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Hakuba hollers: Mountainous Japan resort awaits more inbound tourists (Pt. 2)

Snowcapped mountains are seen from "Hakuba Mountain Harbor," located at the summit of Mount Iwatake in the village of Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, on Dec. 21, 2019. (Mainichi/Tetsuko Yoshida)
A ski slope at Hakuba Happo-one Snow Resort is seen in the village of Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, in this photo taken on Dec. 21, 2019. (Mainichi/Tetsuko Yoshida)

(Continued from Part 1)

Like many other snow resorts in Japan, the Tsugaike and Iwatake areas of Hakuba in the central Japan prefecture of Nagano face the overall decline in domestic skiing and snowboarding populations compared to the height of the sports' popularity in Japan during the 1980s and 1990s, while recently benefitting from rises in the number of inbound tourists choosing to stay in the snowy region.

In 2016, the area's 10 ski fields joined forces to comprise a single "Hakuba Valley" resort by introducing a common automatic ticket checker system and those fields are now linked up by free shuttle bus services, meaning visitors can try -- if they have the energy -- a range of slopes spanning a total of 8,000 meters with a single season pass. Furthermore, holders of the season pass can also get lift ticket discounts in Epic Pass alliance resorts in North America and Australia. Joining the global alliance in 2018 has already proved successful, with the number of foreign visitors to Hakuba Valley shooting up to a record 367,000 during the 2018-2019 winter season -- a roughly 11% rise from the previous season. All in all, Hakuba Valley drew a total of some 1.54 million visitors during that same season.

Jordan Lawson, 21, an Australian who was staying in the area for 12 days for skiing from late December, told the Mainichi that she chose to come to Hakuba because "I have a friend who's been here. I was staying in Niseko last season and it was really good, so we were hoping to try the same here. Japan is getting like one of the best in the world," in terms of skiing destinations.

Another young Australian visiting from the Gold Coast said he had snowboarded at Tsugaike Kogen Ski Resort as he was assigned to work there as a ski lift operator as part of a working holiday program, helping inbound tourists ride the lifts.

The Main Lounge for the "Hakuba S-Class" VIP program is seen at the Hakuba Iwatake Snow Field in the village of Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, on Dec. 21, 2019. (Mainichi/Tetsuko Yoshida)

At Hakuba Iwatake Snow Field in the village of Hakuba, a VIP program called "Hakuba S-Class" debuted in December 2019. The program, which is modeled after similar first-class services overseas, offers a range of privileges including free use of luxurious lounges on the mountain complete with free foods and drinks, priority parking and rides on gondolas and lifts, free high-end ski and snowboard model rentals, and special optional tours. At the mid-mountain "Main Lounge," skiers and snowboarders can relax while trying the golden combination of traditional Japanese winter habits -- warming up under a "kotatsu," or a Japanese small table with a heater underneath, while savoring "mikan" tangerines -- all while looking out at snowcapped peaks. The exclusive space also serves free meals such as curry and stew in addition to sweets, snacks, beer and wines. "Ultimately, we'd be happy if people found it too comfortable to leave here, to the point of forgetting about skiing," said Mahiro Takagi of "Funny," the Tokyo-based operator of Hakuba S-Class.

Foods and drinks are served at the Main Lounge for the "Hakuba S-Class" VIP program at the Hakuba Iwatake Snow Field, in the village of Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, on Dec. 21, 2019. (Mainichi/Tetsuko Yoshida)

Indeed, some people from snowless countries find it worthwhile just to chill out in a snow country, even without skiing or snowboarding, according to Rie Soma, a staff member for the service. The S-Class pass is priced at 15,000 yen excluding tax for adults and 7,500 yen for elementary and junior high school children. The pass does not include lift fees.

Located on 1,289-meter Mount Iwatake, the only independent mountain in the village of Hakuba, the snow field boasts seven powder snow areas among 26 courses, the largest number among all ski resorts in the area, as well as easy access to the town and other major ski fields in Hakuba Valley.

In 2019, the number of visitors to the Iwatake area during the "green season" from spring to fall grew about fourfold from 2017 to some 130,000, marking the first time that the number of visitors during the green season had overtaken that of the winter season at roughly 120,000, thanks to new attractions including the Hakuba Mountain Harbor observation deck with a bakery cafe that opened in 2018 atop Mount Iwatake, according to Hakuba Resort Development Co. A mountain bike facility called Hakuba Iwatake MTB Park also contributed to the summer visitor numbers.

