Are you willing to sacrifice another culture in search of powder? Sam Pullos reveals his beef with the Australian few killing it for everyone.
The promise of powder has long drawn skiers and snowboarders from their sleepy towns or big cities and scattered them throughout mountain ranges all over the world.
If you’re from somewhere where winter is short and powder is scarce, then you travel. As travel becomes easier and more affordable, hidden pockets of awe inspiring snow are sought out in far flung locations. These discoveries bring new experiences and a new responsibility: cultural sensitivity.
Unfortunately, this responsibility is being lost beneath blankets of powder. Most noticeably in Japan where ‘J pow’ creates a mania, like the super dry powder, not seen in many other locations.
Japan’s most famous ski destination, Niseko, provides an alarming example of what can happen when our search for the fresh stuff turns into frenzied snow blindness. Six years ago Australia had already made it’s mark on the once failing snow town of Niseko. Come 2010 through word of Australian snow mouths there were 127 600 bed nights with over 60 000 of those taken by Australians on ski holiday.
The following year Niseko visitation increased 100% (Niseko Tourism Board) and, after a short seasonal dip in Australian visitation after the Fukushima fallout, those figures are again on the rise. Australian investment dollars pretty much built Niseko to the modern ski resort it now is.
But with Australian dollars comes Australian culture, or lack of it by the few that ruin it for all. Australia Day may be a celebration for cashed up skiers on a cheap holiday in Japan but not so much for the local business owners where bar managers now serve drinks in plastic cups to reduce ‘glassing’.
In January 2015, on a day that celebrates the privilege and freedom of being Australian, the Kutchan City Council feared for the safety of its citizens. In the weeks leading up to the 26th, a warning was posted on the town’s website and some public fliers were sent out, imploring local workers to stay at home and advising parents to keep their children off of the mountain.
The all-day drinking, public displays of nudity and urination, vomiting and bar violence that has come to be associated with Australia Day in Japan are completely at odds with the country’s polite, proud, trusting and respectful culture. Even more despairing is the fact that this concern is not isolated to a particular day in the busy snow season.
The damage is clear to see. Deaths in Niseko village can happen when alcohol and snow collide, with some victims being Australian tourists. Despite constant warnings, tourists too often lapse in to alcohol induced unconsciousness on the way home from a night out. The lucky ones are found by friends or concerned locals but many aren’t, sometimes ending in a funny story and other times ending in tragedy.
Local Japanese interviewed and quoted in a recent published thesis “Unpacking Foreign Presence: Examining the Socio Cultural Effects of Australian Tourism in Niseko” revealed a disturbing perception of Australians in Niseko.
“When we have many foreign tourists, especially at night, we tend to go out less because there are fights. So we stay inside” says one.
“We are talking only about Australians, it’s normal, natural for them to drink, to enjoy. I think it’s a different culture” says a cafe owner quotes in the publication. “They have fights, Japanese are small, Australians are big. If you see a Japanese policeman, Australians might think he is not strong.”
Alcohol fueled violence is somewhat facilitated by the lack of Responsible Service of Alcohol Laws in Japan. A fact that in itself highlights the culturally different approach to drinking. Early on in Niseko’s tourist boom, the town rather comically hired a Canadian cage fighter, Derek Begley, to help deal with the influx of unduly inebriated tourists. Whilst the premise is quite funny, the cause is not.
The majority of the damage is far less obvious than the bar brawls and obnoxious obscenity tumbling down the snowy roads after nightfall. Slowly but surely, the reasons that made Japan such a special place to ski are being eroded away. Even with the increase in luxury Niseko accommodation, Chinese millionaires and ex pats from Hong Kong on a break from the banking world.
Seicomart, once the sole convenience store in Niseko, used to welcome customers with beaming smiles and enthusiastic bows. Restaurant owners were overly accommodating and ski lodge owners were trusting and flexible.
The whole place felt like home. Not like somewhere back home, but as if you had been invited in to someone’s home and you had without thinking, taken off your shoes and stepped inside. The flurry of excitement about Niseko’s mind blowing powder has caused a cultural white out that has only got whiter as the years have rolled on.
Now the Seicomart employees barely look up at the long line of customers stocking up on beer and two minute noodles. Restaurant owners expect bookings months in advance; if they’re full, they’re full.
In Hirafu village, assimilation is replacing tatami mats with king sized beds and Japanese breakfasts with continental spreads. Family owned and run pensions are now far outnumbered by designer hotels and self contained condos. Niseko is no longer a home, it is a hotel. Everything you need is there, but the soul that made it so special to begin with is being drained away.
This phenomenon isn’t isolated to Japan. The Canadian town of Whistler is another prominent example of the emerging price of powder. As the 26th of January rolls around, locals retreat to different resorts, stay off the slopes and even call in sick just to avoid confrontation.
Niseko, Whistler and the many other resorts navigating economic booms still remain incredible places to go skiing. But they also serve as reminders of the importance of identity retention and social sustainability in the face of economic growth.
In mountain ranges across the globe, thousands of people find freedom. Whether it be in the pursuit of big lines or bottomless powder, be it days, weeks or months, there is nowhere else you would rather be. That being said, the snow is only half the story. These adventures also gift us the opportunity to experience cultures completely unknown to those who stay at home.
That unique connection with a culture and a people stays with us as much as memories of big drops and endless face shots. Based on a shared devotion to the mountains and their snow, these one-of-a-kind places offer their best kept secrets and in doing so, make the prospect of the next journey all the more exciting.
Before your next trip, when the snow reports and weather forecasts become a permanent fixture on your computer backdrop, add the things unique to your upcoming destination. Whether it be discovering the best onsens and correct etiquette when using them, uncovering the ancient practices of the Squamish and Lil’wat people or just learning how to say hello in the local language, discovering the area’s more subtle characteristics will make your experience richer.
More than that though, appreciating the culture of the place whose mountains we have the privilege to ride will help to protect their integrity, allowing the people who live there and those who are just visiting to enjoy their beauty for years to come.
Do you agree or disagree with Sam Pullos? How can we change the global perception of Aussies on tour?