Living in Japan
Written by Takahashi Hidemine
Photos by Akagi Koichi
Niseko in southwestern Hokkaido is famous as a winter resort because of its many ski slopes. The fine powder snow offers plenty of excitement for skiers in Japan, and sportsmen and women from the southern hemisphere and other parts of the world have also been drawn here over the last few years.
"In this country people think of the year as having four seasons, but here at Niseko, nature gives us something different every month. It's a great place to enjoy the outdoors, and we want people to come and have a good time," says Ross Findlay in fluent Japanese. He established the Niseko Adventure Center, a popular place for outdoor sports year round.
Findlay is a keen sportsman, good at skiing, river rafting, kayaking, surfing and even karate. Now 41, he was born in Melbourne, Australia, and got his degree from the Centre for Sports Studies at the University of Canberra. After graduating, he became a ski instructor.
"Many Japanese students come to Australia on working holiday visas. The ones I met all seemed cheerful and warm-hearted. I heard that the economy was doing well in Japan, so I decided to go and see for myself."
He arrived at the age of 25, and began working as a ski instructor in Hokkaido. On the slopes he met Yoko, a mogul skier, and they ended up getting married. His job kept him busy only during the skiing season, so to make ends meet he worked for a construction company the rest of the year.
"In those days, people came to Niseko just for skiing, so the tourist homes and restaurants were only open in the winter. That was a shame, because nature here has a lot to offer all year round."
One day, while Findlay was kayaking down Niseko's Shiribetsu River, a new business possibility came to mind: "I thought, Niseko could have more to offer than just winter skiing. How about an outdoor summer sport? Kayaking would be difficult for many people, but they would find river rafting a great experience."
Soon after, he bought a rubber raft, set up a home office, and started working as a rafting guide with his wife. The media picked up the story and the new river rafting venture was an immediate success, with 1,500 people coming the first year. Before long he and his wife were joining forces with local ski pals and adding more staff. They renovated the gym of a decommissioned junior high school, making it into the adventure center they use today.
"People think of an outdoor sports guide as an instructor, but I think, except for the fact that we have to keep an eye out for safety, the job is basically an opportunity to enjoy ourselves with the customers. If everyone isn't having a good time together, the sport won't be really interesting."
The center attracts about 30,000 tourists each year, and employs 80 guides and other staff. Mountain biking and rock climbing have recently been added to the outdoor activities. Some of the staff have opened an outdoor equipment shop and restaurants in the area, and Niseko is now busy all year, with the center as the main base for activities.
"If the local youth feel life is worthwhile here, the whole community gains. The best is for everyone to work together."
Findlay and his wife live with their four children in an apartment near the center. His nickname is Sencho ("Captain"), and his hope is for the local young people to find work close to home. The Captain says that is what comes first for him.