Heading: English map for the winter mountains in Niseko
Sub-heading: For backcountry use – published to inform skiers of safety, but there is concern by locals that incidents will increase due to the map
With the growing popularity of ‘backcountry’ skiing, which involves skiing off-course in natural mountain terrain, an English-language map showing backcountry routes in and around the Niseko mountain range has been published for foreigners. While the map includes useful information on safety precautions and etiquette, local tourism stakeholders are concerned about an increase in accidents and inconsiderate parking. (Yuji Horiuchi)
The map is called Niseko Backcountry. It was released in December last year. It covers the Niseko mountain range, Mt Yotei and Mt Shiribetsu. It is waterproof, tear-resistant and foldable, measuring 66 cm long and 97 cm wide when unfolded. Place names are written in both English and Japanese, and approximately 50 routes are shown. It also includes information on dealing with emergencies, avalanche preparedness and parking.
The map was created by Robert Thomson (42) and others. Thomson is an associate professor at Hokusei Gakuen University, who is from New Zealand and runs the outdoor information website ‘HokkaidoWilds.org’. The project was completed by exchanging opinions with local guides and local authorities, leading to the removal of routes that had been identified as dangerous.
The publication was made with the aim of effectively communicating safety rules and etiquette, as the number of overseas skiers visiting Niseko is expected to increase again following the easing of immigration restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Handing out leaflets [with safety warnings to skiers] is common, but they’re often ignored. You have to supply a product that skiers actively seek out themselves, in order to get information across,” stresses Thomson.
The map also includes the ‘Niseko Rules’ relating to avalanche prevention in the area, such as ‘Do not go out of ski areas when gates are closed’.
Akio Shinya, 75, director of the Niseko Avalanche Research Station, a private organisation that worked hard to establish the Niseko Rules and disseminates avalanche information in Niseko on the internet, said: ‘The map is high quality. There have been no maps for foreigners before, and there should be. Having people read the map will be effective in preventing accidents”, he acknowledged. However, he cautions that ‘mountain conditions change on a daily basis. How safe the map is depends on how you use it”, he cautions.
Meanwhile, Makoto Yamada, 49, chairman of the Niseko Winter Guides Association, a network of winter mountain guides in Niseko, says: “Unlike summer mountains where there are trails, the direction of the wind and the way snow accumulates in the winter mountains changes every day. If a route is clearly marked on a map, people may misunderstand that it is safe to take that route.” This gives him concern, and he is opposed to showing the routes themselves on the map.
Another source involved in tourism points out that there is a risk of increased on-street parking at trailheads, as well as the fear that the map may encourage inexperienced people into the backcountry.
Mr Thomson says: “There are many backcountry guidebooks and a lot of backcountry information on the internet in Japanese. There is more danger associated with the number of foreign skiers increasing without proper information available for those foreigner skiers”.
Maps cost 2,000 yen each. 3,000 copies were printed and about 750 have already been sold. Proceeds will be donated to local avalanche prevention and other organizations.