountainous areas, even as snow becomes rarer further south.
Japan has tried to arrest the declining winter sports populace, with initiatives such as offering 19-year-olds free lift passes for a year. A recent Deloitte report recommends enticing older skiers who may have given up by enhancing the surrounding experience with quality restaurants rather than the typical cafeteria fare. The same report, however, also recommended targeting tourists from Southeast Asia and China, who have little opportunity to ski at home, but plenty of cash.
All this contributes to the increasing bifurcation of the market. Looking at Niseko, resorts that can are catering more to the tastes of wealthy foreigners. Nozawa Onsen, once a sleepy ski town modeled on classic European destinations, is now replete with flat whites and avocado toasts, having become more accessible from Tokyo with the opening of a nearby bullet train station in 2015.
As smaller resorts disappear and money becomes concentrated in other areas, ski spots might increasingly become like the luxury hotels of the Maldives or the Bahamas — beloved by rich tourists, but with locals missing.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Skiing Nowadays Just Feels Wrong: Andreas Kluth
• Begging Companies to Hike Wages Is Not the Answer: Gearoid Reidy
• Skiing at Your Neighborhood Mall? Why Not?: Leticia Miranda
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and the Koreas. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia, and was the Tokyo deputy bureau chief.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
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