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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Old Ski Town Gets a Lift

Keita Machida

Feb. 17, 2017

A traditional ski town in Niigata Prefecture is adjusting to an influx of foreign visitors and investors, as more overseas tourists seek to experience Japan's powder snow.

The city of Myoko, about a 4-hour drive from Tokyo, is attracting serious winter sports fans with its challenging courses and small-town charm. Akakura Onsen is a hot spring in Myoko City that's been attracting visitors for about 200 years.

It's also a renowned ski resort that was fully booked all season back in the late-1980s. But in recent years, tourist numbers have fallen off drastically, with many inns and hotels have going out of business.

Some entrepreneurs from overseas have seen the slump as an opportunity. One hotel went bankrupt, but then it was bought by a Briton who brought in an American woman to run the business.

"We will see that it’s actually getting more and more busy and has more and more potential. It’s just a matter of thinking of who it is going to be bringing the business," says Jennifer Hayes, the hotel manager.

The rooms have been renovated to better suit overseas tourists.

"On the tatami mat, we have a bed because Westerners love the tatami, but they don’t like futons so they keep the normal bed," Hayes says.

Another hotel was taken over last year by an Australian. One of its rooms used to be a dining hall but it has been converted into a music bar, with a view to attracting new visitors.

In the past 3 years alone, 13 hotels and inns have been bought from overseas, and the changes have had a profound impact on local people.

Naomi Shibata is a local restaurant owner and most of her customers used to be Japanese tourists. B now, more than 90 percent of her clients come from abroad.

"I need customers from abroad to keep the business going," she says.

Shibata inherited the restaurant from her parents and she sometimes visits other local business-owners from overseas. She has incorporated ideas into her restaurant that have been suggested by the area's new arrivals.

"This used to be a tatami room, but sitting on the floor was awkward for lots of guests," she says. "Now I have tables and chairs instead."

But many local people are bewildered by the sudden changes. Yukio Tsugui owns a hotel passed down to him from his father. He’s also the head of the local authority.

Illegal street parking in the area has increased in recent years and Tsugui says many cases involve overseas tourists.

"It's very difficult when people park on the streets, because it means we can't clear the snow," he says. "Foreign hotel owners and local people have had disagreements because there’s no communication between them. Some people do whatever they like with little regard for the community."

In a bid to improve the situation, Tsugui and other locals have started to reach out to the newcomers. He hands out English-language guidelines that explain the regulations on trash-handling and parking.

"I think the new people will understand if we explain things. They seem more open-minded than most Japanese people. So, we’ll talk with each other and try to revive local tourism together," Tsugui says.


NHK World's Keita Machida joins anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: I understand that a regional town has transformed dramatically.
Why has this town been attracting so many overseas visitors?

Machida: There are 3 main reasons for this, the first one being the quality of snow. Myoko's powder snow is known all over Japan. The resort offers courses for all levels, but is especially attractive for advanced skiers and snowboarders who enjoy the backcountry experience. And lastly, the area has a rich history going back over 200 years. It's known for its hot springs and traditional food. The area has preserved a local feel due to regulations that protect national parks, which prohibit big developers from coming in.

Shibuya: At the same time, growing numbers of foreigners are buying inns and hotels in the town. Generally speaking, who are these buyers?

Machida: Some are foreign hotel owners who manage many properties, but most of them are married couples who buy smaller places to run by themselves. They come from countries such as Australia, the UK and Singapore, because they were attracted by the natural beauty of Myoko and the quality of its snow. Each owner has a different background and ideas of their own, so each property is unique. They are changing the atmosphere, giving a fresh feel to older accommodations.

Shibuya: Also, in your report you mentioned some problems. How is the town going to tackle those issues?

Machida: Notifying them about town regulations was the first step toward making them aware that they’re part of a community. Last November, town officials held the first-ever meeting with new business owners to discuss development work. Tsugui says the town will hold another meeting next month, when the peak season has started to wind down. They’ll invite foreign business owners in order to notify them of any changes in local regulations, and to ask for their suggestions on ways to improve the community. In this way, local people and foreign hotel owners are gradually coming together.