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The Niseko Story: The Smallest Famous City in Japan

As we develop our series of reports on real estate in Niseko, we can share a local perspective on what we call “the Niseko Story.”

Niseko is a very special part of Hokkaido, a place of extraordinary natural beauty and potential. It is not the largest or most vibrant city in Hokkaido, but it may be the most famous. Efforts to market Niseko have created a remarkable international reputation, helping to sell, and occasionally oversell, what Niseko is – and what it isn’t.

Our experience comes from helping foreigners rent and buy property in Sapporo, Niseko, Otaru and other destinations in Hokkaido. And while the majority of real estate transactions take place in Sapporo, we get a disproportionately large volume of requests for information on loans and property in Niseko (to learn more, contact us). And living locally, we can see the way Niseko measures up to the expectations – and if and when foreigners in Niseko are surprised by what they find.

Let’s begin our telling of the Niseko Story.

Why is Niseko so Famous?

There are many reason why Niseko has attracted so much interest and media attention. The natural beauty of the Niseko area mountains is certainly a good place to start.

The mountains are quite beautiful. And even though they are not particularly tall, the elevation allows for cooler temperatures, colder air, and really nice snow. That is probably the most important thing to understand about Niseko; it receives some of the lightest, fluffiest, best snow in the entire world. That alone could make for a compelling reason to put a town that is as small (yes, small) as Niseko on the map.

The absolutely perfect quality of the snow in Niseko has made it premier ski destination. And as that snow is also so beautiful to look at, there have been many movies about skiing and snowboarding in Niseko. For some examples, see our list of the best ski videos about Niseko.

Niseko gets its name from Niseko Annupuri, which is the primary mountain in the local range. Annupuri mountain in Niseko is 1,308 m or 4,291 ft. Is that a tall mountain? For comparison, Vail Colorado in the United States is the location of another internationally famous ski resort, and it’s mountain is 2,484 m or 8,149 ft (almost twice as tall as Niseko’s peak). Niseko is sometimes compared to Whistler, British Columbia. Whistler mountain is 2,182 m or 7,160 ft. Niseko’s sister city St. Moritz Switzerland’s peak comes in at 1,822 m or 5,978 ft. Most of the mountains we might compare to Niseko are taller; Niseko’s mountains are not particularly tall at all.

This lighter, better snow, is what snow enthusiasts call “powder” snow. Powder is light, fluffy, and offers an experience that heavier, wetter, or more icy conditions do not. Powder snow makes for ideal conditions. Niseko’s somewhat remote location and perfect quality snow made it a world renowned location for skiers and snowboarders. It was the ski crowd (and the Australians in particular) that helped to originally sell the “Niseko Story,” and create the international reputation.

Relatively Short Ski Season in Niseko

As Niseko’s mountains (like all Hokkaido mountains) are relatively low elevation, the powder snow season does not last long. The snow is often better in Hokkaido, but the season (those weeks when the snow is at it’s peak) is shorter than some other resorts. Higher elevation does generally mean cooler temperatures, and for all those other mountains we mentioned, it means a longer ski season (the mountains are taller, the resorts are at higher elevation, so the snow last longer).

Peak powder season in Niseko is basically January and February, only. In Hokkaido, as of about the first of March, for those that came for the exceptional powder conditions, there is little reason to stay (and many of the foreigners leave). There is still some snow through most of April, but as of March first, the deep, light powder is rare or non-existent, as the season becomes too warm for light, powdery snow.

Even after peak-season, Hokkaido can find a market for snow sports. If the die-hard powder junkies are responsible for making Niseko famous, less sophisticated snow enthusiasts are also drawn to Hokkaido, and will continue to ski and snowboard, even as the thigh-high “fluffy pow” is less common, and the experience becomes only about the groomed runs.

For Niseko, having some appeal to a more mainstream crowd, to a more casual traveler is essential – it extends the peak season, tourist income, and opportunities for jobs in Niseko. There are only so many “expert skiers.” But as a more diverse crowd of tourists can be attracted, there is more opportunity to grow, and more incentive develop Niseko into an “all season” location.

Is that happening? Is Niseko becoming more than just a place for powder junkies? Has Niseko become a real city? Will the incoming shinkansen help make it so?

This is all part of the Niseko Story.

Is Niseko a City?

What people call Niseko is more of an area than a city. There is a Niseko town, but it is not even the biggest town in the area; Kutchan City is much bigger, and is where the majority of the local residents actually live. In addition to Kutchan, and Niseko, there is a third town called Rankoshi. Three small towns (not just one well-known name) are what makes up the most established parts of “Niseko” (in terms of services, housing, and infrastructure).

