Hokkaido hotspot: G8 meets Mt Yotei
One of Japan’s most spectacularly beautiful and admired landscapes is just an hour’s drive from Niseko on the far side of Mt Yotei. Lake Toya is an almost-circular volcanic caldera lake, 10km across at its widest point. At its centre three densely vegetated lava domes rise from the lake’s transparent waters – from space it looks like a giant blue doughnut on the dark green backdrop of Shikotsu-Toya National Park, known for its nature reserves and untouched forests. Tokyo, Sony and Japan’s status as the world’s second biggest economy are distant relatives to this peaceful, pristine countryside. The village of Toyako Onsen, renowned as one of the nation’s top onsen resorts, lies on its western shore and attracts holidaymakers from across the country in search of peace, wide-open spaces and an escape from the pressure of life in densely populated Japan.
But belying this exquisitely beautiful, serene setting is a fiery alter ego. Active volcanoes surround the lake and throughout the resort town English and Japanese signs adorn lamp posts identifying ‘eruption escape routes’. In 2001 Mt Usu, on the town’s edge, exploded causing widespread damage and forcing the evacuation of its 15,000 residents and visitors. Steam still rises from Usu-zan’s newly forged crater, and in scenes reminiscent of a bomb blast, lamp posts are still snapped backwards concentrically from ‘ground zero’. Houses were wiped out and are barely recognizable, warped and windowless on 45-degree slopes that were formerly flat ground.
In three months Lake Toya looks like it will reawake from its semi-somulent state when the world’s most powerful leaders converge for the 34th Group of Eight Summit.
The G8 member-countries are Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States. Their combined populations represent about 14% of the world’s people, but they account for nearly two-thirds of its economic output and a majority of its military power. Each year, member states of the G8 take turns assuming the presidency of the group. The holder of the presidency sets the group’s annual agenda and hosts the summit for that year. This year it’s Japan’s turn.
When the Group of Eight met in July 2001, half the world away from Hokkaido, hundreds of thousands of protesters from across the globe gathered in Genoa, Italy. The summit’s main agenda was reducing global poverty. Despite its seemingly good intentions, the streets were bombarded with rocks and Molotov cocktails, cars were set on fire and storefronts were smashed and looted. Italian police reacted the only way they knew how – they fought fire with fire, arresting dozens of protesters, injuring hundreds and in the aftermath a 23-year-old Italian was dead.
Since that infamous 27th G8 Summit in Genoa, the violent reaction to G8 summits has resulted in a policy to base meetings outside major centres. In fact, resorts in the host nation’s outlying regions known for being naturally beautiful have been chosen. As it once again came to Japan’s turn to host the meeting - previously held three times in Tokyo and most recently in the semi-tropical southern island of Okinawa - former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chose Lake Toya, a place he regards as epitomizing pristine environment in Japan, to highlight the meeting’s underlying environmental theme. “This place is endowed with beautiful and dynamic nature so it’s a fitting place for the world’s leaders to talk about global environment,” Abe said in an address announcing the meeting in April last year. “I have chosen this place because I want to send a message to the world in July next year.”
But perhaps the real reason for choosing Lake Toya was its relative isolation. Wherever it’s held, the G8 summit attracts conflict. As the annual summits are so high profile, they are subject to extensive lobbying by advocacy groups and street demonstrations by activists. The most popular criticisms centre on the assertion that members of the G8 are responsible for global issues such as poverty in Africa and developing countries due to debt and trading policy, global warming due to carbon dioxide emission, the AIDS problem due to strict medicine patent policy, and other issues related to globalisation. G8 leaders are pressured to take responsibility to combat problems they are accused of creating. For example, Live 8, a series of concerts in July 2005 to coincide with the 31st G8 summit, was intended to promote global awareness and to encourage G8 leaders to ‘Make Poverty History’. Live 8 organizers also proposed that G8 member nations adjust their national budgets to allow for 0.7% to go towards foreign aid as outlined in Agenda 21 of the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit.
Despite its isolation, Lake Toya won’t be immune from demonstrations and lobby groups are planning to crash the G8 party. While delegates and official summit participants will largely be accommodated in the onsen hotels of Toyako, anti-G8 visitors are expected to stay further afield, and many are likely to stay in Niseko. Unlike past summits, access to the building accommodating the leaders will be almost impossible. They will stay in The Windsor Hotel Toya, situated on a hill overlooking the lake. The hill is covered with dense bush and the only road up will be blocked. In the confines of the hotel, the meeting should be able to progress as intended without interruption.
