As the first deal fell over in October 2008, butterflies stirred in Simon Robinson’s stomach. The metaphorical butterfly had flapped its wings above Wall Street, and an economic hurricane was about to sweep the world.
As it tore through Niseko, it took with it all 17 reservations on Robinson’s ground-breaking new 25-lot master-planned estate at the bottom of Hirafu.
Seven years later, a refined 15-lot plan has sold out, and is now home to the highest concentration of multi-million-dollar custom chalets in Niseko – literally Niseko’s “millionaires row”. The Escarpment has become a showcase of the exuberant, cuttingedge Japanese and international architecture now being built in Niseko by people from across the world. And it has become a model for other developments in the area. The Escarpment has infinitely surpassed Robinson’s initial visions for the estate, and his company Hokkaido Tracks is once again leading the way in Niseko’s evolution.
In early 2009, if you walked to the bottom of Lower Hirafu Village and gazed out over the river valley towards Mt Yotei, you could be forgiven for feeling like you were overlooking a landscape that time forgot. From here, mountains of powder snow tumbled down a steep, forested escarpment into plots of rice fields wedged into flat land between rolling hills below. Down here, it was hard to imagine that a snowball’s throw away were the bright lights and buzz of the world’s most exciting new international ski destination in central Hirafu Village.
TEXT: KRIS LUND
PHOTOS: HOKKAIDO TRACKS
APPEARS IN: POWDERLIFE WINTER 2017 EDITION
PRESIDENT, HOKKAIDO TRACKS
“Passing through a steep-walled valley, alongside a stream you finally come to a small bridge and two totem poles marking the entrance to the exclusive community.”
The Escarpment Estate takes in the land either side of a short winding road that runs parallel to the border of the lower village bluff – almost as if the development holds Hirafu above on its shoulders. On either side of this master-planned avenue is some of Hirafu’s most sought-after real estate. Seven houses have been completed, to number 10 by the end of next year. The homes being built range from 150sqm to 1000sqm.
However, of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to Hirafu every winter, very few will come across The Escarpment, let alone know where it is. To find it, you need to locate an inconspicuous road dropping off the side of Lower Hirafu Village, below the traffic lights and just past the “Fridge Door Bar”.
Passing through a steep-walled valley, alongside a stream you finally come to a small bridge and two totem poles markingthe entrance to the exclusive community. Rounding the first corner you get a glimpse of the first houses and the ever-present Mt Yotei towering above them.
For The Escarpment’s grand architect, Simon Robinson – the man who built the first modern ski condominium in Niseko in 2003 – the estate holds a special significance. Shortly after the site had been excavated, powerlines buried, infrastructure, services and access installed – disaster struck. As financial markets around the world collapsed during the Global Financial Crisis in 2009, so too did 17 reservations on 25 of the lots originally slated for the development.
“The Escarpment should have bankrupted me several times over,” Robinson now laughs. “I had huge bills to pay but all of a sudden there was no money to pay for it – I even had to sell my house (one of Hirafu’s first designer luxury homes, The Glasshouse).”
Ironically, the event that brought such heartache and disruption then has turned out better now than Robinson could ever have imagined. In 2009, “big money” was only just starting to find its way into Niseko, cautiously feeling its way around the frontier ski and four seasons resort town. The Escarpment was very much a house and land product aimed at early Australian and Asian skiing enthusiasts.
In the years after confidence returned to global markets, Hokkaido Tracks discovered an entirely new calibre of clientele was ready to put cash on the table. The future of the resort had well and truly been consolidated post-crisis with a reuptake of big money investment across the area, both at the corporate level, and now more than ever amongst wealthy individuals looking for their own, year-round Hokkaido holiday retreats. They re-positioned the original 25 blocks as 15, and offered them for sale as land with the option of design and project management, all of which have been taken up.
“The concept for The Escarpment was put together at a time when it was completely out there – there was nobody doing anything like this, there was nobody even thinking of doing anything like this,” Robinson says. “At that stage, and still today, it’s all about ski-in/ski-out. We were ahead of the market and we got stung. But now we look back and we’re almost thinking “thank God it came out at the wrong time.”
Hokkaido Tracks continues to lead the way, currently pioneering development at Higashiyama with work underway on its newest housing development project, Foxwood.
“The reason these buyers like it is because it’s private – it’s in the village but it’s not in the village, and the views can never be built out. A lot of people building with us are building the home they can’t have where they live – either it’s too expensive to have a large house or they just don’t have access to this sort of setting. It’s truly a special part of the world here and a majority of them have kids and this is a family retreat for them. A lot of them come in the summer and autumn, not just winter.”
“The owners we now have down on that estate are significant individuals throughout Asia – owners of some of the world’s biggest companies. The money they are spending is setting a standard that hasn’t been seen, and it’s continuing to go up. It’s becoming more like a north American ski investment or housing market than we ever envisaged.”
As plans come together for the remaining homes being built and planned in The Escarpment, Robinson is once again looking forward to other projects in Niseko – as always innovating and pioneering products, ideas and locations. While there is plenty of scope to build similarly impressive properties, he says there will never be anything quite like The Escarpment.
“It was bold. It could’ve failed – it should’ve failed – but didn’t fail,” he says. “We danced on our feet and remodelled ourselves around this product and it continues to succeed. This product is at the forefront of what the Asian market is looking for, which is premium quality housing in a place many now call their second home. When I retire, the thing that I look back on and will be most proud of will be The Escarpment Estate – it’s special.”