The Yomiuri ShimbunSAPPORO — A small village in southwestern Hokkaido is attracting overseas visitors for backcountry skiing, taking advantage of state-owned forests in its administrative area.
The Shimamaki municipal government initiated the tours last winter in the forests of the Kariba mountain range, which includes the 1,520-meter Mt. Kariba as its highest peak.
In one tour session last season, a German-made snowcat carried about 10 overseas visitors to the upper part of the range, leaving them amid a silent tranquility. No one apart from the skiers, and no ski slopes, could be seen in the area.
“Go!” With this call by a guide, the participants, clad in colorful suits, lauched themselves down the hill. Raising sprays of snow, they drew trails on the soft powder. After completing one run, they went back to the starting point aboard the vehicle to enjoy skiing again.
On that day, the participants eventually spent six hours on the backcountry course, which stretches over about 2,100 meters.
Yoshiyuki Dosaka, head of the village’s tourist association, is among those who worked hard to realize the tour program as a business project. “The concept of exploring an untouched backcountry probably appeals to those with adventurous spirits,” Dosaka said.
Dosaka, 68, runs a hot spring resort inn called Motta Kaigan Onsen Ryokan. He received a visit in autumn 2014 from an executive of JRT Trading Pty Ltd., a Niseko, Hokkaido-based operator of ski tours. The executive was looking for accommodations for visitors to the area for cat skiing, because the company had been fascinated by the Kariba mountain range.
The visit reminded Dosaka of a helicopter skiing tour dating back to 1987 during the bubble economy. The tour was organized by a different business operator with domestic tourists for spring skiing as its main target, and proved a hit.
“The village and local accommodation operators, including me, supported the idea of the tour,” Dosaka said. “Back then, [Shimamaki] was bustling.”
However, the operator put an end to the tour after six years, mainly due to the economic slowdown and bad weather. Now guests at about 10 local inns during winter are limited to such activities as fishing. “All local guest houses, including mine, are having a hard time,” Dosaka said.
Shimamaki, which has little industry, now has a population of about 1,500. This represents a decline of 16 percent over the five years up through 2015.
“I always knew Mt. Kariba had attractions, and I believed the cat skiing project would work as a chance for our village to survive,” Dosaka said on why he decided to urge the municipal government to work on the idea.
However, there were many challenges. As national forests had never been leased as a ski site before, the Forestry Agency raised concerns over safety and environmental conservation.
To supervise the project, the village set up a committee consisting of members from its assembly and tourist association and other entities. A senior member of the Hokkaido Mountain Guide Association serves as an adviser.
The local government eventually set up an unusual framework in which Mayor Masaru Fujisawa, 65 — who also serves as head of the panel — bears the final responsibility for the project. Dosaka assumed the post as vice head.
The agency finally issued permission, and the municipality signed a three-year contract with JRT Trading.
However, the project suffered a blow at the start. Shimamaki unusually had little snow last season, which forced the tour to be offered for just one month, or half the period initially planned. Only 174 visitors were able to take part, but — to the relief of the village — they rated it highly.
Dosaka recalled a group of four Australians who stayed at his inn as part of the cat skiing package tour in February last year. The tourists, who included a doctor and a lawyer, had already traveled to many resort locations around the world. They apparently found it new and fun to enjoy his inn’s laid-back hospitality, such as tasting simple homemade dishes featuring local fish and soaking in hot springs. They were also excited about putting on samue at-home kimono, saying they felt like they’d become samurai.
The Australians told Dosaka that the hospitality offered at his inn was different from the service at high-class hotels, which they said was similar everywhere in the world. The foreign visitors helped Dosaka realize the village is blessed with tourism resources that the locals had not paid much attention to.
When asked about the future perspective for the project, Fujisawa referred to Niseko, a neighboring town bustling with an inflow of foreign investments.
“However, benefits are limited for the local community,” the mayor said. For the backcountry tour, “I aim to let our local business operators share in the profits.”
Dosaka has a slightly different opinion. “If foreign capital comes to our village, I welcome the move,” he said. “I believe our food and services can compete well with them.”
For this season, the agency has expanded the area open for skiing in the state-owned forests, with the course now stretching over about 3,100 meters.
The Australians who visited the village last winter made reservations for 12 people this season. The tour is almost fully booked for February, but there are some places still available for March.
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