Sweets are served at the Main Lounge for the "Hakuba S-Class" VIP program at the Hakuba Iwatake Snow Field, in the village of Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, on Dec. 21, 2019. (Mainichi/Tetsuko Yoshida)

"Even though Iwatake is primarily a ski resort, it is now hosting more guests than previously during the summer," said Yutaka Wada, president of Hakuba Resort Development Co.

Another new draw could be a recently confirmed glacier -- the seventh known one in Japan -- on 2,696-meter Mount Karamatsu in the Northern Alps straddling Nagano and Toyama prefectures. Its snowy gorge has been renamed Karamatsuzawa Glacier, and is visible from the pinnacle of Mount Iwatake.

Since 2018, events highlighting the traditional atmosphere of the old town have been held in the Iwatake area, including a night festival at an ancient Shinto shrine, Kirikubo Suwa Jinja, and illumination of local streets, pleasing many tourists especially those from overseas. In 2020, those events are scheduled for Jan. 23 and 30, respectively.

Meanwhile, the Tsugaike Kogen Ski Resort in the neighboring village of Otari is home to powder snow areas and snowboard parks that are popular among inbound tourists, as well as gentle slopes as wide as 1,200 meters that are friendly to beginners and families. Also a part of Hakuba Valley, the Tsugaike ski resort has succeeded in luring foreigners during the winter season, with their ratio more than doubling from 7% of 253,763 visitors in the 2014-2015 snow season to 15% of 283,877 in the 2018-2019 season.

A ski slope at Hakuba Happo-one Snow Resort is seen in the village of Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, in this photo taken on Dec. 21, 2019. (Mainichi/Tetsuko Yoshida)

As some foreign skiers prefer backcountry skiing on uncompacted, powdery snow, the Tsugaike resort also hosts a trail for advanced skiers and boarders in the upper area, called "Tsugapow DBD" (Tsugaike powder double black diamond).

"There are many foreigners who like to enjoy uncompacted, powder snow, and some even go off piste for backcountry skiing," said President Wada of Hakuba Resort Development Co., which operates ski resorts in Tsugaike, Iwatake and Happo-one.

"As part of efforts to allow skiers and boarders to enjoy uncompacted snow more safely, we create such areas within piste. When we have snow in the morning, we artificially cause avalanches using dynamite, forcing the snow to fall and settle," he said, adding that Tsugaike hosts the largest uncompacted snow zone in Hakuba Valley.

During the June-October green season, Tsugaike draws a lot of visitors to Tsugaike Nature Park, where skunk cabbages and autumn foliage decorate wetlands at an altitude of about 1,900 meters. However, the number of visitors to the park has also sagged to less than half the peak years, from 146,000 in 2001 to 72,000 in 2017. Accordingly, the number of inns, hotels and stores that are members of the Tsugaike Kogen Tourist Association also plunged, from 195 in 1992 to 96 in 2018.

In a bid to boost summer visitors, Tsugaike area developed an adventure facility named "Hakuba Tsugaike Wow!" in August 2018, which attracted some 16,000 visitors in 2019 during the green season. Offering nine types of activities including tightrope bicycling and water float rides, it is the first facility in Japan tying up with Xtrem Adventures, which was inaugurated in France in 2001 and has been popular worldwide. Some of the activities can also be enjoyed during the winter.

The view from near "Hakuba Mountain Harbor," located at the pinnacle of Mount Iwatake in the village of Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, is seen on Dec. 21, 2019. (Mainichi/Tetsuko Yoshida)

This and other efforts have led the number of green season visitors to the Tsugaike Kogen area to bottom out at around 80,000 in recent years.

"We are developing new customer bases by offering various attractions in the summer and attracting more inbound tourists in the winter," President Wada said.

As foreign visitors to the area increase, "there is also growing demand for restaurants and bars in the town, as many of them prefer eating out over stays at inns that come with meals," Wada said. "But in Tsugaike there aren't that many such establishments, making it a major challenge in terms of the development of the town as a whole," he said.

Another challenge is the smaller amount of snowfall that plagues many ski resorts across Japan. So how can one fix that problem?

As Wada raised a toast during a recent gathering at Shoya Maruhachi restaurant in the Iwatake district, he shared some local knowledge: "There's a saying in this area that the more you drink, the more it snows!"

(By Tetsuko Yoshida, Staff Writer)

Access information:

Hakuba can be accessed by highway bus from Busta Shinjuku, or the Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal in Tokyo in about five hours including stops at service areas. A JR limited express service is also available from Shinjuku to Hakuba Station, taking about four hours. Taking the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano Station and then using local trains or buses to Hakuba are also an option.

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