In January 2020, a month before Japan began the process of closing its borders to the world, the country’s ski industry was suffering through one of the driest winters in living memory. 30% of Japanese ski resorts had not been able to open at all through the second half of January.
“I think it is safe to say that, up until now, Japan as a whole has been having an uncharacteristically poor snow season,” wrote a reporter in a daily Niseko snow report published on February 3, 2020.
On that very same day, Japan closed its borders to anyone with a history of travel from China’s Hebei province, and by April 3 it had effectively closed its borders to all foreign tourists. In the two winter seasons since, Japan has enjoyed some of the best snow conditions on record, much to the frustration of skiers and snowboarders watching on from abroad.
In an interview last season, Madarao business owner Dan Solo commented that the snow had been “nothing short of phenomenal … we get fresh lines all day long and try as we might it is virtually impossible to track out not just our favourite areas but any area within the resort.”
And now, with borders still closed and Omicron cases surging, Japan is in the midst of yet another ski season with all-time conditions but fewer visitors to make the most of it.
Lotte Arai Resort, in Japan’s Niigata prefecture, has now passed 11 cumulative metres of snow for the season, a figure that most resorts around the world wouldn’t ever expect to reach in an entire winter. It recorded over 20 metres last season, and is perhaps on track to do the same again.
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An hour down the road to the south, Madarao ski resort has been enjoying similar wintry conditions, much to the amazement of recently relocated Ben Howard, a former Niseko-based professional who is now managing Active Life Group’s Madarao hotels.
“I’ve never seen so much snow in my life”, says Howard, who has spent the morning digging out the driveaway so that guests can make it into the hotel.
“We can barely handle it. It’s incredible. I think this is probably the biggest season as far back as it goes.”
But like last year, businesses are struggling – some have even closed for the season or are up for sale.
“There are a lot of properties owned by foreigners that are up for sale. And a lot of abandoned hotels that where the roof has caved in. Mother nature has taken advantage of the situation.”
Howard’s employer, Active Life Group, remains open for business, but has dropped rates up to 90% across its hotels in an effort to attract new business. Howard is hopeful that the strategy will help expose more people to Madarao’s incredible snow, with a view to stealing market share from better-known resorts like Niseko and Hakuba in years to come.
“People need to tell their friends and family”, he explains.
“People who visit Hakuba and Niseko tend to be powder hungry. If they come here and experience the snow they’ll see there’s certainly no shortage. I’m pretty experience in Niseko, so hopefully they’ll take my word for it!”
“In terms of access, snow quality and affordability, I don’t think you’re going to find anything better.”
Up in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost province, ski resorts are likewise experiencing an incredible run of weather, with Niseko today ending a 38-day streak of daily snowfall that has netted the resort more than six metres already.
“After an epic run of snowfall the tap has finally turned off!”, exclaims 360Niseko reporter Glen Claydon in his daily post. However, it looks like the blue skies will be short lived, with more snow in the forecast from Thursday night through to Saturday morning.
Nearby, Rusutsu Resort, the recently crowned winner of Japan’s Best Ski Resort in the World Ski Awards, has passed seven metres of cumulative snowfall for the season, after a very consistent run through late December and early January.
With Japan’s borders now closed to international travellers through to the end of February, and likely longer, many will now be looking to the 2022/23 season for their next hit of Japanese powder. Let’s hope that good things come in threes, because it would be a cruel irony if the cycle of big winters were to come to end just as Japan reopened its door.
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