With the world turned upside down over the last 6 months due to the onslaught of the Covid-19 virus globally, things remain slightly uncertain as to what the future will hold. We are however beginning to see some positive signs that restrictions are easing to some degree, as new infections begin to drop in some parts of the world.
With that in mind we wanted to give you an insight into how Japan is fairing and what life is like on the ground at some of our favourite ski and snowboard locations. Whiteroom has a full time team of 4 based in Niseko’s Grand Hirafu year round, and so are uniquely positioned to offer a first hand account of what life has been like since the outbreak took hold.
What have the last six months been like in Hokkaido
Hokkaido and Japan as a whole has had a different approach to battling Covid-19 than many parts of the world and an almost polar opposite approach to parts of Europe, Australia and NZ which adopted strict lockdown procedures for long periods of time.
From January news began to filter through about a virus coming out of China that quickly began to affect locals there, before quickly moving onto Japan’s neighbour Korea. As numbers began to rocket close to our borders, Japan in the midst of the ski season really did not see an increase in cases until late February into March with the peak coming in April. After an early period where Hokkaido with a great number of foreign visitors during the winter months was topping the list of cases, Tokyo and across Honshu began to catch up and then surpass these numbers.
One explanation for this may be the swift decision by the Hokkaido government to issue a State of Emergency across the whole of Japan’s Northern Island on the 28th of February. They asked that all residents restrict travel and stay at home unless essential. This wasn’t a forced lockdown but a request and in true Japan style that was dutifully followed. Ski resorts remained open as did restaurants and bars but they were noticeably empty. This early declaration resulted in some good outcomes for Hokkaido with cases dropping and the order was rescinded the order on the 19th March. However, this was short lived though as the national government put in place a nationwide emergency in early April.
Unlike other parts of the world, Japan’s constitution does not allow the government to force businesses too close or residents to stay home. As reported by Asahi news at the time, in parliament(Diet) Prime Minister Abe was quoted as saying “If you ask me if we can enforce a lockdown like France, the answer is no,” Asahi article . What this did mean though for the country was a fairly impressive show of national pride. Although not forced to do so businesses such as bars and restaurants shut their doors or restricted hours and normally packed commuter hubs across the country became ghost towns as people headed the government advice and stayed home.
With all this occurring though in Hokkaido the ski areas remained open, March saw visitor numbers drop remarkably but those of left remained getting good turns on empty mountains into April. Niseko itself had recorded one confirmed case of the virus when a hospitality staff member became ill before fully recovering.
One major push was the request for all non essential business to shut during Golden Week in early May. Golden week typically would be an end of season boost for the ski areas generating some late season revenue as this is a major holiday in the Japanese calendar and backs onto cherry blossom season. Noticeably and for the first time in decades Japan closed its major attractions such as the ski areas and most local or national run facilities such as parks closed their doors to try and discourage travel.
What is life like now
As of the 25th of May the State of Emergency has been lifted across the whole of Japan. What this means in practical terms is the slow return to a “new normal” for people living here. Schools have reopened, people are back out moving around although mostly remaining in their local areas and as the temperatures heat up people are beginning to enjoy some summer sports. Mass gathering such as crowds watching a major baseball game is still a ways away but in general normal life in Hokkaido has returned with extra caution being shown for social distancing reasons.
Looking at cases in Japan amongst the list of other G7 countries, Japan appears to have fared quite well in containing the virus. Although possibly being slightly cynical there have been plenty of comments that testing numbers have been low prior to the decision to postpone the summer olympics and this may be one reason for these statistics.
Another train of thought as highlighted by this Japan Times article – Face masks. It is common in Japan that when sick you use a face. With a notoriously polite and conscientious society Japan has not faced the issues other places have had with the general public very well used to wearing face masks as part of their daily routine.
A few other contributing factors to low numbers is the custom of bowing rather than shaking hands and Japan’s amazing public cleanliness. Even a public toilet on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere is clean. Not just ok I can use it but try not to touch anything clean, but spotlessly clean, nothing broken, no graffiti and people manage to urinate into the toilet rather than on the floor, amazing!
With the recent reversal in the World Health Organisation announcement that wearing a face mask is beneficial to stopping the virus in areas where social distancing is difficult, Japan’s long tradition of wearing them regularly when sick or just out of courtesy may have paid some dividends for national health – BBC, WHO Announcement.
What’s next and when will travel return
Japan’s travel and tourism industry has grown to become a major industry here and a huge source of local income. In April international travel dropped by 99.9% to just 2,900 visitors from the year previous . This is not a trend that Japan will wish to see continue.
Currently there is a major push to boost domestic travel with some suggesting widespread supplements to promote local travel for residents of Japan. Although this has been reported in the international press that it may be open to foreigners this unfortunately is not the case, yet.
At present Japan has effectively closed its boards to around 110 countries worldwide. These include a number of its most common trading and tourism partners such as the US, Canada, much of Europe and China. A full list can be found here – Entry ban list
The good news though is that as of May, it appears the Japanese government is beginning to discuss with other nations the possibility of reopening the borders to international travel, reports like this one – Japan to begin easing restrictions suggest that business travel may start as early as this month with Vietnam and talks continue with Australia, New Zealand and Thailand where the virus is deemed under control about travel restrictions being lifted.
Obviously this is all speculation at present but hopefully we will see some staged improvement soon and a roadmap for the return of tourism to Japan.
What does all of this mean for Whiteroom’s Japanese Winter plans
With all of this going on both the Japanese team here in Niseko and our Australian team in Melbourne have been all firing to continue to provide amazing ski and snowboard tours and holidays to one of the snowiest places on earth.
We are not immune to the effects of this devastating pandemic and understand that holidays are a luxury, but we are confident that travel will return and many people may wish to get out and adventure again and get their snow fix. When this time comes and we are hopeful that will be in the 2020/21 season our aim is to be as strong as ever in providing unique Japanese experiences in the mountains that we love.
We have used this time to work on our backend systems as well as creating new products and tours such as our Tohoku Backcountry Tour, one date of which has already sold out! We have also looked to further improve and reinvent some of our other trips so our many return clients can find something new and exciting to challenge themselves.
We have also put in place the ability for all clients to cancel for any reason before July 31st and receive a full refund. Should international travel not return to normal or if COVID-19 returns and life shuts down again you also will receive a full refund up to 30 days prior to departure. This will hopefully allow you to somewhat plan during these abnormal times.
The operations team here on the ground in Niseko including myself feel extremely lucky to be able to live in Japan and we are very motivated to see international customers return when the snow starts falling again. When this does occur we will be ready to show you the best Powder ~ Culture ~ Experience that Whiteroom has become known for over our previous 10 years of operations.
Guide Operations Manager