Want a free lift pass? Japan’s ski mecca Niseko is desperate for workers

Along with its bountiful, gossamer-light snow, the Japanese ski resort area of Niseko has come to be known for luxury hotels charging upward of US$2,000 (S$2,688) a night and high-end shops selling Moncler and Bogner jackets for even more.

But this season, amid the art galleries and Instagram-ready coffee kiosks, there is another inescapable sight, one that attests to the pandemic’s lingering economic mayhem: “Help wanted” ads.

A bartender at Tamashii struggling with the significant labour shortage. (Photo: The New York Times)

At Tamashii, a bar where dozens of empty liquor bottles hang from the ceiling, flyers advertise jobs for kitchen help, dishwashers and cashiers at about 70 per cent above minimum wage. Hanazono, one of four main ski resorts on Mount Annupuri, is offering ski passes, free accommodations and “the best powder, as much as you need” to those willing to fill its openings for ski instructors, shuttle bus drivers, lift operators and rental shop staff. Reju Spa is looking for massage therapists and will offer flight ticket rebates worth US$750.

After closing its borders to inbound tourists for two and a half years, Japan finally reopened in October, ending an isolation that was among the longest of any top tourism destination in the world. Since then, international visitors have flooded the Niseko area, seeking to hit its globally renowned slopes.

The reopening, just before ski season, was a blessing for business owners in the area, which encompasses the towns of Niseko, Kutchan and Rankoshi on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. But it has also produced a perfect storm of challenges as they try to recruit someone, anyone, to fill gaping holes in their staff rosters and provide the kind of service that big-spending visitors expect.

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A gyoza stall at Niseko ski resort area on Hokkaido, in Kutchan, Japan. (Photo: The New York Times)

While the area’s year-round local population is only about 25,000 residents, more than 1.3 million tourists could descend on the area between November and March, according to the Kutchan Tourism Association. With the borders only recently reopening, employers who typically hire seasonal workers from abroad have struggled to obtain work visas. The weak yen has also deterred some workers who don’t want to take what amounts to a pay cut.

And within Japan, people are not “interested in the ski industry or willing to spend three months in the snow-packed area,” said Satoshi Nagai, general manager of the Niseko Promotion Board.

The labour shortages have been a boon for workers, who are showered with perks. Markus Timander, 31, who obtained a working holiday visa from Sweden and travelled to Japan in the fall, snagged nine job offers within three days of posting his availability in a handful of Facebook groups aimed at Niseko workers.

He is now working as a driver for a new boutique hotel near the Hirafu ski resort. In addition to the use of a car during off hours, he has free accommodations – with his own bedroom – and a season ski pass.

Skiers at Kutchan, Hokkaido in Japan. (Photo: The New York Times)

“The response was much bigger than I have had before or than I thought it would be,” said Timander, who has worked at ski resorts around the world since graduating from high school.

With Japan’s declining and rapidly aging population and strict immigration controls, labour shortages are not unique to Niseko. And Japan is far from alone in dealing with worker shortfalls that arose as countries around the world emerged from the pandemic and restarted their economies.

But the Niseko area is also grappling with an explosion of development, adding accommodations for more than 5,600 people since 2017, an increase of more than 3 per cent, particularly in luxury properties.

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Newly built hotels range in style from international brands such as Ritz-Carlton and Park Hyatt, where the average daily rate for a room is now US$1,500 and ski valets meet guests when they come off the slopes, to Shiguchi, a remote complex of reconstructed traditional Japanese villas where some reservations run more than US$2,000 a night.

Along the main street in Hirafu, a central village that shares a name with the area’s most popular ski resort, masses of glass walls intercut with clean lines of concrete and steel loom over the snowy landscape. An assortment of stores sell designer outerwear and artisanal lattes.

The lobby at Higashiyama Niseko Village, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve property in the Niseko ski resort area on Hokkaido, in Kutchan, Japan. (Photo: The New York Times)

The luxury properties mainly target international customers, with an increasing number coming from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Many arrive with high expectations of Japan’s much-lauded service culture.

“It’s been interesting watching everybody wake up from their COVID-induced torpor, my staff included,” said Colin Hackworth, president of Nihon Harmony Resorts, which operates the ski resort at Hanazono. “The pressure’s actually on now.”

