A core crew of Niseko mountain-bikers is busy hacking through the undergrowth and sculpting the mountainside this summer as they build two brand new modern “flow trails”.
Both trails are in the Hirafu resort area and follow on from a highly successful pilot flow trail project built at small neighbouring resort Asahigaoka last summer. The new trails will be suitable for beginner to advanced riders, and are positive signs Niseko’s mountain bike industry is set to take off.
Flow trails are a modern form of mountain bike trail ingeniously designed to suit a wide range of skill levels from relative beginners right through to pros. Rather than heading straight down a steep mountain, these winding tracks allow for a gentle gradient featuring bumps, jumps and banked turns, allowing riders to cruise down or attack to their desire and skill level, with minimum pedaling and braking necessary.
One trail has been recently completed on one of the main faces of the Grand Hirafu ski resort, under the “Center Four” (Ace Quad #2) lift. It is about 3km long, dropping 475 metres from top to bottom and catering to intermediate to advanced riders.
The other is a 1.8km trail being built on relatively flat terrain at a 25-hectare parcel of land on the eastern edge of greater Hirafu Village, geared towards beginners. The land was recently acquired by a Hong Kong resort developer, The Pavilions, who plans to build a 44-room hotel plus residences on land around the trail. The trail winds through designated green zones around the estate on existing but unmaintained forest tracks.
Project leader Warrick “Waza” Walsh expects portions of the trail to be fully finished and open to the public as early as September, with plans for regular competitions and events also in the works. The entire project is funded by local community and businesses, and trails will be free to use once completed. There’s currently a short, circular plastic pump track there as well, and plans are to make this a family friendly event and congregation space.
The birth of an industry?
Another positive sign that the mountain bike industry is taking off is that there are now two official professional track building companies. Waza has just started one of these, Trail & Track Japan. On board for this particular project is mountain bike trail builder Kunihiko Mamiya, AKA Mamiken, another passionate mountainbiker responsible for successfully building trails in nearby ski resort, Rusutsu. We find him hard at work deep in the forest, clearing rocks out of the ground.
Waza has seen mountain biking paired successfully with ski resort towns across the world to bolster business in the summer, and is keen to see similar success reflected here in Niseko.
“In Queenstown, you see mountainbike trails everywhere, from every backyard. People come to Niseko in summer, we’re giving them something to do. We want to make this a place you come to mountain bike. Europe, New Zealand, Australia, the US – every ski resort is doing this.”
Mountainbiking in Niseko took two steps forward and one step back last year when the Asahigaoka flow trail was bulldozed at the end of the autumn amid safety concerns and miscommunication between government departments. The Asahigaoka trail had been planned and project-managed by a Swiss trail builder Allegra Tourism, whose business is to build summer mountain biking industries at underutilised ski resorts in their off-seasons. The project was possible thanks to the support of local government tourism branches, local businesses and volunteer labour. Although the trail is no more, Waza and Mamiken look back on the Asahigaoka park flow trail as a step in the right direction.
“Just the fact that the project went ahead is a success,” Waza says. Local business and community leaders, convinced that the growth of mountain biking in Niseko is the way forward for the resort, continue lobbying efforts, approaching young and passionate council members in local townships of Niseko, Kutchan and Rankoshi.
They also have their sights set on prefectural and even national government. “Everyone needs to be on board,” he said. “We understand change takes time. We’ll keep pushing.”
The Pavilions trail project is funded by donations and contributions from the local community, with both residents and local businesses generously donating to the cause and The Pavilions opening their land for public use. What these local players are expressing with their support, says Waza, is optimism for the future of the area. As for his ambitions for mountain biking in Niseko, the Pavilions trail just the beginning.
Another trail building crew at work on Grand Hirafu’s downhill mountain bike trail.
“What I would love to see eventually is a trail linking here with Asahigaoka park (10km away in Kutchan town). More trails connecting the four ski resorts in the summer. All the way to Moiwa. There are forest paths there already, we’re pushing to get those classified as joint use, to allow cyclists to use them. Our teams will go in and maintain the trails for everyone – win win.”
Waza says it’s no pipe dream – landowners, developers and management companies who own land where trails could be built have shown keen interest. Waza says the trick is to get the right permissions from the right people to ensure lasting changes stay. The owners of Grand Hirafu, Tokyu Resort Service, opens its ski slopes annually to downhill mountain biking, accessible by the Center Four lift line, which is loaded up with old gondola cars in summer.
While the ambitious Asahigaoka trail project is gone but not forgotten, the Pavilions trail is here to stay. Waza and Mamiken are on-site five days a week clearing stones and bamboo and evening out the ground. Any locals with time on their hands are welcome to help out – the work is hard but fun, shifting rocks and pulling up bamboo roots, then shaping and patting down dirt. The rewards are community feeling, and all the sunshine you could dream of.
The Ginto Trail project is being spearheaded by Holiday Niseko and supported by Niseko Property, Niseko Real Estate, HTM, Niseko Wow, Powderlife, Chalet Ivy, Explore Niseko, Rhythm, and Odin.