However, beyond the three small towns, there are a great number of more remote accommodations and private houses that are generally included in what people call “Niseko.” In fact, a lot of the Niseko real estate transactions are on in these less dense areas of the region. We have more to say about the real estate in Niseko below.

Niseko Population

To continue to help provide some insight into the Niseko Story, we can look at the population of Niseko.

As we began working on some Niseko population statistics to share with our readers, there was some debate as to if you could find accurate Niseko population estimates at all. If you understand that the Niseko is a “resort” town (most of all), then you can understand that Niseko depends heavily on tourism. With the relatively short snow season, Niseko has a big surge in population – of both visitors and service staff to take care of the visitors – during the peak months for powder and snow, and then, it is much quieter the rest of the year.

Based on recent statistics, the current population of Niseko is 14,580 residents. That number has declined some in recent years. Those statistics are based on Kutchan City, as that’s the most densely populated area of what we call Niseko.

Again for comparison, as for the capital of Hokkaido (which is an infinitely bigger, much more robust city, the fifth largest city in Japan), Sapporo’s population is 2,666,000 residents. And while Hokkaido follows international trends, with more and more people concentrating in city centers, Sapporo’s population is generally increasing in recent years.

If you were interested in overall numbers, livability, the greater economy, and a generally more vibrant city, “the Sapporo Story” might have greater appeal. And yet, remarkably, various forces have combined to propel the story of Niseko into the greater consciousness.

For local comparison, we can look to Otaru. According to Otaru population statistics, that has a population of 108,525 residents, eight times larger than Niseko, and also has a much more robust community. There are many more places to live in Otaru, and much better services.

So even as Kutchan is the largest of the three “Niseko” towns, it’s population is much, much smaller than other cities in the area. And this is part of why, if your expectations have been built up from the Niseko Story as marketed to internationals, you might be surprised as to the size and scale of what Niseko has to offer.

Hokkaido Shinkansen and Niseko

For all that Niseko is or isn’t, the planning of the incoming shinkansen (bullet train) to Hokkaido, helps show how the emphasis on The Niseko Story must be more than a local effort. Adding shinkansen service to Niseko is a massive investment, and shows how in the larger sense Hokkaido is helping Niseko to realize a greater destiny.

There is currently shinkansen service to Hokkaido, but it stops at Hakodate, at the most southern edge of the island. The extension of the shinkansen will bring visitors from the main island of Japan into Hakodate, then directly to Niseko. As the route for the new shinkansen in Hokkaido will eventually terminate in Sapporo, visitors that want to get to Sapporo will have to pass through both Niseko and Otaru to get there, which will bring renewed interest and exposure to both of those towns.

While Niseko is arguably more “famous” than Sapporo, the vast majority of commerce and travel is actually to the capital city of Sapporo. As Sapporo’s visitors commonly arrive by plane, they get exposure to the cities between the airport and Sapporo, but not Niseko. As the shinkansen provides an alternate to air travel to Hokkaido, the route itself will further promote Niseko to thousands of visitors per year.

Winter vs “Green” Season

As local residents, we can tell you Hokkaido does offer an incredible experience across all four seasons. Every season has it’s own appeal, with a wide range of temperatures and highlights, beginning with the snow (certainly), but then a spring full of shockingly beautiful flowers, and a lush, beautiful summer (with less extreme heat than most of Asia), where even the undervalued Hokkaido beaches have some appeal, and then the fall season where summer’s green turns to a dazzling display of yellow, orange and red. Hokkaido is a truly beautiful place.

Niseko offers these same fabulous four seasons. And as Niseko works to expand it’s image and appeal, there is a part of The Niseko Story that wants to sell the rest of Japan and the international visitors on a year-round experience. In fact, Niseko Tourism will tell you Niseko is “Asia’s premier year round resort.” And that may be true, but the actual flow of visitors to Niseko driven, almost completely, by the snow.

According to sources in our database of Hokkaido real estate agents, approximately 95% of all revenue created in Niseko is based on the Winter season, with only a small percentage of bookings and visitors coming in the much longer “green” season(s). While there are opportunities to golf and enjoy onsen experiences, many businesses shut down entirely during the green season, as there is not enough interest to sustain the staff to support those businesses.

Foreigners in Niseko

We provide some limited data in our Niseko population report, but briefly we can say that Niseko has the highest percentage of foreigners in Hokkaido, and more so as the international rush arrives during the winter season.

