More than just ski lessons. Founders Anthea Hung and Miha Grilj explain the concept behind Hokkaido Ski Club.

Founding a business will always have its challenges. But for Anthea Hung and Miha Grilj – who have this year launched Hokkaido Ski Club, a boutique snow sports operation in Niseko, Japan – those challenges are even more confronting than usual.

Language barriers, cultural differences and international laws were all part of a long and complex launch process. However, the pair, who are now mid-way through their first season as co-founders, couldn’t be happier.

Both are avid snow sports enthusiasts with years of professional winter seasons behind them. Miha – an ISIA-certified telemark instructor and Head Coach of the Slovenian Telemark demo team, and Anthea – a specialist in children’s and adolescent lessons whose instructing career has so far included stints in Australia and Japan.

The pair sensed a growing need in the industry for a more personalised experience and a better sense of community. They insist (with some pride) that, as a club, not a ski school, their aim is to share their passion for the snow with their guests through a more flexible and holistic winter experience.

Ski Asia caught up with Anthea and Miha to chat about their plans for the first season, the concept behind the “ski club” and their fascination with Niseko.

Hokkaido Ski Club staff

Anthea and Miha with the Hokkaido Ski Club team in Niseko, Japan.

Ski Asia: Tell us a bit about yourselves and your background in the snow industry.

Anthea: My first skiing experience started at the age of 5. I loved it but being brought up in the cosmopolitan city, my time at the snow was limited to occasional trips (since our Australian form of “pow” was at least a good 5 hour drive from home). It wasn’t until the age of 20 when I travelled to the French Alps for a significant period of time that I discovered my true passion for the snow and snowboarding. I tried juggling the Government job with snow life, but eventually threw in the bag, attained my instructors qualification and have been working back to back seasons professionally in Australia and Japan ever since.

Miha: My passion for skiing goes back a long time. I started at the age of 4 and funnily enough, I actually refused to put on ski boots on my first day. But after that first day, I loved it so much that from that point onwards, I spent every winter skiing. My first ski instructor licence was achieved at 16 years and since then, I have been professionally involved with ski clubs in my home mountains of Slovenia and European Alps, including Coach and Trainer for the Slovenian National Telemark Demo team.

Ski Asia: Where have you skied/snowboarded in the past, and what made you finally settle on Japan?

We have skied in Europe, Australia and North America. Japan has always been on our bucket list. Since the first visit in 2009, we were instantly attracted by the quality of the powder and consistent snowfall, which cannot be matched by anywhere else in the world. But ultimately, it was also the friendly nature of the Japanese people, and the fascinating lifestyle and culture we had the privilege of experiencing that led us to decide on Japan becoming our second home.

Tim from the Hokkaido Ski Club

Hokkaido Ski Club instructor, Tim, teaching a lesson on Niseko’s beginner-friendly Family run.

Ski Asia: What was it that inspired you to form Hokkaido Ski Club?

There is no such international ski club in Hokkaido or Japan. Our mission is to further improve and train the skiers and snowboarders of all ages and abilities; to create a community of educated and passionate snow sports enthusiasts. With the growing popularity of snow sports, the industry is becoming more commercialised. Like in any industry, commercialisation leads to the emphasis of quantity and profit generation at the expense of product quality. Here in Niseko we are noticing this trend. Lessons are being pumped out to meet the demand from growth of visitor numbers with declining regard for how they are being delivered. As a result, this compromises the standard of professional lessons and services.

We want to change this by bringing the focus back to the core reason for snow sports lessons. It is a holistic education that encompasses not only the sport itself but also other important elements including the environment and one’s place within it. We want to positively impact all our clients with a private, personalised and professional experience where everyone walks away with a better understanding of the snow sports industry, as well as a sense of fulfilment, pride and enjoyment.

Therefore, we have personally selected every member of our team who represent the uppermost calibre of the snow sports industry. We believe that snow sports instructors are ambassadors for the sport and the industry that surrounds it. We want our clients coming back every year so they can continue to enjoy and share their Japanese snow sports lifestyles with their friends and family.

Ski Asia: How have you found the process of setting up a business in a foreign country?

It is a very difficult and long process. We are not only faced with the many challenges of starting a new business , but also the added complexities of language barriers, international laws and cultural differences.

Ski Asia: Any advice to those who are thinking of treading a similar path?

Think through the plan thoroughly and then plan some more. It is a huge commitment. Starting a new business is a challenge in itself, let alone trying to do it in a country where you cannot speak the language. You must be mentally prepared and have the persistence to keep going when things don’t go the way you expect. Make sure you understand your business and always remember why you are doing it.

Hokkaido Ski Club Director Anthea Hung

Co-founder and Director Anthea Hung specialises in teaching children, adolescents and beginner adults, bringing them life and love for the sport.

Ski Asia: What is it that you feel Hokkaido Ski Club can offer over other ski schools in the area?

First of all, we view ourselves as a club rather than a ski school. This is because we provide more than just ski and snowboard lessons. As a club, we are growing lifetime relationships and friendships with our guests. Our guests don’t get the opportunity to spend the whole winter here in Niseko like we do. Therefore we provide them with the services that allow them to experience the complete winter lifestyle experience for the time they are here.

