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Hakuba Valley is back. That is the collective opinion of hoteliers, restaurateurs, realtors, and adventure sports retailers who spoke to The Journal when it visited them in December.

The numbers back them up—Hakuba, a snow paradise in Nagano Prefecture, boasts five gondolas, 11 ski resorts, 108 lifts, 147 courses, 130 kilometers in trails, and a ski area of 956 hectares.

In addition, in-bound tourism to the area, often referred to as the Northern Japan Alps, has been increasing year on year. And that has the local business community excited.

But Hakuba’s apparent rebirth is not without concern. For years before its recent revival, visitor numbers were declining.

And the current turn in fortune begs a number of questions: can the small, close-knit community cope with the rapid increase in visitors?

Are the warm but traditional mindsets and the efficient but aging local infrastructure fit for purpose?

Hakuba may be back, but is it ready for the global economy?

Vast mountain ranges make Hakuba a snowy paradise.

Vast mountain ranges make Hakuba a snowy paradise.

Entrepreneurial Spirit
Dave Enright thinks it is. An outdoor sports enthusiast from Canada, Enright has lived in the mountain village since 1994. In 2000, he established Evergreen Outdoor Center, a guiding and instruction school for outdoor activities.

“When I first came up with the idea of opening my business… there were a lot of pats on the back and responses like, ‘Well, that’s a quaint idea.’ ”

“But now, they’re talking about Hakuba being an outdoor mecca of Asia—or the Zermatt or Whistler of Asia. This little town is being compared to a lot of famous ski resorts.”

Evergreen is doing well. With 12 fulltime employees, the company sees its staff level swell to around 150 during the peak winter season. And, apart from two winter seasons when the company endured “slim pickings,” overall the business has ended each year in the black.

Evergreen is well placed to enjoy the best that Hakuba has to offer. As explained by the company’s General Manager and Lead Guide James Robb, there are a number of activities to be enjoyed in the area besides snowboarding and skiing, such as snowmobile tours, cross-country or Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and snow-tubing (being pulled by a snowmobile while on an inflated inner tube).

Hakuba is renowned for the quality of its snow, with 130 kilometers in trails and 147 courses.

Hakuba is renowned for the quality of its snow, with 130 kilometers in trails and 147 courses.

Evergreen’s clientele is almost entirely non-Japanese during the winter season, Enright added, but that flips around in the summer, when about 85 percent of its customers are Japanese.

Enright and Robb are not the only outdoors entrepreneurs with a foothold in Hakuba. Matthew Hampton, who hails from the Snowy Mountains region of Australia, is the owner of Rhythm Snowsports, a supplier of high-end retail and rental winter sports equipment.

“There is a lot to do in Hakuba,” said Hampton, whose shop set up in the valley three years ago.

“But, of course, in winter the main thing to do is skiing, onsen [hot springs], and enjoying the food. There are some great restaurants here, and when you are not on the mountains, Hakuba has a lot to offer, such as the Snow Monkey tours [to Jigokudani Yaen-koen].”

A keen skier and snowboarder himself, Hampton says business has been brisk from both the foreign and domestic community, with an increase in customers each year.

Ned Buckley, director of Boots Solutions, a partner of Rhythm that expanded from Niseko to Hakuba at the same time, offers a personalized boot-sizing service. The company also provides medical care for foot and ankle conditions, a service rarely found on most ski mountains.

“We can modify a boot if a client has foot or ankle problems,” Buckley explained, “to make it very comfortable. This allows customers to ski much better; it makes skiing effortless.”

Dividing his time between Japan and Australia, his country of origin, Buckley was first drawn to Hakuba because of its “amazing big mountains and powder skiing.”

WINTER WONDERLAND
In winter, cold winds blow in from Siberia. Bringing temperatures of -20 degrees Celsius or less as they blow across the warm waters of the Sea of Japan, the winds suck moisture from the ocean that forms into clouds.

Moving in a southerly direction, the clouds sweep across the Northern Japan Alps, rise, and then cool, releasing snow on the mountains around Hakuba.

For generations, people have been drawn to the valley and its snowcapped peaks, which include Mt. Goryu (2,814 meters), Mt. Karamatsu (2,696 meters), and Mt. Shirouma (2,932 meters).

Attracted by fertile lands and awe-inspiring vistas, communities of farmers, herders, religionists, and travelers have found a living, or a waypoint, in the area. It is a tradition in the valley to welcome outsiders.

Outdoor activities in Hakuba are a relatively new thing, however.

Skiing in Hakuba began about 100 years ago.

Skiing in Hakuba began about 100 years ago.

Skiing in the region began about 100 years ago, while hiking predates it by 50 years.

It took motorized transport and modern ideas of outdoor sports—the first ski resort in the area opened in 1929, three years after the railway arrived—before the area really took off as a prime ski destination. The first modern gondola in Hakuba was built in 1958.

The introduction of ski lifts in the valley, moreover, led to a boom in snow- and mountain-based leisure activity, as well as a rise in tourism, with the number of annual visitors having grown from 336,000 in 1960 to 1.6 million in 1967.

That rise continued into the 1970s, reaching a peak in the late ’80s, with Hakuba registering 2.5 million ski days in the ’89–’90 season.

But it was during the 1998 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Nagano Prefecture that Hakuba shot to international fame. The resort was the site of a number of Olympic competitions, such as ski jumping and alpine (downhill) skiing.

Despite gatecrashing the international consciousness via the 1998 Olympics, inbound international visitors to Hakuba after the Games struggled to reach the previous peak numbers.

Hakuba rose to fame as one of the sites of the 1998 Olympic Winter Games.

