Pioneering Australian’s outdoor adventures invigorate Hokkaido

All-around success of sports recreation business offers travel industry lessons in fun

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Australian Ross Findlay is a doer. Name any outdoor sport and chances are he’s done it, from kayaking to rock climbing to snowcat skiing and snowshoeing.

The ever-active Findlay, 48, was one of the first to bring the summer outdoor adventure business to Hokkaido almost 20 years ago. He has helped to turn the prefecture into a popular summer destination, but he still welcomes each turn of season primarily as a chance to “get out there” himself.

The long-term success of Findlay’s company, Niseko Adventure Center, established in 1995, proves this outdoor entrepreneur is a careful thinker as well.

“When I started NAC, I knew other people would start up rafting companies afterward, so I wanted to show them two things — the fun side and the safety side of rafting,” he recalls. “I wanted to set an example, to be the bar to aim for, all the time. We’ve created a good, fun place for everyone, for the staff and for the people who come. Everyone has a good time together, which is most important, I think.”

Findlay also finds satisfaction in the changes that have happened to Niseko’s population: “In the countryside of Japan, it is almost unheard of, because all the young people are moving in a great exodus to the cities, but in Niseko, it’s the opposite. Young people are coming to live in the countryside and setting up businesses. Foreigners are coming in as well.

“We created an industry. When I started, there were just a few companies employing maybe one full-time guide, and now NAC employs 30 full-time guides plus 15 part-timers, with other companies doing the same. It’s creating fun jobs for young people. I came from having trouble getting summer employment in Japan, and it’s great to see young people coming to Niseko who are not going home in the summer anymore because they are working year-round.”

Like all year-rounders in Niseko during those early years, Findlay watched the population drawn to the area for its ski resorts dwindle as the snow melted.

“In summer, there was nothing. Everyone went home. Everyone was saying, we have to do something, get people to come for the summer, but I thought, there’s nothing for people to do, so no one’s going to come.”

He decided to offer rafting as a weekend activity, thinking it would be a good side venture. At the time, he worked in construction and competed in kayak rodeos, where you “throw yourself into a wave and your kayak starts doing cartwheels and things and you get points for it.” A friend with experience as a rafting guide explained the safety differences, and the seeds of his business were planted.

The fledgling company met with instant success, but Findlay modestly credits timing and help from the travel industry. “Rafting is a fun and exciting thing, and many of the big travel companies were looking for ways to bring people up to Hokkaido. The first few years, a tremendous amount of media helped us, as these big companies would sponsor programs to convince people to come up. That really kicked things off for NAC.”

NAC now offers a variety of sports, from cayoning to kayaking in the summer to snowshoeing and back-country or cross-country skiing in the winter. On July 28, the company hosts its annual swim in Lake Toya, billed as the only outdoor swimming contest in Hokkaido. It opened a satellite rock climbing wall in Sapporo in 2008 and began offering snowcat skiing in Niseko Weiss last winter.

Findlay worked almost 10 years to get permission to use a former ski hill for snowcat skiing, which involves riding the all-terrain vehicles up into the mountains to get access to pristine, uncombed runs.

“For all of us, it was a first-time experience, working out how to run the snowcat, finding the best runs. Most days last winter, I spent out cat skiing as much as possible,” he said.

In summer as well, Findlay teaches a variety of sports, recently adding stand-up paddle surfing tours along the river to NAC’s summer programs.

“I like to be out where the thing is,” he says. “I’m a bit like a kid at anything, in business as well as in learning Japanese. I just slowly add experience to experience and get a little bit better.”

He stays deeply involved in all aspects of the company, holding meetings once a week with the managers of each section. Being active is important for the company because, as Findlay says, “you can easily see where things are going well and where they are not.”

Staying active has always been part of his life. Born in Melbourne, Findlay lived in Sydney and earned his degree from the Center for Sports Studies at the University of Canberra. A competitive sprinter in his youth, he worked in ski schools in the U.S. and Europe before coming to Japan in 1989.

“When I decided to go to Japan, I took some Japanese lessons in Sydney, and my teacher looked up the part-time ski instructor openings for me in Japanese. I sent up letters to six different ski resorts and got replies from most of them. My teacher told me, ‘This one is from the man who skied down Mount Everest, that’s his ski school,’ so I thought, ‘OK. I’ll go there.’ “

Coming to Sapporo’s Mount Teine to work in Yuichiro Miura’s ski school, he stayed for two seasons before moving to Niseko, attracted by the powder but more by the power of his soon-to-be wife.

“I met my wife in one of those mountain hut restaurants on the hill in Niseko. We went skiing together after lunch and I realized she was a much better skier than me, so it was love at first ski,” he recalled with a chuckle.

The couple have four boys, and Findlay recently built a home for his family using the experience he’d gained working in Niseko in a particularly innovative way.

“We had been living above the NAC headquarters, and as the kids got bigger, it was too much, all six of us in a room. I designed the house, and we did some things you normally wouldn’t do in Japan: I did the foundation as a dig and pour. We were headed for winter and I wanted to get the roof on quickly. It was a lot of preparation ahead of time, but in five days we got the place to lock up, and then we could just work on the inside.”

Findlay admits there were things he couldn’t do, but he obviously relished the challenge of trying.

With the success of NAC and his work with the Rafting Association of Japan, Findlay is recognized across the nation as a leader in the outdoors business. He also travels across Japan on speaking engagements, recently addressing the diving community in Okinawa on international tourism.

He also enjoys the chance to help others in venture businesses — another thing he learned by doing.

“Some things you say in katakana just do not come out right, like outdoor. I’ve learned to always explain the katakana words in standard Japanese, after going through a whole speech and I can tell the audience is still wondering what outdoor means.”

“I just enjoy what I am doing,” he continues. “We always have a million plans, new ideas, always looking forward. When you take a group of school kids down the river, and you realize that many of these kids have never played in nature, never seen a river (or don’t know) how it should be, yet they’re going down and having a great time — well, you just hope you are planting a seed for the future. And of course, Niseko really is the real thing. It’s got the best snow in the world, the most consistent powder, and in the summertime, there’s so much to do now.”

For more information, see NAC’s website at www.nac-web.com.