During the economic 'Bubble' days of the 80's, just about everyone skied in Japan. Ski resorts proliferated and back then, you could be waiting in the lift lines for a half hour, such was skiing's popularity. Since the 'Bubble' burst back in the 90's, there has been a decline in skier numbers, mostly due to the recession, but also in part due to an ageing population.
With declining lift ticket sales, some resorts were forced to close down. This was the predicament of Fukagawa Ski Resort a number of years ago, finally ceasing operation when the balance sheet when too much in to the red.
The interest in Japan skiing, and in particular the powder has given the ski industry a much needed shot in the arm. In the last few years, there has been a number of cat skiing operations that have started up on abandoned ski resorts. NAC, or Niseko Adventure Centre saw the opportunity to use Fukagawa to open the area back up for cat-skiing under the name 'Otoe Powder Cat.'
The operation is located across the valley from Kamui Ski Links and around 40 minutes drive from Asahikawa, and an hour and 20 minutes drive from Furano. Geographically, it makes the most of a relatively high precipitation area and is also the coldest places in Hokkaido, making the quality of the snow world class. Certainly the day that I skied there, the snow was the showcase, having dumped a sizeable amount the previous night.
I was interested in the terrain that we were accessing, as I had skied Fukagawa Ski Resort back when the lifts ran. It was most suited to families with young children, as the mellow pisted runs were perfect for learning how to ski. What attracted me to the resort at that time, was the terrain out of the ski area boundaries where a horse-shoe shaped bowl would feed you in on either side through nicely spaced trees in to the valley.
This is the terrain where Otoe Powder Cat will take the skiers, whilst still using the old ski resort piste to ferry clients there.
The ride up is in a comfortable cabin from anywhere between 15 to 25 minutes. Sam, the lead guide, originally from the U.K enthusiastically gave an outline of the day ahead. The first run is a level check to see that everyone is comfortable in deep snow, then it is another 2 runs to lunch, and another 3 afterwards. It would be 6 or 7 runs on an average day.
The snow is phenomenal. Sam assures me that they have enough terrain to provide fresh tracks even after a week of no snow. Cat skiing operations are providing an alternative powder product to the resort side-country that are becoming more frequented by skier visitors from abroad.
It was an international group of skiers out for the day consisting of Australians, Americans and Chinese. I started chatting to Regan, who is based in Beijing, and has recently started a hotel development in Furano. According to him, at the moment, there is less than one percent of the Chinese population skiing, but a government program intends to have ten percent of the population skiing by the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.
That would be one hundred new million skiers and one big shot in the arm for the Japanese ski industry.