Why skiers are flocking to Furano
Like polar bears and penguins, skiers care a lot about the quality of snow, and more of them from China, Australia and elsewhere are coming to Japan in search of powder they can’t find back home.
Fluffy snow is everywhere in central Hokkaido, a valuable commodity in a country often lacking in natural resources.
With temperatures around minus-10 degrees celsius, and mountains protecting it from coastal winds, the broad valley around Furano in central Hokkaido, famous for lavender fields in summer, has some of the world’s best powder for skiing and snowboarding.
Friendly locals are eager to welcome foreigners, and with day lift passes around ¥3,000 to ¥4,500, they cost a third of resorts overseas.
“The powder is amazing here, and it’s much cheaper than skiing back home,” according to Mathew Zed, an engineer from Perth, Australia who has snowboarded around the world.
Seeking an alternative to the Australian-led development of the world class Niseko ski resortnear Sapporo, Zed and other powder-seekers are increasingly flocking to Furano’s variety of trails.
Ranging from the backcountry trails of Kamui, near Asahikawa airport, to the family-friendly slopes of the Tomamu Alpha resort, Furano can be accessed by a variety of options from Sapporo (approximately two hours by bus or train), or the even closer Asahikawa Airport (one hour).
The area is divided into two sections, the Kitanomine zone (open mid-December until late March) and the Furano zone, (open late November until early May), three and six minutes away from the town of Furano respectively by shuttle bus, and all accessible on the same passes available at the resort town.
A Japanese soul
Ken McBride, a snowboarder from Sydney, who works for the Furano Tourism Association, says room bookings by Australians are up about 30 percent this year.
And increasing numbers of Chinese — including from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore — are offsetting the dwindling number of Japanese skiers.
“The best thing about this area is that you can ski in great powder and feel very much part of a Japanese community. Furano is a real Japanese town with soul, not just a ski resort,” McBride says.
Furano rarely sees the crowds of skiers who used to pack big name resorts in Honshu such as Appi, Naeba, Hakuba, and Shiga-kogen.
On a recent Sunday night before the last lift at 8:30 p.m. from the base of the Furano Prince Hotel, McBride and I saw few other souls, as our shadows carved through sparkling champagne powder on bewitching fields of bronze and golden light.
Much has changed since Japan’s ski boom peaked in 1989, when skiers used to knock each other over like flags on a slalom course.
Since then, almost half of Japan’s ski hills have closed, including 50 in Hokkaido, and many of the regions surviving 80 lifts have seen their client base cut in half, according to Kamui Ski Links manager Mitsuhiko Maeda.
“Many towns with one lift lost their lift,” says Maeda, who designed Kamui 26 years ago and still crafts backcountry trails for adventurous groups of safety-conscious experts.
“The ski hills leftover were strong enough to survive, and we will continue to do so,” he adds.
To survive, Kamui offers a liberal policy for skiing out of bounds, and Maeda has slashed one-day rates from ¥4,500 in the bubble era to ¥2,800, a bargain compared to three or four times more expensive overseas resorts such as Whistler-Blackcomb outside Vancouver.
The Karuizawa-based Hoshino group, which has recently taken over Tomamu Alpha resort, is hoping to attract more Chinese skiers to Tomamu’s pair of twin towers.
They are overlooking a fairy-tale complex of a frosted mountainside, a hand-carved “ice village” — complete with bars, restaurants, and a wedding chapel — and Japan’s largest wave pool, where it feels like Okinawa transplanted into Siberia.
Chinese visitors on the rise
Koichiro Hashimoto, Tomamu’s manager of international sales, says Chinese visitors are growing so fast — 10 percent of all guests last year, 17 percent this year — they are projected to outnumber Japanese in five years.
On a Monday night in January, groups from Hong Kong lined up alongside Japanese families in a sprawling buffet area to sample salmon pie, Hokki-don shellfish from Sakhalin, deepfried seaweed balls, and other local specialities along with Furano’s excellent wines, milk and grape juice.
“Chinese come to learn how to ski. So they spend money on private lessons, ski wear, ski gear, goggles and things like that. It’s a good opportunity for our business,” says Hashimoto, adding that 60 percent of their clientele are families.
“The high quality of our snow doesn’t usually matter that much to beginners. But as they improve, skiers tend to upgrade to the best quality, so we are hoping they will end up here,” he adds.
Seeking a frontier life
Expecting an influx of foreign skiers, proactive entrepreneurs in the Furano area have invested in new buildings and staff from Australia, Taiwan and other countries.
Hashimoto, 33, says Tomamu’s manager is only 36 years old, and most of the 500 winter staff are sporty young Japanese with fresh ideas and smiling faces.
Near the funky bus station in Furano, the Natulux boutique hotel is at the vanguard of businesses hoping to spark another ski boom.
In 2007, Kiyomi Ishihira, whose family had run a ryokan in Furano since 1930, made a bold move in a town known for a traditional frontier life, as depicted in the hit TV series “Kita-no-kuni-kara” (From a northern land).
Ishihira got renowned designer Yasuo Kondo to create a stylish hotel with earthy touches such as lavender-scented hallways, along with hearty breakfasts loaded with local vegetables, milk and cheeses.
Welcoming overseas visitors
“I was a housewife and mother with two kids before I did this,” says Ishihira, who recently went to Bangkok to promote Furano to tropical Thais seeking a wintry experience.
“We had a ryokan for almost 80 years. We don’t want to forget that. But we have to adapt and improve. We have to show foreigners that they are welcome here. We want Furano to have more fans,” she says.
She says Furano has to do more than Niseko and other resorts to preserve its local essence.
“In Furano, we want foreigners to live, work and play together with Japanese, and feel like they are temporary locals here. If the shop owners and staff are happy, then guests will feel genki and want to come back,” she explains.
Lessons available in English
To help skiers share in the proud culture, the Furano Tourism Association stages a free Saturday Night Live event, where locals perform Japanese songs and dances and take pictures with tourists, who join a mass game of janken (rock, scissors, paper).
With the beer and sake flowing there and at a plethora of soulful little shops such as Robata and Dining Bar R’s, Furano often feels like Ubud village in Bali.
Locals with language skills even volunteer to guide foreigners around the slopes for free, and some hills offer day-care centers and lessons entirely in English.
Thanks to these progressive programs, the 25,000 citizens of Furano are now hosting two million visitors a year, according to Keigo Aida, executive director of the Furano Tourism Association.
This winter season, Australians have already booked out 10,000 bed-nights in the Furano area, while visitors from Singapore and Hong Kong have reserved 5,000 between them.
Aida says foreigners could eventually become half of all visitors over the next 10 years, and they already comprise 20 percent of skiers on the slopes.
“The population is shrinking in Japan, so the number of skiers is declining also. We need foreigners to make up the difference,” Aida says, adding that the challenge is to open up while still preserving Furano’s soul.
“Our heart is in the land, and we didn’t think much about the outside world. Things are changing now. We are welcoming more outsiders. Before it was ‘No thank you, no thank you.’ Now it is ‘welcome, welcome’,” he says.
Both the Kitanomine and Furano ski zones can be accessed on a variety of passes (¥1,500 – ¥4,500) directly from the town of Furano.
Furano can be reached from Sapporo via Takikawa on the JR Nemuro Line, or by bus or train from Asahikawa Airport.
See more of Christopher Johnson’s work atwww.globalite.posterous.com