The local tourism industry has been driven by a group of Australian pioneers who saw Niseko’s potential and started businesses ranging from tour companies to real estate agencies.
— Chris Dillon, from his book Landed Japan

The Australians make up the largest non-Japanese population in Niseko. In fact, the Australians can safely claim responsibility for much of the early Niseko hype and lore. It was largely interest from Australians in the 1990s that help develop Niseko’s reputation as an international destination for snow. And following on that, the Australians worked to create the “resort” reputation, and to market the real estate as part of that story. We know from our research into loans in Hokkaido, that Australian banks were some of the only English-speaking banks to loan money for real estate in Hokkaido.

Beyond the Australians, other countries with “British accents” followed the Aussies to Niseko; the English and New Zealanders are noted to make up a relatively high percentage of foreigners in Niseko. As you move beyond the populations with ties to England, you start to see some examples of Asian influx into the area, with people from Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong on the list.

It is also part of the Niseko Story that money from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong has contributed a lot toward real estate purchases in the area, often providing revenue for local construction companies, and helping to support or increase property values in Niseko.

Real Estate in Niseko

Lagging only slightly behind the tourism component, Niseko real estate may be the next obvious development (so to speak) in The Niseko Story.

We say more in our posts about real estate in Niseko, but for now you can think of the real estate as falling into traditional categories; Hotels, and other larger, capital-intensive Niseko resort properties are one category. Houses for sale in Niseko make up a larger percentage of real estate transactions, including land for sale in Niseko. We get a lot of requests for real estate agents in Niseko, including many questions about loans for Niseko property (and for construction or renovation loans). Finally, there is the category of apartments, which once again suggests how early Niseko is in terms of it being a “mature city;” there are very few apartments in Niseko, which is another sign that Niseko has yet to deliver on real infrastructure outside of servicing tourists, private buyers, and real estate speculation.

The availability of apartments for rent in Niseko is particularly challenging. While there is a real need (during the primary season) for staff and employees in the local tourist industry, there is very few affordable Niseko apartments. For a temporary visitors, something like the typical short term furnished apartments in Sapporo are almost completely absent in Niseko. The housing stock is much more focused on tourists and investors than local workers.

If you’d like to learn more about real estate, we can connect you with experienced Niseko real estate agents that can help you to evaluate or buy Niseko property (and to a lesser degree with Niseko apartments for rent). We make person to person introductions to prescreened agents. If you’d like help with real estate companies in Niseko, contact us. We are happy to help.

Services in Niseko for Foreigners

As you begin to understand the Niseko Story (what it is, and what it is not), you may begin to adjust your expectations about what Niseko has to offer. And while Niseko remains more of a place to visit than a place to live for most people, the international aspect of Niseko means that while Niseko is a very small place in terms of population, there is a higher percentage of English-language services and services for foreigners in Niseko, including for buying property as a foreigner in Niseko.

As part of the free service we offer our clients, we can introduce you to local business consulting and lawyers in Niseko. While you will have many more choices if you look for an immigration lawyer in Sapporo, we have other contacts that are local to the Niseko region as well.

And because of the large foreign population, the Hokkaido International School has a smaller presence in Niseko. The main campus for Hokkaido International School is in Sapporo, but some instruction takes place in Niseko for younger students.

Real Estate Agents in Niseko

We specialize in making personalized, one-to-one introductions to real estate agents in Niskeo and greater Hokkaido.

A local Niseko agent can work with you and offer specific recommendations about where to live, can help you evaluate investment potential, can provide more specific pricing, and then can help you make in-person visits to see available property for sale in Niseko. Contact us and we will introduce you to prescreened Niseko real estate brokers that speak your language.

Our service is free to you.

We work for you, not the real estate companies.

We provide person-to-person introductions to prescreened agents that help you sell, buy, lease, or rent property in Hokkaido. We search our custom database to connect you to real estate professionals that speak your language, address your needs and are available now to help you find what you want.

Local. Trusted. 100% free to you.

To Get Started

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For More Information:

— Some estimate for The Cost to Buy a House in Niseko
— Our report on the Average Rent for an Apartment in Niseko
— Some details on the Price of Land in Niseko compared to Sapporo
— Estimates of the Foreigners Living in Niseko, by Year
— Estimates of Foreigners Living in Niseko, by Country
International Schools in Sapporo
— Find Lawyers in Hokkaido
— Our Taxes in Japan page
Buying Property in Hokkaido as a Foreigner

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