This time every year thousands of Australians hit Japan’s ski resorts, especially the spectacular region of Nozawa Onsen north of Tokyo, to where I returned recently. Some reports estimate that 30% of skiers there are Australians – more than the Americans and Chinese combined – taking advantage of dirt cheap flights, a long break from university and a great exchange rate. But what effect does a horde of cashed-up, off-the-leash, thrillseekers have on polite, law-loving Japanese alpine resorts?
According to the Japanese tabloid media, the biggest problem is that “gaijin” relish the thrill of going off-piste in search of virgin powder, a big no-no in Japan. Last year seven young Australians went missing exploring the backcountry of Kitashiobara in Fukushima. Late night TV news showed them doing the walk of shame with their rescuers, which then segued nicely to a report about an “outbreak” of foreigners (really, only foreigners?) crashing through ski barriers and evading ski patrols.
The night I returned to Nozawa this year, just after four Australians got lost skiing off the offical routes and spent a night in a snowhole, our middle-aged Japanese minivan driver told me the “criminals” are now required to pay their rescuers’ costs. He mentioned a Chinese man who returned home without paying his $12,000 rescue bill. It seemed like an aggressive stance for the Japanese to take, but I also later read that some resorts are working with foreign backcountry skiers to develop maps and action plans if they get into trouble.
In a cafe chock-full of Melbourne Uni students (and serving the most Aussie-style latte I’ve ever had in Japan) I overheard a Kiwi laughing about drunk foreigners up north in Niseko, Hokkaido, letting off illegal skyrockets and laying down on the heated streets (that melt the ice). Later an expat friend emailed me a Japan Times article titled ‘Booze-fueled antics take gloss off Hokkaido ski resort boom’ about drunk foreigners hassling locals and getting into bar fights, “a trend that was absent from Niseko before the Australian boom began.”
But there aren’t many yobbos in Nozawa. My wife (who is Japanese) says locals sometimes just see the rowdy foreigners and ignore the crazy homegrown Japanese visitors. If anything, the foreigners in Nozawa, as they often are elsewhere in Japan, are too preoccupied with trying not to be that uncouth gaijin, that vulgar, overweight tourist breaking all the rules in the onsen.
Drunken idiocy and risky thrillseeking notwithstanding, I get the feeling the locals kind of like the jocularity that Australians bring to the place. As the minivan driver conceded, Aussies are a nice relief, especially from the Americans and the Chinese.