Kensaku Kuno is the general manager of Tokyu Resort Group, the owner and operator of Grand Hirafu. We asked Kuno-san to reflect on the past, present and future of Hirafu.
How long have you been in Niseko?
Since I became general manager of Tokyu – this is my fifth season. Before that I had worked as the administration manager for three years. I also did a part-time job for one season here when I was in university, working at the front desk at Niseko Annupuri Hotel, which is now the Yugokurotei Onsen (also known as the Annupuri Onsen). But the first time I came to Niseko was when I was a child to ski. So it’s been about 10 years I’ve been in Niseko in altogether.
How has Hirafu changed since then?
When I was here during university doing the part-time job, only Hirafu Weiss (now a cat-skiing only resort, past Hanazono), Annupuri, and Moiwa ski resorts existed. There was no Niseko Village or Hanazono and each ski resort only had 1000m-high lifts. Generally, skiing powder snow wasn’t popular and people didn’t even think about it, but the snow at the time was very dry so for people who like powder it would have been like heaven. For the past three or four years there’s been a rush to develop condominiums, but besides that, it hasn’t actually changed a lot in this ski resort. Of course, the people’s smiles after skiing haven’t changed at all.
Why is Hirafu the busiest resort within the Niseko United resort group now?
If I had to choose one reason, I think it’s because it was easy for outside businesses to come in to Hirafu. A lot of business owners in Hirafu were from outside Hokkaido in the beginning. When skiing started to decrease in popularity (during the ’90s) running a pension business was difficult so people started to rent their pensions to young people very cheaply. A lot of restaurants and bars then started to build up and then foreigners started to visit Niseko and start businesses. Then when the Japanese started to leave, they started bringing foreigners in. Ross Carty and Ross Findlay were the ones who started to spread the word about Niseko to Australians about 10 years ago. The difference between here and other ski resorts in Japan is that we have more foreign-owned businesses. In general, Japanese people like to have foreigners visit, but don’t like it when they run a business. But in Hirafu it’s different. We already had business owners from outside Hokkaido, so it’s just that now they’re from outside Japan, so I think it was a little easier for foreigners to run businesses here than other places in Japan.
There are plans to create a master plan for Hirafu. What would you like to see?
To be honest, making a master plan for Hirafu is difficult because it grew naturally (there wasn’t a master plan for the area from the beginning). In places like Chamonix it’s already developed in the centre of the ski resort – it’s fun to walk around and enjoy because it’s designed to be that way. Hirafu is built on a slope already and it’s hard for people to walk up and down the hill so for this reason I think making a master plan is very difficult. Unless you build lifts from the very bottom of the lower village, or even from the traffic lights.
What do you think Niseko needs to do to attract more visitors in summer?
It’s well known that Niseko is a very nice place to spend summer. However, Niseko doesn’t have one main attraction, like the lavender in Furano (central Hokkaido ski resort and major summer tourist destination). Because of that, people have just started to understand how good Niseko is when they stay long-term. In recent years we made a walkway from Hirafu to Niseko Village. We might have to make a more fun image for people by marketing things like hiking. Thanks to Ross and Ross, rafting is now very popular, but we may have to market the image of enjoying the slow life in Niseko.
What are your top three tips for visitors?
1. Immerse yourself in the deep powder snow
2. Go to an outdoor onsen (rotenburo) in winter
3. Look at the ski hill lights from a distance – I recommend from Route 5 or the St Moritz Bridge (between Hirafu and Route 5).