A History of Powder Skiing in Niseko

Hokkaido lies at the northernmost extreme of the Japanese archipelago, and the inland areas of Hokkaido have had a very different history from other parts of Japan. After the arrival of the modern age, Hokkaido saw the influx of large numbers of immigrants from Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu islands for full-scale development of the island.

In the coastal areas on the Sea of Japan, fishery and commerce involving the indigenous Ainu people had been actively pursued since the Middle Ages. The industrial history of Niseko dates from the final decades of the Edo era, (the early 19th century).

Kutchan Villagers 1913

Kutchan villagers enjoy skiing around 1913.

Sulfur mine at Mt. Iwaonupuri

In 1806, when Japan was still known as a country of samurai, sulfur mined at Mt. Iwaonupuri in Niseko was transported to Iwanai, near the Sea of Japan. Full-scale mining of sulfur started in 1861 when a mountain path was completed. The path later became the Niseko Panorama Line highway.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), Benjamin Smith Lyman, an American geologist employed by the Meiji government, conducted a survey before starting large-scale mining. Sulfur from Niseko was used for match heads and was an important export for Hokkaido. Despite several changes of ownership, the Iwaonupuri sulfur mine ran until 1937. The mining site is one of the Modern Industrial Heritage Sites of Japan.

Hot spring resorts

In later years, the Niseko area became known for hot springs. In 1885, the first intermittent spring in this area was found in the southern foothills of Mt. Chisenupuri, and a small house was built beside the spring. The spring is now known as Yumoto Spa.

In 1894, Kunikichi Yamada, one of the first settlers in Kutchan, found a hot spring in the eastern foothills of Mt. Niseko Annupuri. He founded Yamada Spa in 1897. This spa led to the development of the Aza Yamada district of Kutchan, where Niseko Grand Hirafu is now located.

At the upper reaches of the Shiribetsu River, where the town of Rankoshi would later be developed, Narita Spa (now called Yakushi Spa) was founded in 1896 and Miyakawa Spa (now Koikawa Spa) in 1898. In 1905, Aoyama Spa started operating in the same town, although it has since closed. Over time, Niseko became one of the largest hot spring villages in Hokkaido.

Start of railway operations

In 1904, railway service was inaugurated between Otaru and Hakodate on a line that would become the Hakodate Main Line of the Hokkaido Railway Company. Railway service helped to increase people’s interest in the hot springs and scenic sites of Niseko. Hot spring development accelerated in the 20th century. In 1908, Ogawa Spa (now closed) started business along an old road leading from Kutchan to a sulfur mine. Around the same time, Niimi Spa started operations deep in the mountains of Rankoshi. Between 1920 and 1926, Inoue Spa and Inamura Spa began operations. These two spas together developed into what is now Goshiki Spa. In its vicinity, the Niseko Yama-no-Ie lodge, run by the Sapporo Railway Bureau (now the Hokkaido Railway Company), opened in the winter of 1937.

Lieutenant Colonel Theodor Von Lerch

Lieutenant Colonel Theodor von Lerch.

1912: The first year of skiing in Niseko

Skiing in Niseko dates from 1912, when Lieutenant Colonel Theodor von Lerch visited Niseko and skied Mt. Yotei. Von Lerch (1869-1945) visited Japan from Austria-Hungary to inspect Japanese troops in November 1910. This is after Japan, an emerging power, had begun attracting world attention by defeating Russia, a great power, in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). An excellent skier, the lieutenant colonel was asked by the Japanese army to train the 58th Infantry Regiment based in Takada, Niigata Prefecture. The ski training provided by the lieutenant colonel was the first opportunity for Japanese to learn skiing techniques in earnest.

Kutchan Skiers 1957

Preparations for a competition, before ski lifts came to Hirafu around 1957.

The lieutenant colonel also visited Hokkaido and gave ski training to the 7th Division stationed in Asahikawa, in February 1912. On April 15 of the same year, he visited Kutchan to conclude his training in Hokkaido with a ski mountaineering excursion up Mt. Yotei. On the following day, he skied with a single pole in front of residents in Kutchan, a village known for deep snow. It was the first time for them to know of skiing, and they were immediately attracted by skis, which were novel to them. On April 17, Lieutenant Colonel von Lerch carried out his plan to ski up Mt. Yotei, which was reported in the newspapers as a marvelous feat. Many young people outside Niseko who read about the lieutenant colonel began to enjoy skiing in the mountains of Niseko.

The start of the Niseko Kogen Kanko lifts in 1961

In January 1926, 14 years after the first skiing in Kutchan by Lieutenant Colonel von Lerch, students at Kutchan Junior High School went ski mountaineering at Mt. Niseko Annupuri. They left Yamada Spa, on what is now Grand Hirafu, and reached the summit in two and a half hours. Twelve years later, in 1938, the All-Japan Intercollegiate Alpine Ski Championships were held here. As a result of other ski events that took place afterward, the ski runs in Hirafu gradually took shape.

