HISTORY OF NISEKO RESORT
Today when visitors arrive in Niseko for a winter ski holiday it has the look of a serious ski resort town. There is an ever-growing infrastructure sitting at the base of Mount Annupuri that is divided into 5 villages spread across the base of the mountains. Things were not always this way though. Niseko is relatively young as a ski resort town in comparison to Chamonix, St. Moritz, Davos and even Vale. Even after hosting the Nagano Olympics few had even heard of this Japanese ski village. Its evolution began slowly with the hot spring water initially attracting visitors.
The first pioneers arrived in Kutchan from Honshu – Japan’s main island – around 1891 and joined the Ainu native people who had long been inhabiting the area. At the time Niseko Town was called Kaributo. The new settlers built shelters called ogamigoya that were basically triangular in shape and constructed of materials sourced locally including harvested tree wood and foliage. With so few people inhabiting the area sourcing materials was easy given the abundance of trees in the surrounding forests.. Like the early North American settlers who were sheltered by thin walled huts during the colder winter months – it was physically challenging for both the body and spirit to survive..
LOCAL FOOD SOURCES
Like most native tribes across the globe. the Ainu were primarily hunters and gatherers. It was extremely rare to eat rice which at the time was a luxury item. Rice shortages were frequent due primarily to primitve transportation methods to and from the area. Horses quickly became the vehicle of choice and but were largely limited to carrying one sack of rice per trip. As a result rice was only eaten eaten during holiday celebrations.
Nearby the Niseko-Higashiyama ski area is an ancient stone circle built around 4,000 years ago in the late part of the Jomon period. The earliest inhabitants lived off the natural riches of the land most likely would have taken pleasure in viewing the beauty of Mt Yotei just as visitors do today.
BIRTH OF A GRAND HIRAFU HOT SPRING VILLAGE
Around 1885 the Geyser of the Chise Nupuri south foot was discovered and a hut of bamboo grass erected to serve as a bath house. One of the first settlers in Kutchan founded a hot spring in east base of a mountain of NISEKO AN’NUPURI. Yamada Kunikichi opened Yamada Onsen in 1897. Today this event is celebrated in GRAND HIRAFU. A succession of hot springs were thereafter discovered gradually transforming Niseko into the mountain hot-spring village it is today. The construction of the Hokkaido Railroad between Otaru and Niseko in 1904 further piqued interest in the area’s hot springs.
INTRODUCTION OF SKIING TO HOKKAIDO
Officer Theodor von Lerch Edora (1869-1945) of Austria = Hungary empire is one of the important people who introduced skiing to Japan. Invited to visit Japan to study the Japanese military in November, 1910 he taught ski techniques in Asahikawa-shi, Hokkaido during the month of February in 1912. During his stay he also visited Kutchan in April to climb Mount Yotei.
NISEKO’S FIRST SKI LIFT
”Niseko Skiing Area Opening Ceremony” was the headline in the Hokkaido Shimbun on Sunday, December 17, 1961 marking the official opening of Niseko Kogen Hirafu area as a designated skiing area. First visitors were transported from Hirafu Train Station to the newly designated ski area by 9 shuttle buses booked for the newly invited guests.
The first lift constructed scaled up the mountain 1,070 meters and was later followed by the addition of a second lift. The introduction of lift technology had the positive effect of raising the area’s profile to that of a serious Japanese ski destination. In a sense this marked the true beginning of the commercialization of the Hirafu skiing area.
From the early days of the Showa Era (Emperor Hirohito 1926-1989) Hirafu was described domestically as the “Oriental St.Moritz”. Prince Chichibu was a fan of alpine skiing which led him to climb Niseko An’nupuri Mountain to ski in 1928. Perhaps because the St.Moritz Winter Olympics were held the previous year a newspaper coined a headline proclaiming Niseko the “St.Moritz of the Far East”. It also happened to be the first Winter Olympics that Japan participated in.
TRANSPORTATION TO NISEKO
Just as it is today, tourists were drawn to Niseko’s naturally beautiful mountain terrain and surrounding forests, rivers and fields. This point was nationally recognized when in 1950 Niseko was appointed as a Prefectural Park. Following that the Association of Niseko Tourism formed in September, 1958, with the purpose of promoting the area.
Attracting skiers from outside the town was a key driver in growing tourism traffic which in turn would encourage investment in better quality ski lift and transportation equipment. A visit to Niseko today reveals that access to the resort area poses problems due to a combination of its remote location, sparse population and underdeveloped transportation access. The main access for tourists in the 1960’s was railroad. Mountains were a huge obstacle for cars and highway access remained near impossible until October, 1962 when the INAHO Tunneler constructed new highways that linked Hokkaido’s tourist areas through 1969.
Transport in the early days of settlement in the area was limited to horse-drawn carriages and horse-drawn sleds; the long awaited railway link to the area was opened in 1904, along with the Kaributo Station. The railway influenced development in the area dramatically.
DESIGNATION AS A NATIONAL PARK
The Niseko mountain range was designated as a quasi-national park in 1963. This designation was very positive for the area and was a driving force in getting the message out to the wider Japanese population about the beautiful scenery in Niseko.
When the Quasi National park was set up, a total of 13.5% of the town’s land became natural parkland and various businesses supporting the growth of tourism in the area started to appear.
Another bold directive taken by the town in respect to growing tourism, was to change the towns name, it was decided that the town should be renamed from Kaributo to Niseko, this change came into effect on the 1st October 1964. The name change symbolized the beginning of the tourism industry in the area and growth in the agricultural sector of the area.
SHINTO SHRINES & BUDDHIST TEMPLES
Around the turn of the twentieth century, settlers in the Niseko region started to establish temples and shrines to watch over their lives. The main shrines were Kutchan-jinja (476, Aza Yahata, Kutchan) and Kaributo-jinja (218, Aza Hondori, Niseko Town). There are around twenty Buddhist temples in total, notably Daifutsu-ji (100, Aza Asahi, Kutchan) which is renowned for its ceiling paintings, and Konpira-ji (Kita 7-jo, Nishi 1-chome, Kutchan) which holds an Autumn festival.
FURTHER READING RESOURCES
This article is indebted to the valuable research material available at the Natural History Museum Kutchan and in the newly published book A History of Powder Skiing in Niseko published by the Commettee for Publishing a History of Ski Resort Development at Hirafu. The book is available for purchase in either Japanese or English from Amazon. Read a book review of NISEKO POWDER SKIING HISTORY before purchasing.