Winter in Japan – Hype Trumps 2020 Reality

A lot of people rave about skiing in Japan. I won’t be one of them.

Just got back from 10 days in the Hakuba Valley west of Tokyo and was underwhelmed – and not just because it’s been a poor season by Japanese standards.

No real powder but still enough snow – more than a metre on the top – to experience what the local resorts had to offer.

Which is  not much really.

At the main Hakuba resort of Happo-one, lifts are old and slow, queues huge, infrastructure outdated and poorly planned, runs limited and grooming virtually non existent despite the mountain being packed with beginners. 

There’s a feeling that the people who run the place haven’t invested a yen since the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

Same applies to village, which is random and somewhat down at heel.

Many buildings haven’t seen a lick of paint since they were built. Same story with accommodation.

Much more expensive than leading Europe resorts and inversely inferior.

We paid $500 a night for a triple share in a property that had nice staff, hard beds, lumpy pillows, threadbare carpet and towels.

That was all we could get 4 months out, such is the thirst for Japanese skiing among Australians in particular.

It looks like hoteliers feel they don’t have to invest because there’s no competition and a shortage of rooms.

As for the local transport within and between the resorts, it’s third world awful.

One village bus had a sign saying “it’s faster to walk after 3pm”.

Says it all really. 

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3 thoughts on “Winter in Japan – Hype Trumps 2020 Reality”

  1. I’m Australian and run a travel company in Tokyo (www.japantravel.com), and I can confirm that this year has been one of the worst for snow in recent memory. In fact the Japan Times on January 21st, 2020 said, “From some of the peaks [in the Hakuba area], skiers can see the Sea of Japan. The Meteorological Agency, which tracks the weather at hundreds of stations throughout the country, warned in early January that snowfall in the region was at its lowest in almost 60 years.”

    So there you have it. Unfortunately you experienced THE worst season in decades.

    But you have a great point about the lack of decent accommodation, facilities, infrastructure, and transport. It is pathetic. The reasons for this are many, but chief among them are:
    a) Japan’s inbound tourism industry has been “coasting” on relatively undiscerning Chinese visitors to propel the big tourism boom that has happened over the last 7 years, and merchants are spoiled with profits coming from little to no investment. This is obviously going to have to change after the Olympics if Japan doesn’t want to see this sector of the economy go into reverse.
    b) Most of the operators in places like Hakuba are little guys, with not much capital, limited future vision, and even more limited understanding of how inferior their products are compared to overseas. This is because firstly these operators often don’t travel much themselves, and the guests they talk to are mostly Japanese who themselves are used to the low-grade facilities. In fact, some older Japanese guests may even like the “retro” feel of the place.

    But there are exceptions. Niseko is a great example of a ski resort that was not led by local Japanese operators, but which instead formed around the vision of several foreign-but-locally-resident entrepreneurs. Indeed, in the beginning, land owners in Niseko were incredulous that anyone could imagine having a major snow resort there. But with perseverance and a lots of great snow seasons, bit by bit the location started gaining a word-of-mouth reputation. Then, as the pace picked up, Niseko became sufficiently sophisticated that the big money showed up from Hong Kong and Singapore and turned it into a major snow destination.

    This precedent should provide local Japanese tourism planners with a template in the Japanese Alps further south, but still the general feeling among local investors is: “Will it work?” No one wants to take the investment plunge first because betting on the weather does seem rather like gambling. So my guess is that once again, it’s going to take some outside vision to turn Hakuba and other towns in the area into attractive resorts. But give it time. There are plenty of investors looking at this area, so I think it’s on the cards that development announcements are on the way.

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