Japan Today

Waiting for the snow and yen to fall in Hokkaido

By James Soller

Scott Fields often talks with affection about his experiences in Japan and the many kind and interesting people that he has met. But Fields only knows one kind of Japan. It is not the hustle and bustle that characterizes the traditional cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo with their flabbergasted tourist and video game junkies marveling over ancient temples and mind-boggling achievements of technology.

For Fields, there is only one Japan and that place is the snow-covered land of Hokkaido. It is the distant land up north that turns into a frozen paradise during the winter and produces cool, breezy summers for the people who inhabit the island. If they can endure the long winters, Hokkaido is a place that offers the Japanese an opportunity to escape from the chaos of Tokyo and seek refuge in its wide roads, larger living spaces and the pleasantness of nature’s tranquility.

Like so many foreigners who venture to Hokkaido, Fields is a winter sports enthusiast. Whether it is snowboarding, skiing, snowmobiling or hiking through two meters of frozen water, Fields and others can never get enough and Hokkaido always seems to offer an almost never ending winter for those like him.

“I have been coming to Hokkaido for almost nine years now,” says Fields in a rich New Zealand accent. “I love it here. I have never been to the other parts of Japan. It would be nice to go one day, but Hokkaido has so much to offer for me.”

Fields first came to Sapporo and worked as an English teacher before getting married and becoming involved in the real estate business in Niseko a few years ago. Niseko, which is a three-hour bus ride from Sapporo, is considered to offer some of the best winter sports attractions in the world. The area's population and commercial developments has skyrocketed in the last 10 years with many investors coming in from Australia and New Zealand.

Fields now travels back and forth between Hokkaido and New Zealand with his family. But for him and others, this winter season in Hokkaido is off to a disappointing start. While most of the big resorts in Niseko, Furano and Rusutsu have opened, the snowfall has been miniscule compared to previous years. With the worldwide fear of global warming and decreasing snowfalls, many are concerned and fearful that it could be a sign of future trends.

Bradley Hillman, who manages a bar in Niseko, is one of those people. “It isn’t just this year, but the snow has steadily been decreasing a bit over the last few years,” he says. "Hokkaido has been a great place for development and growth the last decade or so and everyone is assuming it will stay that way, but without the big snows, it won’t be the same.”

For others though, the lack of snowfall so far is not so much a concern as the rising yen and weakening Australian dollar. For years, a large portion of foreigners who have come to Hokkaido have been from Australia. Most of those Aussies spend their time in Hokkaido on the slopes of places like Rusutsu, Furano and especially Niseko. When they are not spending money in resort towns like Niseko, they contribute to the economy of Hokkaido’s largest city, Sapporo.

However, in the past few years, the Australian dollar has been even or stronger than the yen, making Hokkaido an attractive destination not just because it has some of the greatest power snow in the world, but also because it has always been an affordable place for tourism and investment.

Matt Higgins, who operates a snowmobile business in Niseko, is deeply concerned about the weakening Australian dollar. “Places like Niseko and other winter resort destinations were able to become established because Hokkaido was always an affordable place for Aussies and New Zealanders,” he says. “I am not so worried about the lack of snowfall so far. I just don’t see how many people will be able to come here this year with the yen as strong as it is. Hopefully, things will change next year.”

While some may be worried about this year's winter season, life goes on in Hokkaido. Fields thinks the apprehension that people are feeling is a bit excessive. He says that one bad year will not have much of a negative affect and these types of things can be expected sometimes. “The yen will fall and the people will come," he says optimistically. "Even if it is a bit expensive, nobody can resist this place. It is a winter paradise up here. The snow always comes in Hokkaido.”

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The high value of the yen will inevitably trash touurism in Japan. There are much cheaper and better value-for-money destinations.

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With the rising yen, we'll see fewer drunken Aussie holidayers on the slopes and more purple-Hermes-tie-wearing drunken Aussie English teachers kicking up a ruckus in Shinjuku.

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I'm laughing at the Australians who bought properties in a country where most dwellings depreciate almost as quickly as a vehicle once it is driven off the lot. I'm interested in learning about how the mortgages were handled as well. It is possible that people are paying 50% more (because of the exchange rate) for a property that they can't afford to go to and are unlikely able to rent. Most of my Japanese friends go skiing for the weekend and enjoy hotels and a rest from cooking.

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"Even if it is a bit expensive, nobody can resist this place".

Yes, Niseko is a great place, but this is wishful thinking. High prices CAUSE resistance.

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“I have been coming to Hokkaido for almost nine years now,” says Fields in a rich New Zealand accent.

Didn't know there was such a thing.

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I'm laughing at the Australians who bought properties

and they paid MUCH higher prices ! :)

(JP estate agent price for same house is 30% less than this guy posts in his window)

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Didn't know there was such a thing.

Broad, yes; rich, no.

more purple-Hermes-tie-wearing drunken Aussie English teachers kicking up a ruckus in Shinjuku.

Ah yes, I wonder how that chap's doing these days.

The yen can continue strong, as far as I'm concerned - the Japanese tourists visiting NZ get more dollars for their yen and my freelance earnings from Japan go a lot further too.

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"Hokkaido Power snow" --> you need to feel the "power" to believe it.

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