【Column】 2021 in Shiribeshi

Jan. 10
Written by Mitchel Lange, a Niseko transplant from Seattle, USA. He currently works as a Coordinator for International Relations in the Niseko Town Hall.

Empty lines at Kiroro and Hirafu for ski lifts that are normally bustling with international tourists. Socially distanced crowds in multipurpose rooms and town centers throughout Shiribeshi, everyone waiting at government sponsored vaccination drives. Crossed-out dates on calendars for travel plans booked before the string of emergencies in Hokkaido. Mental images like these may come to mind when thinking back on life in Shiribeshi throughout 2021.

What kind of year was 2021? It probably depends on who you ask.

For some foreign residents, 2021 might be seen as a step up over the previous year. Compared to the period between March and September of 2020 when Japan adopted its strictest border restrictions and denied entry to everyone without Japanese nationality, long-term visa holders could come into Japan throughout 2021 as long as they took proper quarantine procedures. Many foreign nationals have lives, family, and businesses in Japan, yet for half of 2020 they weren’t allowed to enter the country if they found themselves on the wrong side of the border. Denying these people entry was a disappointing approach that left many Japan residents feeling alienated and othered, regardless of whether they were on the “right” side of the border or not.

For me, I’m looking back on 2021 and thinking maybe I should have traveled home to the United States when I had the opportunity.

When a relative of an American friend of mine passed away in autumn, said friend asked me for help getting everything worked out for his trip home to attend the funeral. Together we found a place to get a COVID test, checked re-entry requirements, and looked at where he could quarantine on his way back into Japan. Personally I was worried he might not be able to enter Japan again considering the news about the worsening Delta variant situation, but after getting a positive result on his COVID test, paying double the price for his international tickets (about \250,000 for a ticket that normally costs \130,000), and spending an extra two weeks quarantining in a Tokyo hotel upon entry to Japan, he successfully made a round trip from Niseko to the USA and back.

I’ve felt my fair share of isolation during the pandemic, being unable to visit friends and family in my home country. However, after helping my friend make his international round trip, I’m now looking back and realizing I could have made a trip home as well. When considering the fact that Japan ended Hokkaido’s state of emergency in October 2021 and shrunk quarantine restrictions from two weeks to 10 days (or less, depending on the country you came from) the possibility for travel seems even higher in hindsight. Sure a trip like this would have cost me more than normal but what’s the price on spending time with your loved ones?

Regardless of nationality, foreign and Japanese business owners alike will surely be facing a harsh winter in the 2021-2022 season. The Japanese border remains tightly closed to short-term visitors, keeping all international tourists out of the country unless they have long-term visas. I was reminded of the harsh situation this puts businesses in through my work with the Industry and Tourism Division at the Niseko Town Hall.

In 2021 I was the main organizer for the Niseko Winter Staff Training Program, which is an annual course aimed at teaching new seasonal employees about life in the Niseko area. In this training course, instructors often touch on subjects such as transportation in the area, a history of Niseko tourism, and winter safety precautions. For this year’s class however, there was a new section listing all the businesses that have been affected by COVID. Here we could see all the food and drinking establishments that had to close, the hotel developments that had to stop construction midway through development, and services across the area that had to change hours or get cut completely. With this information laid out in front of us, it was easy to understand the extent COVID has affected this community and how the upcoming season will continue to test the endurance of many local businesses.

So back to the original question: what kind of year was 2021? I think most of us could agree that it was a step toward normalcy compared to 2020. Despite the harsh situations experienced by everyone due to the pandemic, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to forget the real progress experienced since COVID started. A year ago vaccines were not available and residents of Japan were being denied entry to the country. As we look towards the oncoming new year, I’m confident that 2022 will be one more step forward for everyone in Japan.


Niseko Town Hall