【Column】Niseko Needs a Plan to Preserve this Paradise
In sento bathhouses in Japan’s crowded cities, large murals, usually featuring Mt Fuji, adorn the walls alongside small, porcelain-tiled baths. Of course, most of these baths are filled with heated town water, not therapeutic, mineral-rich onsen water. However, when exhausted office workers and families visit sento to warm their bones, they can gaze up at a peaceful Mt Fuji landscape and imagine they have escaped their busy city lives to a tranquil paradise – a place like Niseko.
Sometimes Niseko residents ask me why their little potato farming towns have become so popular among foreigners, and why people are paying so much money to buy land and build homes here. The underlying reason is simple – this is paradise. The very best of Japanese nature, culture and lifestyle is available in abundance in Niseko.
I don’t think there is anywhere on earth where you can so readily eat a meal made with local produce or seafood caught that day; drink water direct from natural springs; be surrounded by pristine rivers, lakes, oceans and mountains; and bathe in outdoor onsen while gazing at an unimaginably beautiful volcano as snowflakes fall around you.
For people coming from busy cities in Asia, Europe or the US to experience all of this in a short holiday, it’s like being transported to another world. Such natural luxury, and authentic culture, is increasingly rare and hard to find in our overpopulated, over-developed, over-heating world, which is why people from across the world can’t get enough of Niseko.
It’s been a quiet 18 months in Niseko, however, be prepared for that to change when international travel resumes. Tourists will come flooding back before we know it. Being such a popular tourism destination is a blessing that many small towns across Japan would be envious of. However, I sense a growing number of residents feel tourism and development is having increasingly negative impacts on the natural beauty and harmony that made Niseko so popular in the first place.
Niseko is historically a farming area, so planning for mass tourism and resort development is not something local governments have extensive experience with. I believe local governments need to engage resort and city planners who have helped plan the most successful resort destinations around the world. Many will have faced similar growing pains – Niseko is not the first small town this has happened to. Niseko needs to create a broad, long-term plan that integrates the development of the resorts within the function of the local towns, led by government and informed by international experts that have demonstrated success. This will ensure Niseko residents continue to benefit from tourism, while preserving the natural beauty and harmony for their families and visitors in coming decades.
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