Local Niseko brand YAMA PLUS has its grassroots in mind and heart.
“Yama”, as you may or may not know, is the word for mountain in Japanese. The “PLUS”, according to its founder, is for whatever you add to your lifestyle in the mountains of Japan and beyond. Yama + snowboard, yama + ski, yama + backcountry, yama + powder.
“YAMA PLUS is whatever the mountain means to you,” says founder Koji Furuta.
“There’s a man in Honshu who went fishing and caught this amazing fish. He tagged #yamaplus,” he says, and shows me. Next is a photo of a YAMA PLUS sticker on a motorcycle. “Yama plus anything you like. It’s about your lifestyle, about what Niseko, but also mountain life, means to you.”
“Yama plus golf, yama plus bike, yama plus skateboard. But also yama plus friends, yama plus beer. It’s all good.”
The brand is the lovechild of Koji Furuta, head of Niseko Sports, the official ski and snowboard rental provider and retail store of Niseko’s Hanazono Resort, with locations across the Niseko area.
Adding his design chops and fashion sense is Kentaro Hoshi, art director and designer at Nihon Harmony Resorts which is the resort management company for Hanazono.
YAMA PLUS is a unique beast – a labor of love and a fiercely independent project with large corporate backing. Strangely enough it seems money (or at least easy money) is the last thing on Koji and Kentaro’s minds. Both have full time responsibilities and they describe stealing time away from their corporate duties to nurture their project.
“We stay up late into the night, midnight or 1am every other day, thinking about how we would do this and what we would do,” Kentaro says with a laugh. “We had to convince the big bosses to try it. Our coworkers were on to us like, ‘If you have time to do this, how about that other thing we asked you for?’ But we went for it. This is our baby.”
Their efforts paid off in the winter of 2016-2017, when YAMA PLUS goods appeared exclusively on Niseko Sports shelves. With minimal advertising, Koji and his team sold over 2000 T-shirts and 1500 hoodies in the first season. “We had to restock hoodies a couple of times,” Koji says. “Way more than what we expecting went out the door.”
Koji keeps price points low to make items accessible as tools for locals and snow lovers to share their love, while maintaining reasonable quality. T-shirts go for around ¥2500, sunglasses for ¥3500 – cheap enough for your average snow bum to buy. This grassroots love for the brand is slowly but steadily growing the brand on Instagram, Facebook and other platforms. The kind of organic love that gives a brand identity and integrity.
Niseko Sports, normally a ski and snowboard rental outlet that also offers a range of retail goods, has opened over summer for the first time in its history. Our chat takes place amongst parked mountainbikes and stacks of snowboards in the back of the store.
Kentaro Hoshi (“KTR”)
“People don’t want big shiny brands. They’re looking for grass roots, for passion, for locally made.”
About starting his own brand, Koji explains that YAMA PLUS had been a dream of his for almost as long as Niseko Sports has existed. “Since we started this store as Fusion/Demo we wanted to start our own original brand,” he says. “It took this long because as a retailer we can’t only think about ourselves. (With YAMA PLUS) … we’re saying no to things that could make us a lot of money.”
These things include avoiding big profit margins on production costs, but also turning down offers from manufacturers for new product lines: helmets, gloves, ski wear. Koji has said no to these due to what he sees as a conflict of interest.
Niseko Sports takes a firm line with how they source products, insisting every item stocked is purchased through official Japanese distribution channels. Where possible they apply and receive permission to be official brand stockists, a relationship Koji takes seriously. “The ski/snowboard industry in Japan is hurting as people buy things online or from overseas. My stance is, we are responsible for representing every brand we stock in Niseko Sports. I want them (our brand partners) to do well, I want the local industry to do well. Our own profit margins aren’t the only things to think about.”
Another thing YAMA PLUS doesn’t want to do is Niseko souvenirs, with Koji and Kentaro deliberately choosing to keep the anglicised “Niseko” out of the name, at a time in Niseko’s history where companies are deliberately renaming to capitalise on that very word.
“That’d make it a souvenir, that would be too easy,” Koji laughs.
Kentaro adds, “There’s a line of t-shirts on sale in this store that are cool, slick and do the “japan and ski” thing really well. They’re under the Hanazono Niseko brand. YAMA PLUS doesn’t need to be involved with that.”
Yet YAMA PLUS couldn’t exist without the backing of Nihon Harmony Resorts, a major corporation. I ask if it is easy to choose integrity over profits with big business oversight, and the answer is surprising.
“YAMA PLUS belongs to Niseko Sports,” says Koji. “We’re lucky, as long as rentals are doing well (and they are, with records smashed every year as visitor numbers to Niseko increase) our bosses don’t mind so much about YAMA PLUS. We can really do what we like.”
Kentaro takes that thought to another level. “I feel like that’s increasingly what people are looking for,” he says. “People don’t want big shiny brands. They’re looking for grass roots, for passion, for locally made. Not Starbucks but your local coffee shop. We want to tap into that. We think that’s what is resonating with our fans.”
The lineup at this stage is mostly apparel: T-shirts, hoodies, caps, drink bottles. Koji makes the call for each addition to the lineup, describing his strategy as: “I think, gee, I want something like that, and then I make it.” For the riders they sponsor, local flavour is key. “We try to get riders on board who aren’t sponsored by a ton of other people. They’re either locals year-round in Niseko, or international kids who come back every winter. Some of them work at the rental store. All of them have ties to Niseko.”
To those new to the industry, “brand sponsorship” usually means giving out free goods to riders in exchange for those goods being seen when riders do some amazing things on the mountain. Riders will upload pics, show off and tag the brand – that spreads the word and gets people talking.
And word has spread, with inquiries coming from Australia and overseas. “We get emails daily with people asking, where can I buy these? I say, come to Niseko. This is the only place,” Koji laughs. Again, turning down money. “We are lucky we don’t have our living on the line,” Kentaro adds. “Then we’d have to make different decisions.”
For the future of the brand, both Kentaro and Koji are cautious of too much success. It’s the heart that is important, the concept – what the mountain means to you, what the brand can help you celebrate.
“If we do too well they’ll tell us to sell more,” Koji laughs, “And I’m an employee, I’d have to say yes. For now we hope we do just well enough to keep it real.”