Neil Riley is up to his eyes in snow. And he’s delighted.
“We love snow — the kind of powder snow that’s perfect for skiing and snowboarding. Snow means we’re in business,” he explains on a flying visit to the Kanto area from Niigata Prefecture, where WeLoveSnow.com (holding company name Japan Worldwide KK) is putting the village of Yuzawa on the map.
From Derby, Neil majored in Japanese at university in Newcastle — another fine northern English city — and as part of his studies spent a year in Fukuoka. After graduating he worked for the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in London, progressing to the Japan desk of Deutsche Bank. “Everything fell into place and continues to fall into place,” Neil says. “The bank sent me to Tokyo in October 2002, where expat life bubbled along until I bought a ‘bessho.’ ” This rural retreat was no traditional Japanese house, however, but an apartment in a condominium. “It’s 30 meters square with a gym, pool, jacuzzi and cost me just 2.5 million yen. Why so cheap? Because it’s in Niigata, Japan’s snow country.”
When studying, Neil had heard about Kakuei Tanaka, the former prime minister who adopted the system of pork barrel politics here and brought his native prefecture of Niigata into the mainstream with the most expensive bullet train track ever built. “He gave Niigata an infrastructure that is the envy of the world. When I found Yuzawa, I thought, ‘Ah, so this is what he was doing!’ “
Neil had visited Yuzawa to ski. “My first time ever.” And was astonished to find it took just 77 minutes from Tokyo Station. “Sixty-nine, in fact, but 77 sounds more impressive.”
He was amazed also to find Yuzawa has 5 1/2 km of ropeway linking two ski slopes and the largest gondola in the world, carrying 166 people.
The downside was that after the economic bubble burst in the late 1980s, the local economy — real estate, winter sports developments, even the hot-spring market — all but collapsed. “With young people not hanging around, the age of the local population was rising.”
Neil’s interest was piqued enough for him to take a good hard look at what was happening in Hokkaido. “I found a lot of young Australians and New Zealanders coming for winter sports in their summertime. But why were they going so far north, I wondered, with Niigata so much closer to Tokyo and Narita International Airport?”
The result is not one but four British lads sorting out a new type of ski and snowboarding business in Yuzawa. The foundation of the business is the travel agency WeLoveSnow.com, with a comprehensive Web site in English and Japanese that makes booking a weekend away (“or however long you want to stay”) the easiest ever.
“Yuzawa is easy to reach and access — if you speak and read Japanese. We take the hassle out of everything. We book travel arrangements, hotels, hire of equipment, even apres ski. Or you can do it yourself, online.”
From Dec. 16, the focus of Yuzawa’s apres ski nightlife became the Bottle Bar, sited on Yuzawa’s main drag. “We opened with an English manager, young Japanese part-timers, a huge sports screen and 30 types of beer from all over the world.”
The worst part of getting all this off the ground was the endless red tape. “There was a point I thought it’d drive me nuts. But with the support of my fiancee, Masako, and the other guys, we got through, and now have all the necessary licenses for running a bar, the travel agency and so on.”
WLS also offers translation services for local hotels, hot springs, “ryokan” (inns) and “minshuku” (bed-and-breakfasts), and also restaurants. “We help with newsletters, signs, instructions on how to take a bath, and so on.”
Neil met Masako, an ANA stewardess, through friends two years ago. It was she — a Niigata girl in her own right — who first encouraged him to ski. “She was on skis as soon as she could walk. That’s snow country culture.”
He left his job with Deutsche Bank in November 2004 and has not looked back. It was a mad step at the time, and very frightening — “Back in Derby, my mother was horrified!” But now the lifestyle has become normal: “I’m used to a ‘rotenburo’ (outside hot spring bath) every day.”
Neil believes he is offering a service that backs the government’s Yokoso Japan (Welcome to Japan) campaign, which seeks to attract foreign tourists. He is also helping put Yuzawa better on the map, with benefits to the community at large. “We are a private sector solution to a public sector problem.”
He thinks WLS can help provide a model for other rural communities sliding into abandonment. “We want to internationalize Yuzawa in the best possible way. A lot of older Japanese go there for onsen (hot springs), but our packages and the Bottle Bar should attract younger faces, as well as foreign ones. Yuzawa offers 2,500 rooms; it’s a huge resort facility with enormous potential. Being so close to Kanto, even day trips are perfectly possible!”
Neil has plans to extend the Web site into Korean and Chinese. “Niigata is just a 1 1/2-hour flight from Shanghai. If you live in Shanghai and want to ski or snowboard, you have to fly five hours to reach slopes north of Beijing.”
There is a freedom to make your constructive mark in Japan that Neil really values. “I feel especially free in Yuzawa. As a foreigner engaging in Japanese business and culture, I’ve become a positive curiosity.”