HAVE you experienced the aroma and flavour of juicy yakitori skewers? Niseko’s famous yakitori izakaya owner, Masanobu Saito, came to Niseko all the way from Kyushu 34 years ago, and quickly became famous for his restaurant, Bang Bang. Masanobu invited Powderlife to his cozy restaurant to talk about his love for Niseko, skiing and the community.
What brought you to Niseko?
I’m originally from Saga, Kyushu and grew up near the ocean. Out of the blue, I decided I wanted to give skiing a try and some of my friends told me to go to Niseko. That was 34 years ago. When I came here for the first time, I worked at several pensions as a seasonal worker like so many young people now in town. After 10 years of living in Niseko, I felt Niseko was becoming my new home. So, 24 years ago I bought some land and opened my restaurant as a way to make a living. Also, at that time there were no places to go for a drink or to eat in town, so I thought opening an Izakaya would give local people a place to hang out after a hard day’s work.
What was Niseko like then?
It was a much smaller resort than it is now, but we still had many domestic tourists and they brought a good amount of energy to the town. I’m sure it’s hard to believe that at that time there were only 10 accommodation houses and maybe only two restaurants in the resort. One other difference that might be difficult for people to imagine was the snow. Back then I remember the snow was surprisingly much lighter and fluffier than the powder snow that we have today. On top of that, it snowed constantly from the beginning of December to May. This was an incredible sight for someone who grew up in southern Japan.
Had you run a restaurant before? What is your philosophy behind your restaurant?
To tell you the truth, this is my first restaurant. I wanted to open a cozy place for people to hang out. I thought yakitori could be good. From eating yakitori with your fingers to watching the chef cook, this izakaya ambience makes people relax. My main philosophy in running Bang Bang is to make sure my customers are happier than when they first walked through the door. By the end of the night I can guarantee two things: I’ve talked to everyone in the house, and everyone will leave with a smile.
We heard that you are a big skier. Do you still ski often?
Absolutely! Skiing is the reason that I am here. I started alpine skiing 34 years ago. Alpine skiing is fun but I enjoy going off-piste, and I wanted to enjoy Niseko’s beauty while skiing, so I started telemark skiing 16 years ago. While telemarking, you see so many small details in the natural surrounding, like birds flying or rabbits running, because your line of site is closer to the snow. Also, the added versatility makes it easier to find untracked lines. Who needs a stairway – the mountain is heaven enough for me!
What do you do during summer?
I usually go back to Kyushu for two weeks, and after that I keep myself busy enjoying summer activities, such as climbing, fishing, paragliding and so much more. I love exploring nature, so I often go into the woods to try to find my own place to relax; somewhere no one has found before.
What do you think about the internationalisation of Niseko?
I think it is great. When Niseko was just beginning to grow as an international ski resort, the locals had some difficulty communicating with and understanding different cultures. Nowadays both locals and tourists put so much effort into understanding each other by learning both language and culture. I think we do a great job of meeting in the middle without letting our own background fade. This creates the unique culture that we see in Niseko today.
What do you see in the future
A lot more development on the way, which could lead Niseko to become a prohibitively expensive ski resort. I would like to see Niseko as an affordable place to live. Nowadays, so many skilled and talented young and old people are leaving because of the expensive cost of living. I’m sure these developments could turn Niseko into an even nicer ski resort, but at the same time I would love to see all my customers come back here year after year.
What are your top three tips for visitors to Niseko?
1. Explore the mountain and find yourself off-piste.
2. Appreciate the locals, the local businesses and their great hospitality.
3. Admire the views of Niseko, and the great personalities found in the varied styles of housing.