Posted by: Nick Ward | 4 February, 2014

Japan, you’ve changed.

It’s ten years since I was last in Japan. It’s twenty years since I was first in Japan. No surprises: things have changed.

When I first visited Japan there was pretty much no Latin script on anything. This is more challenging than you might think: street signs are illegible, place names the same, nothing is easy to even jot down for the benefit of a taxi driver. When you tried to communicate with a local they were often afraid to talk to you – the loss of face should they be caught unable to communicate made it a better option to avoid the ‘gaijin’.

On this trip there were still plenty of Japanese with little or no English, as you would expect, but signs were now in Latin script as well as local script, and my little ham-fisted attempts at Japanese phrases were regularly met with a competence and willingness to speak a few English phrases back at me.

Things have changed.

What has really changed is the nature of tourism between our two countries. In the 1990s most tourism involved Japanese coming to Australia, and mostly Queensland, for short package tour holidays. Now the movement of holidaymakers is in the reverse. And it’s mostly the result of snowsports. For Japan has the most amazing snowfields, and Australians have discovered them.Hakuba

While Niseko is probably the best known destination, my recent trip was to the next most popular, the Hakuba Valley. North-West of Tokyo, it was a major venue for the 1998 Nagano Olympics, hosting the downhill skiing and jumping.

Coming from Australia, I was amazed at this place. It was a ‘poor season’, indeed toward the end of my stay the winds were seriously warm, but I only once in eight days skiing saw dirt peek through the snow in one well-trafficked spot of the busiest ski area. You see, thanks to the freezing moist air that travels to Japan from Siberia at this time of year, snow depth is generally in excess of 2 metres, and often a lot more. It’s just amazing snow.

Hakuba CortinaThen there’s the cost factor. Lift passes are around AU$40 per day – and they often throw in a credit of ¥500 or so toward your lunch, and sometimes even a free onsen. Yes, really! Restaurants are AU$10-AU$30 for an outstanding meal, and accommodation is extremely reasonable – we stayed in a place called ‘Hakuba Cottage‘ in the quaintly-named ‘Echoland’ and my travelling companions and I had a very Japanesey house to ourselves a stones throw from great food and great onsens.

So let me tell you about the onsens. A lot of Aussies and Kiwis are a little self conscious about baring all, but I’m afraid that’s a hurdle you need to overcome. The reward is worth it. A roasting hot spa surrounded by snow, they are wonderfully social, often welcome you to take a drink in with you, and they are cheap as chips, generally ¥500 (around AU$5) a visit. A great place to mix with locals and snowboarders alike from all over the world. Naked. Could be a lot worse.

Now, there’s a risk that Climate Change could see the moving Siberian air mass disrupted and things change for Japan. There’s a very specific climactic phenomenon which drives this huge volume of snow at close to sea level. Then again, where in the world is not at risk? Anyone really think we’ll be skiing at Mount Buller in 20 years time?

For now, the question for me is close to home. Do we really think an overpriced overcrowded unreliable ski industry in Australia can survive increased ease of visitation to Japan? I doubt it. Go for more than a long weekend and it doesn’t make sense to go to the Australian skifields. As a boy who’s parents were instrumental in the early days of the Ski Club of Victoria, that saddens me.

So, the worm has turned. It wasn’t long ago when we were debating the merits of signs in Japanese dominating souvenir shops on the Gold Coast and in The Rocks. Now the signs are English signs all over the Japanese skifields. I wonder whether the debate is going on over there now, or whether they are just loving counting those yen being passed across the counter.

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