NISEKO, Japan — Chris Peck couldn’t believe his eyes the first time he saw Mount Annupuri.
The mountain is home to Niseko United, a ski resort on northern Japan’s Hokkaido island. Besides being the latest resort to be included on the Epic Pass, Niseko also has been crowned by National Geographic as the best powder snow resort in the world.
“I moved out (to Japan) for a job with Deutsche Bank, and no one told me about the skiing,” said Peck, a former Vail local. “Once I moved out and skied here, I thought, ‘I have to buy everything!’ I did it because I knew what the property prices of ski-out and ski-in land costs in Vail.”
That was in 2004, when Peck bought a few hundred acres of woods on the far end of the Niseko ski area. Since then, he’s slowly developed Annupuri Village, a base area he compares to Vail’s Lionshead Village. At the moment it mostly consists of private homes, but he said that a major hotel deal is in the works.
These days, Niseko one of the top ski resorts in Asia, and the Western ski market is beginning to take notice. The mountain was featured in several American ski flicks, and Peck said it’s an increasingly common occurrence to see pro skiers and filmmakers in the area.
“Niseko is the place to ski in Asia,” said Peck. “There are plenty of places to stay, and the area we are is typically more high-end. Right now, it’s mostly Asian tourists who ski here, but we’re getting a lot more foreigners, too — mostly very international people or expats. When I first moved here, I’d be in the lift lines and they’d poke you to see if you were really a foreigner.”
As someone who has lived and snowboarded in places like Vail, Winter Park and Crested Butte, Peck knows a bit about powder. He was amazed when he skied Niseko, a resort known to average a jaw-dropping 590 inches of snow each year.
“It snows every single day. The snowplows come 3 to 4 times a day because it stacks up so fast,” Peck marveled.
As he explained, the area has a special micro-climate sandwiched between a mountain and the ocean that traps in weather patterns. Niseko gets far more snow than another ski resort just 12 miles away, and the side of the mountain that Peck has developed tends to get more than the other side.
“Every year for the last 15 years that I’ve come here, I can’t believe this place is for real,” said Peck.
Mount Annupuri rises 4,291 feet and is surrounded by four base villages — Annupuri, Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village and Hanazono — all interconnected by lifts. Together, the area is called Niseko United.
From ski bum to developer
Peck began his powder obsession when he moved out to Boulder to attend college. He took the winters off to work in the mountains, waiting tables and bussing at places such as Game Creek and the Red Lion in Vail.
“Not having any money and being a ski bum was just so fun. I miss that point in time,” Peck said. “At that point, Vail was not so commercial. It was still a real ski area, and I think it was still a pretty special time.”
Eventually, he decided he’d rather own a ski resort than work in one and moved to New York City to start a banking career. Now, he splits his time between Japan, where his family lives, and Singapore and Indonesia, but his favorite activities still include snowboarding and ripping his snowmobiles around the woods in Niseko.
The culture is a little different, but he said the resort attracts distinctive mountain folks just like Vail does.
“Sometimes we’ll take some film crews out on the mountain and we’ll be hiking up. This crew of 65-to-75-year-old Japanese people will come motoring by you. They’re wearing the most awesome gear, and the old ladies will bust out tea and the old guys will start smoking. It’s just so different from how we perceive Japanese people to be, but it’s part of their culture.”
Japan has its own brand of ski bum, too.
“They’re more like zen surf bums,” he said. “They’re more about harmony with the earth. Then there are also guys around here who need to wear helmets 24/7. They’re jumping a cliff every time you turn around.”
He said he sees the Epic Pass partnership as a great way for American skiers to come see what Japan is all about. He joked that if the area doesn’t become a profitable ski destination, he won’t be too upset.
“I was just thinking that it snows so much here that even if this fails and nobody comes, there’s more snow for me,” he laughed.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.