The Windsor Hotel Toya itself houses an interesting story. Truly a five-star hotel, it could be argued its location adds another star. Perched on the 600 metre-high ridge it towers above the lake to its north, and Uchiura Bay, the ‘Bay of Volcanoes’, on the Pacific Ocean to its south. The whole dramatic scene can be taken in from the hotel’s opulent grand lobby to the sounds of live flute and piano as guests first enter the building. The lake or sea, or both, are also visible from every one of the 334 guest rooms. Nightly accommodation ranges from ¥35,700 ($350) for a double or twin bedroom to ¥1.36 million ($13,600) for the biggest suite. About one in six customers is a foreigner who tends to stay for up to two weeks — far longer than the average guest. Guests have a true smorgasbord of 12 restaurants to choose from, including one of the world’s few three-star Michelin chefs Michel Bras’s signature restaurant.Of course there’s a gym, tennis court, swimming pool and, among the entire island of Hokkaido renowned for its onsens, one which stands above them all, overlooking both Lake Toya and Uchiura Bay.
Initially built during the highflying days of the Japanese property bubble of the 1980s and 90s, it was designed to cater to the overtly wealthy. So while the Windsor’s is not exactly a rags-to-riches story, it could be described as a riches-to-rags-to-riches story. It’s hard to believe now, but 10 years ago it was broke and forced to shut its doors. Solely thanks to its optimistic president, Tetsuo Kuboyama, The Windsor has received the ultimate compliment by being asked to host the G8 Summit. Kuboyama-san has worked at some of the best hotels around the world, including the Waldorf Astoria in New York. “That is the most luxurious hotel I have ever seen,” Kuboyama told Powderlife. “All the biggest name stars have stayed there - Elvis, Emperor Hirohito, Frank Sinatra, the Queen of England, Jack Nicklaus. Working in that environment taught me to do everything to the highest possible standard.”
‘The highest possible standard’ is a good way to describe everything about the Windsor. “It was built in the middle of the bubble in 1990 and prestige was the overriding theme,” Kuboyama-san says. “When it opened it was only for private members of the Windsor Club (memberships cost up to ¥30 million, or $US300,000), so the general public couldn’t stay there. It was built to the highest standards imaginable. Then when the bubble burst, Windsor memberships declined and the standards of service dropped. The staff began to worry about themselves and not so much about the guests.”
In 1997, the regional lender Hokkaido Takushoku Bank went bankrupt and as the main bank for the hotel’s real estate developer, this spelled doom for The Windsor: “On December 9, 1997, soon after I became manager, we were granted entry into the Leading Hotels of the World. Ironically two weeks after that, the bank that was supporting us folded. We had to close our doors on March 21, 1998.” Japan was still languishing in the wake of the bubble economy’s implosion and the situation was particularly severe in Hokkaido. Investors weren’t interested in injecting money into expensive resort hotels for the wealthy.
“I knew that it was such a special site and had so much potential, we couldn’t just leave it there as a white elephant. We decided to go back to the drawing board, scrap the members-only policy, but we didn’t want to decrease the standards. The Governor of Hokkaido asked me to keep the prices and services up if we were going to re-open. That motivated me to search for the absolute finest in facilities, services and food and beverage. I convinced three-star Michelin chef Michel Bras to open his restaurant here. He came here when it was still closed and fell in love with the outlook over the Lake. He said it reminded him of a favourite location he once worked at in France. I also got a world famous baker, and we are one of the only bakeries in Japan to import all our flour from France. We convinced a very famous Japanese chef – Miyamaso-san, who has a very exclusive restaurant outside Kyoto – to open here. Finally Mr Takahashi opened his Duram soba restaurant, the finest of its kind in Japan.” In 2002, four years after it closed, the Windsor Hotel Toya made a spectacular comeback with a refurbished interior and the finest collection of restaurants in Hokkaido, if not Japan. If it was impressive before it closed, now it was something else. The Windsor Hotel Toya was back, and better than ever.
The G8 Summit will be held on July 7-9 and the hotel is closed to the public for 10 days in the lead up to and after it. As visitors to Niseko will know, the Japanese are among the most attentive hosts in the world, so the leaders can expect to receive the finest hospitality. Traditional Japanese dancers will perform in the lobby and a famous koto (traditional Japanese harp) player will perform for the leaders and their spouses. They will receive special gifts including sake from Japan’s most famous sake maker presented in handmade pots. A new executive chef will be brought in to oversee catering for the event. The Michel Bras menu will be modified to include more Japanese food so the leaders can experience the finest Japanese cuisine.
During that period, Hokkaido will be the centre of the world’s media attention. While Niseko has managed to attract the international tourist market, the rest of the spectacular island of Hokkaido is still relatively unknown outside of Japan. The man with the golden touch, Kuboyama-san, is confident the G8 summit means bigger and better things for Hokkaido. “I think this will only grow and grow. Hokkaido is the jewel in Japan’s tourism crown and even now I can see an increase in travellers from Asia, Australia and Europe. We should all turn the summit into a springboard. It’s a great opportunity for tourism in Hokkaido and we must show Hokkaido’s face to the world.”
No comments yet
No comments have been posted yet. Add new comment