Early Niseko Lift Ticket

An early lift ticket.

In the early 1960s, the Town of Kutchan was trying to attract business investment. One potential investor was Hokkaido Fiberboard, which then had plans to use chishima-zasa (Sasa kuralensis), an evergreen dwarf bamboo growing in the Niseko Mountains, for plywood production. Although the business plans stalled, the mayor and people of the town negotiated with the company about the possibility of converting into a ski lift the cableway that had been planned for the collection of this dwarf bamboo. At that time, the townspeople hoped to host the All-Japan Alpine Ski Championships in March 1962, the year marking the 50th anniversary of the visit by Lieutenant Colonel von Lerch. Their hope was fulfilled as a result of considerable efforts and dedication by many people who loved mountains and skiing. Niseko Kogen Kanko Co., Ltd., which now operates Grand Hirafu, was established in order to construct lifts. On December 17, 1961, the Niseko Kogen Kanko lifts entered operation. There were two lift lines, with a combined length of 1,070 m.

Ski resort development

In 1965, alpine lifts built by St. Moritz Lift Co., Ltd. entered operation in Hirafu. Riding the crest of a skiing boom in the years preceding the 1972 Winter Olympic Games hosted by Sapporo, both Niseko Kogen Kanko Co., Ltd. and St. Moritz Lift Co., Ltd. expanded lifts, ski lodges, hotels and other facilities. In the 1980s, high-speed state-of-the-art quad lifts and gondolas were built in quick succession, as were large lodges.

History Of Niseko Powder Skiing

Staff in the early years.

After the Winter Olympics in Sapporo, ski resort development was actively pursued at Mt. Niseko Annupuri. Niseko Annupuri International Ski Resort and Niseko Higashiyama Ski Resort (now Niseko Village) opened in December 1972 and 1982, respectively.

Some young skiers who were raised in Niseko and have trained there have been successful enough to participate in the All-Japan Championships and the Olympics. The powder snow at Niseko has attracted many skillful Telemark skiers and snowboarders from other parts of Japan. Niseko is widely recognized as one of the most important ski areas in Japan.

The town of Hirafu and the advance of internationalization

Ski resorts and the associated ski culture have brought many things to Hirafu. Immediately after the construction of the first lifts, local farmers opened inns and lodges that supported the development of ski areas. They warmly welcomed many skiers from outside the town. In the 1980s, some frequent visitors settled in Hirafu and opened resort inns and restaurants. They had hopes and expectations for a new way of life in Hirafu. That was the forerunner of Hirafu’s inn and restaurant district.

Between the 1990s and the 2000s, when snowboarding became popular, the favorable topography and powder snow in Hirafu attracted people in increasing numbers. The Hanazono runs opened on the north side of Hirafu ski area in 1992. Since the 1997 introduction of a system that makes it possible to access all the ski slopes of Mt. Niseko Annupuri by using a single lift ticket, visitors have been skiing and snowboarding in wider areas in a day.

Alpine Race Niseko

The All-Japan Alpine Ski Championship in 1962.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the numbers of Australian skiers visiting Niseko for its superior “Niseko powder” have been rapidly increasing. Because they stay in Niseko for the medium and long term, condominiums have been built one after another by Australian and British companies. Hanazono Resort was purchased by an Australian company that then sold it to a Hong Kong-based company. Higashiyama Ski Resort was sold to an American company and then to a Malaysian company. With the active participation of these foreign players, businesses and a unique ski resort culture are flourishing in Niseko. Skiing and snowboarding in winter are ever at the center of the ongoing development here.


1883A ski association is formed in Oslo, Norway.
1892The first settlers come to the wilderness of Kutchan.
1907Production of wooden skis starts in France.
1912Lieutenant Colonel von Lerch and his party show people in Kutchan how to ski on April 16. The following day, he ascends Mt. Yotei on skis.
1929Trains begin to run in winter between Sapporo and ski areas in Niseko. A temporary “train hotel” is established at Kutchan Station.
1931The first FIS Alpine Ski World Championship (now the World Ski Championships) is staged in Murren, Switzerland.
1957The Soviet Union launches Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite.
1961The first lifts in Niseko are completed. The ski areas are named Niseko Kogen Hirafu Ski Resort, because the nearest railway station is Hirafu. Yuri Gagarin returns from the world’s first manned space flight, after orbiting the Earth once.
1965St. Moritz Lift Co., Ltd. opens business in the Niseko Hirafu area.
1969Apollo 11 lands the first humans on the moon.
1975The tradition of skiing with torches on New Year’s Eve starts.
1984Quad gondolas start operating at Niseko Kogen. Macintosh PCs are released by Apple Inc.
1986Night operation of gondolas starts.
1994All the ski runs become open to snowboarding. Hanazono opens.
2011Ski lifts mark their 50th anniversary on Dec. 17.

Extracted with permission from A History of Powder Skiing in Niseko (2011), published by The Committee for Publishing History of Ski Resorts Development at Hirafu.