Hidenori Uematsu, the executive chef at Lupicia, which paid a hefty finders fee to recruit a new chef for a second location in the Niseko ski resort area on Hokkaido, in Kutchan, Japan. (Photo: The New York Times)

Some businesses have gone to extraordinary lengths to secure staff. Lupicia, a restaurant that opened its second Niseko location in a new boutique hotel in Hirafu, paid 1 million yen – around S$10,258 – as a finder’s fee for an executive chef recruited from Tokyo, said Hidenori Uematsu, director and executive chef at the restaurant’s original Niseko location.

But many businesses are resigned to getting by with skeleton staffs and have cut back services. JoJo’s, a burger restaurant that has been in Hirafu for almost three decades, is now closed for dinner because it can’t sustain evening shifts, said Ross Findlay, 58, the restaurant’s Australian owner.

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Despite paying 1,500 yen an hour, far above Hokkaido’s minimum wage of 920 yen, the Niseko Park Hotel, a 45-year-old no-frills property on Hirafu’s main street, has closed 49 of its 89 rooms, suspended dinner service and limited room cleanings to once every four days, said Chie Fukui, who owns and operates the hotel with her husband.

Local tourism boosters worry the staff shortages could dent Niseko’s reputation.

A jam-packed cafeteria in Kutchan, Hokkaido in Japan. (Photo: The New York Times)

“It’s one of the biggest fears we have for this season,” said Nagai, the promotion board general manager. “For these guests to come back, they really need to feel that omotenashi” – the Japanese word for “customer service.”

Some visitors have noticed the overextended staff.

Florian Mines, 55, a German man who has lived in Hong Kong for 14 years, and his son Felix, 17, waited 20 minutes to order a steak from a menu pockmarked with “sold out” stickers at Tamashii, a bar in Hirafu. They waited another 20 minutes for the food to be ready.

Two clearly overwhelmed women at Tamashii toggled between roles as cashiers, bartenders and food servers, hustling to fill drinks and food orders. Rin Ebina, 23, the bar’s manager, said he wanted to hire about 15 more workers to cover four restaurants in the area.

A snow-covered food truck at the Niseko ski resort area on Hokkaido, in Kutchan, Japan. (Photo: The New York Times)

The staff shortages are compounded by a dearth of restaurants, leaving customers to wait in long lines or resort to purchasing dinner at convenience stores.

“I booked all of our dinners one month in advance,” said Naho Tomioka, 36, a skier from Tokyo who was eating lunch in a jam-packed cafeteria at the Hanazono resort. “I think they need to build more restaurants to catch up with the amount of people gathering here.”

The demand for growth has split residents and developers, particularly in Kutchan, where the town council plans to implement new architectural codes restricting building heights in some parts of town.

Akihito Hoshika, manager of the landscape office in Kutchan, said the town had crafted a “master plan” to avert “the risk of overtourism.”

But pro-development leaders say new rules could discourage hoteliers and others from bringing amenities to the area.

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“When people go off it and start saying, ‘Niseko is rubbish,’ word-of-mouth is very powerful,” said Craig Meikle, the New Zealand-born owner of Niseko Realty, an agency that has helped several foreign developers build projects.

Intense investor interest in Niseko drove up land prices by as much as 50 per cent between 2014 and 2019, compared with an average of just 1.6 per cent across Japan.

In the town of Niseko, strict building codes have been in place since 2001, said Kenya Katayama, 69, the mayor. At a time when tourism officials fret about the effect of climate change on the region’s snow, Niseko also requires that new buildings be carbon-neutral. Kutchan’s town council is not considering such environmental standards.

Takashi Hayakawa, a second-generation owner of Pension Alice, a 30-year-old guesthouse in Kutchan, said he worried new developers would not respect the natural spirit of the place.

“At the very beginning, even the foreigners who came in, they thought that Niseko was beautiful, and they loved the snow,” said Hayakawa, sitting in a cozy dining room decorated with stuffed animals and handmade wreaths. “Now there are people who don’t know anything about Niseko and just want to make money.”

By Motoko Rich and Hikari Hida © The New York Times Company

The article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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