Hakuba rose to fame as one of the sites of the 1998 Olympic Winter Games.

And the rise of the Internet at that time added little value to the area, as online information about the valley was mainly in Japanese.

Today, Hakuba has a population of some 9,000, including a growing number of foreigners; many of them find their niche in the outdoor adventure sports industry.

Others have earned their keep in the food and beverage or entertainment sectors, or in real estate management.

Manager of Hakuba Grand Apartments David Rowe is an example. Speaking to The Journal, Rowe said, “I’ve been in Nagano since 1994, and first visited Hakuba in the early ’90s. [The valley] is a great place, with big mountains, good snow, and beautiful scenery. And it’s not too big.”

Resorts in Hakuba currently comprise Jiigatake, Kashimayari, Yanaba, Hakuba Sanosaka, Hakuba Goryu, Hakuba 47, Hakuba Happo-One, Hakuba Iwatake, Tsugaike Kogen, Hakuba Norikura, and Hakuba Cortina.

And the rings of the 1998 Olympics can still be seen sprinkled around the valley, including at Happo-One, which hosted alpine skiing, super giant slalom, and combined slalom events at those Games.

THE GLOBAL MAP
In the wake of its Olympic legacy, and with its heyday of the ’80s firmly behind it, Hakuba is in the process of finding its mojo again.

A new generation of local entrepreneurs—with the support of foreign partners—is reaching out to new markets. At the same time, the locals are trying to maintain the valley’s identity.

Hakuba native Yojiro Fukushima is one of them. A Japanese belonging to Generation X (born between the early 1960s and early 1980s), he is now international sales and product executive chief at Hakuba Tokyu Hotel.

“In the winter season, 70 percent of our guests are from abroad, mainly from Australia, Finland, and Singapore,” Fukushima told The Journal. “And we are promoting [our hotel’s offerings] in Canada’s eastern region now.”

Shirouma-so ryokan has seen an increase in repeat foreign clientele.

Shirouma-so ryokan has seen an increase in repeat foreign clientele.

A local like Fukushima, and of the same generation, Toshiro Maruyama is the general manager of the Shirouma-so ryokan, a family-owned traditional Japanese inn with strong modern sensibilities.

“In 2014, 75 percent of our winter season customers were foreigners,” Maruyama said, “and the rest were repeat Japanese customers. Nowadays, more and more foreigners are also repeat customers.”

Maruyama’s family has run the award-winning inn for generations, and, even today, his mother is its main chef—the inn is known for its washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) offerings.

But with that great tradition, Maruyama acknowledged, come the challenges of living in a competitive and global economy.

“We are very simple. Originally, we were just mountain people. If a customer got lost in the mountains, we would find them and bring them back. That mindset has not changed. But we need to get better at promoting the valley, becoming competitive, and gaining a global vision.”

Many in the valley share Maruyama’s international outlook. It is little wonder, therefore, that a number of outward-looking organizations have sprung up. All of them have a goal of uniting the ambitions and aims of the community.

Maruyama himself is the director of Happo-One Tourism Association, a community-run entity. One of its main achievements has been to help increase the number of foreigner-friendly service offerings in the valley.

Fukushima’s Hakuba Tokyu Hotel, moreover, is one of 14 hotels in the area that comprise Hakuba Tourism.

Created in 2005 by providers in the Wado area of the valley, the organization has courted in-bound tourists from Australia, Europe, North America, and Southeast Asia.

Hotel de la Neige Higashikan is a Japanese-owned business looking to increase foreign clientele.

Hotel de la Neige Higashikan is a Japanese-owned business looking to increase foreign clientele.

Hakuba boasts a strong food culture.

Hakuba boasts a strong food culture.

Hotel de La Neige Higashikan is also a member. In an interview with The Journal, Sales and Marketing Manager So Yamaguchi said, “I hope we will have more foreign guests than we did last year, and that they can enjoy a lot of powder, communication with locals, and the food culture.”

Hakuba Valley, furthermore, is an organization that represents three resort towns in the area: Omachi City, Hakuba Village, and Otari Village.

In an effort to internationalize, the organization joined The Mountain Collective, a cross-promotional partnership involving independent ski resorts across North and South America, Australia, and Asia.

BEYOND COMFORT ZONES

Communities in the Hakuba region are pulling out all the stops to make their offerings more foreigner-friendly and modern.

In addition to shuttles to and from ski resorts and hotels, there are free local buses, roaming taxis, and rental car services.

Moreover, many hotels, restaurants, and resorts in the valley offer a range of dining options as well as services such as free Wi-Fi.

Some operators even offer daycare services for children.

Some operators even offer daycare services for children.

Internet and telephony connectivity, however, can be slow or patchy. Operators such as Evergreen, moreover, even offer daycare service for infants.

Further, the local tourism office and community organizations have comprehensive guidebooks in English, many of which can be found online.

In a bid to recapture some of its past glory, the greatest challenge to Hakuba’s revival may be the traditional attitudes of the local people themselves.

In a fast-changing world, the pace of change in the valley—which some of the interviewees acknowledged can be slow—may be its Achilles’ heel.

Despite the challenges, and the great effort that many in the small mountain community are making to bring about a revival, one thing will not change any time soon and will continue to draw people to Hakuba: the immense mountains and great powder.

As Enright said, “It’s that wind against your face; the snow flying up in your face; the sense of control, no control; that sense of flying; that familiar adrenaline rush that you always want to go back to; that comfort zone with the edge you seek—that’s the great thing about skiing in Hakuba.”

Hakuba3

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specialises in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science and tech and business.
In a fast-changing world, the pace of change in the valley may be its Achilles’ heel.