Our private services are all tailored according to the wishes of our guests, something we can achieve due to the small size of our company. We have open communication and strong trust amongst our team, and since we are not bound by numerous policies and processes characteristic of large corporations, this enables us to be highly flexible. Our complimentary pick up and drop off services are highly sought after, especially in a resort like Niseko United which is quite scattered and transportation is limited. Our guests not only have the chance to explore more of the resort but also have the option of travelling to other nearby resorts as well.

Finally and most importantly, all members of our team are highly skilled individuals who have been in Niseko for years. They have a tremendous amount of snow sports instructing experience and hold in-depth knowledge of the Niseko area. But further to that, each of our ambassadors has a unique and interesting life story beyond the snow sports industry. Therefore, not only will our guests be taught by the best in the snow sports industry but they will be able to connect on a higher level with our ambassadors, and fully experience a true Japanese winter lifestyle experience.

Miha Grilj, Hokkaido Ski Club

Hokkaido Ski Club co-founder Miha Grilj gets deep in the Niseko backcountry.

Ski Asia: What are you most looking forward to in your first season of operation?

Creating unforgettable winter experiences for our guests and becoming an integral part of the Niseko community are what we are most excited about.

For our guests, it could be us putting smiles on their faces when they master a new skill on their skis or snowboard. Or sitting together in a Japanese izakaya enjoying traditional Japanese fare and discussing the intricacies of Japanese cultures and customs. Whoever our guests are and however they want their Niseko holiday, we look forward to bringing our guests the ultimate experience and forging long-lasting relationships and friendships.

Having our team make a significant positive contribution to the Niseko community is an equally important priority for the Club. Each and every member of our team brings complementing skills and strengths. So for Hokkaido Ski Club’s first official season, we will focus on growing into a strong and synergistic team, and working together with the local community. We are excited to explore with the local community the opportunities for progressing and raising the level of snow sports in Niseko to a consistent high standard. And looking beyond Niseko, the Club will collaborate with various resorts across Hokkaido with the aim to continually develop, innovate and progress the snow sports industry in Japan.

Ski Asia: Why have you chosen Niseko as a base from which to set up your business? What does Niseko have over other resorts in Japan?

Niseko is constantly evolving and has become a place that showcases an eclectic mix of contemporary and traditional Japanese delights. It has the best facilities with a complete and diverse range of services that visitors can enjoy during their holiday. The topography of the mountains in the Niseko area is varied and challenging, making it interesting and super fun to ski and snowboard on. And to be able to hike the ski into the crater of the volcano Mount Yotei? Nothing can surpass the elated feeling one experiences when making that pilgrimage.

Ski Asia: Tell us about your favourite day trip outside Niseko?

Rusutsu is our day escape when we get the chance. It is relatively smaller than Niseko but there we find peace amongst the trees and some of the best powder runs. On the way back to Niseko, we soak ourselves in the onsen overlooking glorious Mount Yotei and then to finish off the day, a delicious homemade katsu curry at our favourite local joint.

Ski Asia: Your favourite Niseko experience…

This is always the hardest question to answer as there are so many experiences we want to talk about. But our favourite would have to be the moment we met each other here in Niseko and embarked on this new adventure together. It’s not very often that you find someone else who shares the same passion as you and together, turn that into a successful business. At the same time, we are also two extremely different people with highly diverse backgrounds and regularly find ourselves on opposite ends of the table (how often will find a skier and snowboarder on the same team!) Yet the trust and respect we have for each other sees us approaching matters from both ends of a stick and having the best of both worlds. With a practical implementer and super creative visionary, the possibilities that have opened up to us have been endless and we cannot wait to watch our #japowstory unfold.

Ski Asia: Your top recommendation or piece of advice for anyone visiting the resort.

There are so many activity and cuisine choices in Niseko for holiday-makers that it can be overwhelming. More often than not, you will find yourself in an average place filled with tourists and lacking any personalisation or intimacy. With Niseko constantly evolving, we recommend getting in contact with the local folk prior to your holiday so that you can be informed on the most up to date and best options for your holiday. Most importantly, plan and book early (and by early we mean at least half a year in advance!) so that you don’t miss out.

Hokkaido Ski Club snowboard instructor

Hokkaido Ski Club snowboard instructor, Max, finds some fresh powder.

For an enjoyable and memorable holiday, book one of Hokkaido Ski Club’s ambassadors who will show you the best private lesson and powder guiding experiences around the Niseko resort. No matter what requests you have, whether on or off the mountain, your Hokkaido Ski Club ambassador will make it a reality for you. We look forward to welcoming you to this coming winter and becoming a part of Hokkaido Ski Club. Your winter journey in Japan begins here. Your Club. Your experience. Your story.

To meet the team at Hokkaido Ski Club and find out more information about their services, visit their website at www.hskiclub.com. For any enquiries, including bookings, please contact them at bookings@hskiclub.com.