Shizuo Kambayashi  /  AP file
Skiers enjoy the slopes of Niseko's 1,308-meter (3,924-foot) Mount An'nupuri. American skiers have the Rockies, Europeans the Alps. But for increasingly affluent Asia, Japan's powdery slopes are emerging as the top international draw from Shanghai to Sydney.
updated 2/27/2007 3:47:31 PM ET 2007-02-27T20:47:31

American skiers have the Rockies, Europeans the Alps. But for increasingly affluent Asia, Japan's powdery slopes are emerging as the top international draw from Shanghai to Sydney.

Even as skiing wanes in popularity at home, Japanese mountain villages like Niseko are trading on their fabulous snow, high-tech infrastructure and reasonable prices to thrive as snowbound boom towns.

International investors are also taking a keen interest in Japanese resorts as the region's skiers increasingly eschew the likes of Aspen and Davos for the pure powder next door.

"Japan is at the top in Asia in terms of skiing. For good skiers, they know that," said Patrick So, a 40-year-old Hong Kong financier spending a week on the slopes of Niseko's 3,924-foot Mount An'nupuri.

Certifying its winter sports pedigree, Japan has twice hosted the Winter Olympics and offers some 620 ski resorts. While the country lacks the stratospheric peaks of Europe or North America -Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain at only 12,385-feet - Japan has no shortage of good snow.

Niseko's main draw is its consistent blankets of deep, dry powder - averaging 45 feet a year. The Niseko resort usually remains open until the first week of May. Even though this winter has been warmer than usual in Japan, Nikeso was reporting ample snowfall as of the last week of February.

Located on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido at a latitude of Siberia, Niseko is routinely buffeted by sub-Arctic winds that storm across the icy Sea of Japan and drape the countryside in snow.

It's much the same all down Japan's western coast - rugged peaks buried chest deep.

"Lots of people have been to the Alps or Colorado," said Neil Riley, who runs WeLoveSnow, a company promoting skiing in the central Japanese resort town of Yuzawa, an easy day trip by bullet train from Tokyo.

"But there's now a lot of bragging rights to say you've been skiing in Japan," he said.

Japan first showed off its skiing prowess during the 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo, but the influx of foreign skiers is a recent one - fueled by the sport's surging popularity in Australia, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.

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In Niseko alone, the number of visitors from mainland Asia rose fivefold to 13,000 from 2001 to 2005, and the ranks of Australians descending on its sister town of Hirafu exploded from barely 200 to 7,600. In 2005, the number of South Korean skiers landing in Japan tripled to 15,000 from the year before.

The upturn has been great news for Japan's ski lodges which, like the country's golf courses, expanded at breakneck speeds in the 1980s to match a nationwide rush of well-heeled neophytes. Yet the craze waned with the economic slump the following decade, and is still being undermined by the country's shrinking population.

Today, homegrown skiers and snowboarders number around 7 million, only half the 14 million who snapped on boots during the heyday, according to Morio Tsuchiya, a spokesman for the Japan Ski Association.

"The Japanese ski population is going down as the population ages, so they realize they have to attract newer skiers from foreign markets," Riley said of Japan's ski industry.

Some investors think it has already bottomed out and are injecting fresh money into the country's ski facilities, which are known for their sprawling hotels, well-groomed trails and extensive networks of ski lifts and gondolas.

In December, a unit of U.S.-based Citigroup Inc. paid $51.2 million for 12 troubled ski resorts from Japanese conglomerate Seibu Holdings Inc. hoping to revive them.

The same month, Japanese property giant Hoshino Resorts said it would spend $84 million to revamp two failed ski resorts it bailed out in 2003 and 2004.

Some overhauls try to lure older people or families with day care facilities where parents can drop kids while skiing. Others promote summer attractions like hiking or river rafting to bolster off-season revenues.

"There is so much snow here, it has real potential to become something special," said Anthony Mellowes, a property developer from Sydney who was in Hirafu scouting potential condominiums to buy.

"It's fantastic because you've got great skiing plus the different culture," he said.

Japan has long been a turnoff for foreign visitors because of its high prices and towering language barrier.

But towns like Hirafu show that times are changing. English permeates everything from restaurant menus and bus schedules to ski classes. Meanwhile, an adult one-day ski pass to Mount An'nupuri's 61 runs, 38 lifts and 29 miles of groomed slopes costs $42.

At Aspen Snowmass, by contrast, a day pass runs nearly double that at around $82.

Tourists also lap up the Japanese twist on the downhill tradition - ramen noodles at mountain huts instead of fondue, and ubiquitous hot spring baths to soothe sore muscles. Not to mention karaoke.

Yet some differences still take adjustment - on both sides.

"When foreigners go to the public hot spring bath, they sometimes like to wear towels or swimsuits. But Japanese visitors just go in naked," said Kitami Itoh, a manager at the 506-room Prince Hotel in Niseko.

"Sometimes the Japanese complain about foreigners' manners."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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