• Chunichi Shimbun

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It’s chilly at Snova Hashima, an indoor slope in Hashima, Gifu Prefecture, covered with artificial snow.

Visitors enjoy snowboarding on the 70-meter slope, which has a maximum angle of 15 degrees, showing off their tricks by sliding on boxes or rails and jumping from snow mounds. The temperature is maintained at minus 2 degrees Celsius.

Many athletes who are expected to compete at Beijing Winter Olympics in February have been training at Snova Hashima, the only indoor slope in the central Chubu region. But it is slated to shut down at the end of November due to a decline in the number of skiers and snowboarders using the facility. The high cost of maintaining the low temperature is another factor.

According to Snova Hashima, there are only two other similar facilities that operate not just in winter but also in the summer, in Kanagawa and Yamanashi prefectures. Many of the visitors enjoy the rails and boxes for sliding — called jibbing — and the quarter pipe.

Snova Hashima opened in 1998 when Japan hosted the Nagano Winter Olympics. Winter sports became extremely popular, with many indoor snow slope facilities opening up nationwide. Snova Hashima was the fifth facility to start operating then.

Business flourished at Snova Hashima, which saw about 60,000 visitors in 2004.

“Back then, we had to limit the number of visitors entering the facility to 80, with people lining up to go in,” said Shohei Ichinohe, 43, a member of staff at Snova Hashima who has been working there for about 20 years.

But in 2020, the number of visitors plummeted to fewer than 20,000.

An official at Maruei Concrete Industry Co., the Hashima-based company that operates the facility, pointed out that the decline in the number of the younger people that are into skiing and snowboarding dealt a heavy blow to its business.

For the past few years, the facility has been in the red, the official said, adding that there were times when the snow melted in the summer because of technical malfunctions.

Kokomo Murase, 17, who won the Big Air snowboarding World Cup event in October, lamented the closure of Snova Hashima, having trained after school there in the summer.

“I’m sad because it was where I had practiced since I was young,” said Murase, who attends Gifu Daiichi High School.

Ryo Aizawa, 22, who has competed twice in the X Games, also remembers practicing there six times a week.

“Because there is a limit to the tricks you can do at the small slope, I learned to do new ones (in the limited space) that only I can do,” said Aizawa, a Chukyo University student in Aichi Prefecture.

Nonetheless, Ichinohe at Snova Hashima is proud that the facility helped nurture world-class athletes.

“I have no regrets.”

Decline of winter sports

The numbers of skiers and snowboarders have been on the decline since the Nagano Olympics in 1998, even with Japanese athletes winning in Winter Olympics in the past.

According to a white paper on leisure activities, published by think tank Japan Productivity Center, the population of skiers and snowboarders in Japan peaked at 18 million in 1998. Snowboarder numbers continued to rise for a few more years, but the figure plunged to 4.3 million in 2020.

The number of schools holding ski trips and ski lessons are also on the decline.

In Nagano Prefecture, there were some 850,000 students who came to Nagano from outside the prefecture to ski on school trips in fiscal 1998, which ended March 1999, but the number fell to about 310,000 in fiscal 2019.

Dynaland, a ski resort in Gifu Prefecture, had about 350,000 visitors in the winter season about two decades ago, but the figure is now about 190,000.

For the past five years, the situation has been especially severe because of reduced operations due to warmer winters, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, said Masashi Horie, 42, head of the ski resort.

Another ski resort in Gifu Prefecture started hosting a camping site from July to the end of October to make up for the decline in the number of skiers in the winter season.

Kyoko Raita, a professor of sports history at Chukyo University, said going to the mountains covered with snow was an “unusual” experience for people in urban cities. But people nowadays have more choices for outdoor sports in the city, as well as other options such as traveling overseas, she said.

Still, many industry insiders have high hopes that should Japanese athletes do well in the Beijing Olympics, ski resorts will once gain attract more people.

But Raita is not so sure.

“The Olympic Games contributed to nurturing athletes but it has not led to expanding” the number of people who take part in winter sports, she said.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original articles were published Nov. 24.

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