Niseko was put on the international map in the 1990s when 3 Australians skied the region and saw an opportunity to share their experience with other snow-mad Australians. However, Niseko’s history dates back much earlier than this.
In 1912 Austrian Lieutenant Colonel Theodor von Lerch Edora was invited by the Japanese government to train the Japanese army and local high school teachers in Niigata Prefecture. It was on this visit, that he explored Kutchan.
As a keen and skilful skier, Edora was the first man to climb and ski Mt Yotei, becoming recognised as the first skier of Niseko.
This achievement was widely publicised and skiing gained popularity with the Japanese people. The enthusiasm for skiing continued to grow, which triggered the opening of the first ski resorts. Lieutenant Colonel Edora’s statue is proudly exhibited in Kutchan.
1927 Winter Olympics
1927 saw Japan enter a team into the Winter Olympics for the first time, which were held in Saint Moritz, Switzerland. During this year, Prince Chichibu (this is where Yukichichibu Onsen gets its’ name) visited Hokkaido and was greatly astonished with Niseko’s slopes and unmatched snow. The headline, “The St. Moritz of the East”, was reported in the local papers and, as a result, the Niseko was recognised as comparable to the famous Saint Moritz. However, it still wasn’t until some 40 years later that the first ski lifts were constructed in the Niseko region.
The First Lifts
On December 17, 1961, the Niseko Kogen Kanko Co Ltd began lift operations at what is now known as Grand Hirafu, getting its name from the nearby train station ‘Hirafu’. Following this monumental occasion, Niseko hosted the All Japan Ski Championship in 1962. By 1965, infrastructure increased throughout the region as the St. Moritz Lift Co. continued to open and operate alpine lifts in Hirafu and Moiwa.
Have you ever wondered why the manhole covers on the sidewalks in Hirafu say “St. Moritz Kutchan since 1964” or, why the bridge the leads to Hirafu from Route 5 is called “St. Moritz Bridge”? Here is your answer. During a visit to Europe in 1964, Seikichi Takahashi (the Kutchan Mayor), met with the Swiss Mayor and petitioned for the two towns to become sister-cities. St Mortiz kindly accepted and since then, they have had a mutual exchange of friendship evidenced in the naming of landmarks, such as St Moritz Bridge, as well as cultural school exchanges.
1972 Winter Olympics
With the buzz of skiing gaining momentum in Japan, there was much excitement around the 1972 Winter Olympics, held in Sapporo. After the games, ski resorts were rapidly opened around the country and Niseko, in particular, saw an influx of investment. Both Niseko Kogen Kanko Co Ltd and St. Moritz lift Co. invested heavily in new lifts, ski lodges, hotels and other facilities. In addition, the Chuo bus Company opened the Annupuri Ski Resort in 1972 and, in 1982, Niseko Higashiyama (now known as Niseko Village) was established.
The 1980s saw state-of-the-art high speed quad lifts and gondolas built, and the Niseko swelled with new restaurants and lodges. Locals supported the development and welcomed those from outside the town. Hopes for a new way of life in Hirafu quickly turned into reality, as snowboarders were attracted to the topography and powder snow in Hirafu. Hanazono opened its lifts in 1992 and soon skiers and snowboarders could ski the entire mountain with the all-in-one lift pass system.
Aussies to the Rescue
Just as Niseko was booming, the economic downturn that stagnated Japan in the early 1990s halted Niseko to a stop. Its future seemed ominous. However, it was at this time that 3 Australians, Peter Murphy and Dale and Glenn Goulding discovered Niseko and saw its tremendous potential. They started bringing tour group to the area and by the early 2000s, development had gained momentum again.
In 2004, Tokyo Land Corp brought out St Mortiz Lift Co and established itself as the sole owner of Grand Hirafu Ski Resort. At the same time, an Australian company, known as Nihon Harmony resort, purchased Hanazono. Today, Hanazono is owned by a Hong-Kong company called Pacific Century Premium Developments.
In 2013, United Niseko won the World Ski Award for Best Ski Resort in Japan. This was a tremendous achievement and a well-received pat on the back for the efforts of the community. Since then, United Niseko has won Japan’s best ski resort again in 2014, 2015 and in 2016.
Niseko has been recognized internationally by being included in the Ikon Pass and The Mountain Collective alongside Aspen, Jackson Hole and Zermatt ski resorts.
The future of Niseko
With a bid to win the 2030 Winter Olympics, Niseko is scaling up its developments. There have already been some remarkable builds in the last few years, such as Hanazono’s Park Hyatt Hotel and new ski centre with café and bar, as well as the Mountain Centre Annex at Grand Hirafu, both of which opened for the 2019-20 season. Several large-scale developments are currently underway and getting ready to open their doors.
- The Ritz Carlton Reserve at Niseko Village due to open for the 2020-21 Season
- New lifts and Gondola at Hanazono due to be completed in 2021
- Setsu Niseko at Hirafu due to open in December 2021
- Aruku-zaka Street which will include shops, restaurants, bars and accommodation is due for completion in 2024
- TELLUS Hirafu towers comprising of a public onsen, ski-valet, shops and restaurants are due to open in December 2021
As one of the best ski destinations in the world, and with so many foreign players actively investing in Niseko, the future of this once unknown winter wonderland is brighter than ever. Despite the global Covid-19 pandemic, Niseko’s tenacity and want for growth will continue to drive the area to an even better future.