THIS time next year it will be known whether Niseko will be serviced by Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo, according to local officials.
If it goes ahead, the service would be completed by 2020 and make it much quicker and easier for international visitors to transfer from Narita, Japan’s busiest international hub in Tokyo.
Local government believes the ease with which domestic and international tourists could travel to Niseko, and the resulting increase in associated economic benefits and infrastructure, could greatly enhance tourism and associated benefits in the area.
The trip from Tokyo to the local Kutchan Station would take three-and-a-half hours. Kutchan to Sapporo would take just 15 minutes, as opposed to two-to-three hours by road.
Prices have not yet been confirmed, but based on the cost of the 630km bullet train trip to Aomori at the northern tip of the mainland (¥15,350), it could be estimated the remaining 360km could bring the total to about ¥20,000-25,000.
In comparison, the trip from Tokyo’s international airport Narita to Niseko, including ground transfers, can take between five and eight hours, and cost between ¥15,000 and ¥30,000.
In 2004 the Japanese government confirmed the train would link Hokkaido to the mainland with a station at Hakodate, on the southern tip of the island, by 2015, and work began in 2005.
Environmental impact studies and economic assessments are currently being undertaken and the government is expected to make an announcement about whether the line will extend to Sapporo, via Kutchan, in March next year.
Youko Tanaka, spokesperson for the Kutchan Town Office, is confident the train line will go ahead, and said there would be many positives for Niseko and Kutchan if it did.
Ultimately the region would grow in local population and tourism numbers, she said.
Given the short commute time between Sapporo and Niseko, more people from Sapporo could live in the unpopulated region of Niseko while working in Sapporo, Japan’s fifth largest city with a population of about 1.9 million.
It would also give all the people in northern Honshu (on the mainland) the ability to easily access the area, where they previously would have had to travel by slow local train, or via Tokyo.
While planes are often disrupted by snow storms in winter, a train service would rarely be delayed by weather.
On the bullet train, skiers from Sapporo would also be able to access Niseko more easily, as previously the easiest way to get there was by car on slow, icy roads.
The associated economic benefits would probably ensure Eki Mae Dori, Kutchan’s main street, would be redeveloped.
Ms Tanaka said a possible negative may be the disruption of local train services, which may inconvenience locals and those from surrounding districts looking to access Kutchan.
According to current plans, 80 per cent of the track from Hakodate to Sapporo would be tunnels, with plans to bring the line above ground around the Niseko region to allow the view of Mt Yotei and Niseko’s famous countryside.
The train that would run the route, to be operated by JR Hokkaido, would be the fastest in the world with a top speed of 360km/h.