Although the international community is only just beginning to discover Niseko, among Japanese it’s been well known for a long time that Niseko is the best resort in the country. It’s no surprise that many of the nation’s best winter sports athletes have been attracted to the area to refine their skills. Although you may not be aware of it, the skier you watch from the gondola, bouncing through moguls as if they weren’t there, may be a Japan National Team member. Or the rider you see pulling somersaults in the half pipe may have been top 5 in his field at the Olympics. We’ve been scouting Niseko to weed out and introduce you to the area’s best and brightest winter athletes… Niseko’s local heroes.
Every resort has its crew who call it home. A finite posse whose skiing and riding style reflects that of their home mountain, be it the big mountain alpine styles of the Canadian Rockies or the freestyle fellowships from France and Europe. Japan is also emerging as a breeding ground for many new skiers and boarders and it may only be a matter of time before many more names are added to the list of people that choose Japan and Niseko as their home for honing their skills.
Possibly the biggest name skier in Niseko is Grand Hirafu’s famous pony-tailed telemarker Yutaka Takanashi. Takanashi-san came to Niseko in 1992 as a fresh-faced 20-year-old who had just spent a year in Rusutsu, and got hooked on Niseko’s size after visiting for a day. Takanashi-san wasn’t improving on skis as fast as he’d like and switched to snowboarding. He loved the feel of riding through powder but felt the urge to be different and realised no one was telemarking here. He took to it like a fish to water and kept improving to the point where he entered World Cup events in 1998 and 99 and has featured in more films, magazines and photo shoots than he can remember. Yutaka now runs his own ski store Toyru in Hirafu, has sponsors including (deep breath) Vector Glide, Patagonia, Scarpa, Black Diamond, Osprey, Giro, and Vitoria Sped. If that isn’t enough, Takanashi-san also designs skis for prominent Japanese maker Vector Glide.
Of the boarders there is a growing group of old-school riders who are known and respected throughout the community. Gentem founder Taro Tamai is renowned across Japan as one of the best powder snowboarders in the country. Tamai-san has left as big a mark on Niseko’s snow as he has on the local community through his boards and restaurant. Another Gentem rider, Tomoki Takaku, is also one of Gentem’s top pros who has been featured in magazines and video shoots for over 10 years.
While he might be getting long in the tooth, 43-year-old Akio Endo is still as passionate as ever about his snow surfing and has a collection of sponsors that would make any 20-year-old park rat envious. He got into snowboarding in a big way in 1985 and was third in the National Downhill Snowboarding Championships in 1986, and fourth in National Snowboard Moguls in 1987 (you read correctly, this is old school!). He moved to Niseko in 1993 after working as the half pipe maker at Rusutsu for a couple of years, even shaping the pipe for the 1992 World Cup. Endo-san moved to Niseko in 1993 and hasn’t looked back. He’s been sponsored by Burton since 1996 and appeared on a top rating Japanese snowboard show in 1997. He’s been guiding in Niseko since 1995 and has taken many of the top riders around, and even guided Shaun White and the Red Bull team while they were here this season.
Thirty two-year-old Yo Amagai, co-owner of Kutchan’s legendary skatepark bar Loaf Lounge has a cult following among snowboard-philes across Japan. Yo did a season in Hakuba after graduating from high school, but relocated to Niseko soon after hearing about its powder from friends. A native of Saitama (near Tokyo), Amagai shot to prominence in 2000 after coming from nowhere to win the Japan Cross Game Masters series. Previously unknown, he decided snowboarding for him was about riding with friends, not competing, but if he was going to compete he wanted to win as much money as he could. He chose events with the biggest purse and trained to win. Yo’s extroverted nature, good looks, and obv ious natural talent saw him garner a huge national following, especially among the hordes of young female fans. These days he’s happily married with a beautiful child but still loves the feeling of standing in the backcountry holding his board, looking out over the mountain, feeling like he’s in the depths if Hokkaido’s wilderness. He’s an all-rounder, borrowing elements of both skateboarding and surfing styles.
A couple of young-gun local skiers have been selected in the National Team recently. Ryunosuke Okoshi, 19, is an up and coming young slalom and grand slalom skier who moved to Niseko from Sapporo when he was two. Okoshi has won the All Japan Junior Slalom and grand slalom two years running, the first time anyone has won both events in consecutive years in recent history. Okoshi skied Hirafu’s Alpen Course every day after school, preferring the thrill of speed on the hard-packed over the rush of the famed powder. These days Okoshi spends most of his time touring the world. He’s currently in Switzerland competing and will be in Europe most of the winter. He returns to Niseko for a week or two over New Years.
Sora Yoshikawa is a Hirafu-born, 18-year-old champion mogul skier. His parents own and manage the Yubokumin pension in the lower village. Sora started skiing when he was two, skiing in front of their pension when there weren’t many buildings in the area. He was never into alpine skiing but Atsushi Itou, the famous Japanese mogul skier and now co-owner of Niseko 343 ski shop, initiated a mogul team out of young people in Hirafu and Sora decided to join. Sora’s dad said he was lucky because he had a great coach and a great mountain to train on, especially the Ni-kabe course, between Onsenzawa and the Hirafu gondola. The steep run’s moguls are perfect for mogul practice. Big things are expected in the future since Yoshikawa won a gold medal at the Junior Olympics when he was 15. Grand Hirafu give him a free mountain pass to train with. Sora has recently joined the National Team, beginning at the bottom but now working his way up. He needs to be in the top three to make the next Olympics and he’s aiming at being in the Olympic team for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The Japan National Team coach, Janne Latela from Finland, believes Sora has great potential and is taking him to the next World Cup in Europe. Sora’s father feels his son is very lucky – he’s got a great coach, a great run to practice on, and a lot of natural ability which has allowed him to become a great mogul skier. He’s also looking for sponsors now to support him because he’s currently using his own funds to send him to race.
23-year-old Takahara Nakai is a Kutchan-born-and-raised young gun who is quite possibly the hottest young Japanese snowboarder around. ‘Taka’ is a highly successful half-pipe rider who came fifth in the Torino Olympics in 2006 and fourteenth in Salt Lake City as an 18 year old. Taka is known for his huge airs and tricks and is one of the new generation of young riders taking those skills to the backcountry and filming. At the same time, he’s gained the respect of fellow riders and been invited to many events including the X-Games, the Burton Abominable, and the event he is presently attending – the invite-only Terje Haakonsen-produced Oakley Arctic Challenge in Norway. In Japan, Taka rides with his local crew – Seven Samurai – filming all over Hokkaido, emulating the legendary Car Danchi team in some ways but adding a bit of technicality to their straight powder-smashing ways.
Apart from these young guns, Niseko is home to a plethora of ex-elite athletes, too numerous to name here. At several stores around Niseko you’re likely to be sold a fleece by someone whose been to three Olympics. One thing is for sure, from the ex-champions to those in the making, they share the same love and passion as the rest of us – the pure joy of sliding down a snow-covered Mt Annupuri.