After winter's first snowfalls, many a tall passenger aboard a crowded train in Japan has narrowly averted a black eye, or mild concussion, at the hands of fellow passengers headed to, or returning from, a ski excursion.
Fortunately such incidents are almost certainly fewer than they were several decades ago. Writing on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Shukan Jitsuwa (Feb 10) reports that the popularity of skiing in Japan has continued to drop, particularly among its younger age segments.
The scale of the decline can easily be discerned by comparing figures in the White Paper on Leisure, published annually by the Japan Productivity Center for Socio-economic Development, for the number of individuals who ski. In 1993, at the peak of the ski boom, some 18.6 million people -- one out of every seven Japanese -- said they engaged in skiing as a leisure activity. By 2020, that figure had fallen to 2.7 million -- only 15% of the peak.
From the mid-1980s, each autumn sporting goods retailers would rearrange their merchandise to appeal to the ski market and even during the relatively short season sales of ski gear and articles of clothing accounted for between 50 and 60% of the stores' annual sales. Some stores also brought in young hunks to advise female customers about putting together their ensemble.
More recently, one retail sporting goods chain, Nagoya-based Alpen Outdoors, has considerably changed its marketing strategy. Of the 150 outlets in its chain, about 60 now place emphasis on inventories appealing to outdoor activities apart from skiing. This new strategy has helped the company realize record-setting profits, but also underscores the point that they were achieved by deemphasizing ski-related sales.
Not surprisingly, the decline in the popularity of skiing has had a significant impact on the retail, travel and hospitality businesses. At its peak, Japan boasted 661 ski facilities. As of last year, the number had declined to 442.
On Jan 6, the Tenzan Ski resort in Saga Prefecture -- the sole ski facility on the island of Kyushu -- filed for bankruptcy with debts of approximately 600 million yen. Tenzan began operations in 1989, and its slopes, surfaced with artificial snow, attracted enthusiasts from other parts of Kyushu as well.
The causes of Tenzan's demise were said to be a lack of natural snowfall (from some years previous) and the coronavirus pandemic.
What factors are most responsible for the drop in ski enthusiasts among the younger set?
"Perhaps the biggest factor has been the diversification of leisure activities, ranging from video games to inexpensive trips abroad," an associate professor of leisure at an unnamed university tells Shukan Jitsuwa. Another possibility, he suggests is that mobile phone charges are eating up more of young people's disposable income, pointing out that people who run up monthly bills in multiples of 10,000 yen means they have less money for activities like skiing.
"Also, in the past it was common to find ski clubs at many universities, which were able to give their members a break on prices for equipment, transportation and so on," he said. "But now, fewer students are going this route."
Growing numbers of young people now engage in snowboarding, which is counted as a separate activity from skiing.
The ski business might be down, but not out. The member companies of the Japan Railways group continue to pour efforts into promoting attractive travel packages that include train, bus, accommodations and fees for access to the slopes.
Japan can also offer JAPOW, a word coined by combining Japan and Powder Snow. In recent years, the good quality of snow has attracted large numbers of foreign visitors from Asia, particularly from China.
"When the pandemic lets up and Chinese visitors start coming back, the numbers of skiers will be revived to some extent," Shukan Jitsuwa's writer predicts.© Japan Today