16 March, 2019
Only 5% of hotel guests are Japanese at ski resort hotels in Niseko, Hokkaido. ” ¥3,000 for a bowl of ramen.” These news headline popped up on my news app this morning. The numbers are hard to believe, but that’s exactly what we saw when we went on a business trip to Niseko in late January. And having being there, I realize that there is a great tourism-related business opportunity. But I’m really not sure if I’d ever go back there again.
ANA 051 Haneda 07:00 (44A + 44C) – Shin-Chitose 08:35
We went there to meet with a Thai delegate to discuss our future project on tourism. We stayed at Niseko Hilton Village for two nights, and before the meeting, we were to carry out market research – happily obliged. Marcin tried out the ski slops and checked out the facilities, while I visited some local shops and restaurants.
Snow was apparently amazing. Marcin particularly liked the two-part system of the main gondola. Beginners could get off the gondola at the first station, while the more advanced could go on to the top. And of course, it is super convenient to be able to slide down from the top of the mountain all the way back to the hotel.
While he was snowboarding, I visited a farm restaurant, Prativo. Highly rated by both Japanese and foreign tourists. It’s run by Niseko Takahashi Dairy Farm and located two kilometers from Niseko Hilton Village. Hilton’s shuttle bus stops right in front of the venue. Prativo offers an amazing lunch deal of vegetable buffet and a main dish for ¥1,550. I ordered pasta as a main dish, which was nice but ordinary, but vegetables were locally produced and cooked in unique ways. I wasn’t counting calories on this trip, so I thoroughly enjoyed their unique desserts and fresh yogurt milk drink. In Niseko, you couldn’t get anything better for ¥1,550 than Prativo’s lunch.
At night, we took a shuttle bus and visited Niseko’s next door, Hirafu. There is nothing really much around Hilton, but Hirafu seemed like a proper resort town with various restaurants and shops. We got off the shuttle bus in front of the famous Seicomart. I was excited to see this convenience store for two reasons.
Firstly, I’ve heard so much about Seicomart since we moved to Japan, but had never seen it before. They are only in Hokkaido and their policy is apparently “Hokkaido first”. Unlike the national convenience store chains, they are famous for being locally oriented and they were one of the first to help locals at that time of massive earthquakes in 2018.
Secondly, we could finally buy food and drinks for a ‘normal’ Japanese price. Niseko Hilton’s store had limited, pricy items and there was no shop near the hotel. Dining at Niseko Hilton was extremely expensive and restaurants in Hirafu seemed out of this world to me. There were several food stands there, but I just couldn’t bring myself to eat on the street when it was -2 degrees.
Also, Seicomart was so pleasantly different from other convenience stores in terms of items they offer. I was amazed by the “Hot Chef” section with a wide variety of freshly cooked food. I have never been so excited at being a convenience store in my life. At Seicomart, we bought a whole lot of food and drinks enough for two days.
All in all, snow was excellent and Seicomart was amazing. But I kept wondering if Niseko offers a “Japanese experience” to foreign visitors there. I was one of the 5% Japanese hotel guests, and Niseko and Hirafu felt like towns in a foreign country, where everything was unbelievably expensive.
Perhaps two nights and three days weren’t enough for me to understand what Niseko truly offers or why so many millions of foreign visitors head to these towns. Perhaps we should go back there and explore more and start pursuing that business opportunity.
But, I probably won’t. Because, if my friends asked me which ski resorts they should visit in Japan, I’d hesitate to recommend Niseko. You don’t want to get overcharged and see only fellow foreign visitors after flying thousands of kilometers to Shin-Chitose airport and a two hour bus ride to Niseko.
My recommendation would be Hakuba in Nagano prefecture. Hakuba has seen an increase in the number of foreign visitors over the last few years, but the feel of the area remains as a “Japanese ski town”. You won’t be overcharged. You will get to meet locals who grew up there or lived there for a long time. At Niseko Hilton, most of hotel staff were non-Japanese and the staff who checked us in was unable to speak Japanese:
“Sorry, I can’t speak Japanese. Do you speak Chinese?”