Scorching droughts, desperate famines, rising sea levels, blah blah blah. When it comes to global warming, ski bums want to know one thing: How will it affect the powder? There's already a snow crisis brewing in warmer resorts around the world. But few areas are as insulated from global warming as Japan's northern island of Hokkaido. It lies off the coast of Siberia and catches the heavy storms that sweep across Eurasia, ensuring the slopes are well supplied with waist-deep snow.
Hokkaido has been a secret to many skiers because its resorts have long focused on the domestic marketinternational guests weren't unwelcome, but they weren't exactly solicited. In the resort of Niseko, however, that's changing. The sprawling collection of ski slopes in Hokkaido's west features more than 48 km of serviced runs. That's only about a tenth of the size of Aspen, but Niseko averages more than 15 m of snow a year, a fact that has helped increase the number of foreign guests by more than 30 times between 2001 and 2005. English is increasingly spoken in hotels, shops and ski schools, many of them owned by Australians who make up the majority of foreign skiers, and who have been Niseko's most active international promoters.
Instead of the charmless, conventional hotels that are the only accommodation available in many Japanese resorts, Niseko is dotted with a range of choice, from luxury chalets that wouldn't be out of place in Vail to backpacker B&Bs. Pistes tend to be geared toward intermediate skiers, but more adventurous types and snowboarders can go off-trail. Niseko allows visitors to ski wherever they want, at their own risk.
Officials confidently predict the area will become the next Aspen, size notwithstanding. Indeed, its main drawback will likely be crowds in years to come if ski conditions continue to deteriorate elsewhere. Niseko should stay frosty, unless the worst-case global-warming forecasts come true. And if that day comes? Try waterskiing.
by Bryan Walsh. With reporting by Toko Sekiguchi
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