In my environmental studies and economics classes at SLU I have always been most interested in how globalization and recreational tourism impact cultures and economies. Outside of school, skiing has been my passion for as long as I can remember, and I have always wanted to visit Japan because it is known for having the best powder skiing in the world. After being accepted to study abroad in New Zealand for the spring 2020 semester it occurred to me that Japan was kind of, sort of on the way to New Zealand (It turned out it was still a ten-hour flight). I came up with the idea to apply for a travel enrichment grant so I could visit Japan to observe and analyze the impacts of ski tourism and the influx of western resort corporations on the Japanese economy and ski culture. Thanks to the CIIS office and the Giltz family my grant was approved and I was able to spend a week in Hakuba, Japan in early February before heading down to New Zealand for the semester.
My trip to Japan was an extremely valuable experience. Having never travelled outside of North America before this trip, it was certainly an incredible cultural experience. I stayed at a small lodge where I got to meet people from all over the world, ate new food, and experienced a new way of life. The skiing was as incredible as I had imagined, but more importantly, I gained some valuable insights into how ski tourism and the presence of western corporations had impacted the culture and economy there. Vail Resorts, the same company that dominates the American ski industry, owns the ski areas that I visited. It was interesting to see how much of a globalized feel this brought to the area. Almost all of the locals spoke English, English was seen on everything from restaurant menus to ski area signs, and you could tell that the majority of the people in the area were tourists. I expected these tourists to be mainly from the US, since American Vail Resorts season passes were valid at the ski areas here, but instead I found that most of the tourists were from Australia, since it was summer in the Southern hemisphere. I was also fascinated to find that I rarely saw locals skiing. While there were some, they were massively outnumbered by tourists. I also noticed that the ski areas further away from the town of Hakuba seemed less westernized, more traditional, and they also had significantly less infrastructure. Visiting these ski areas allowed me to get a glimpse of the true Japanese ski culture.
On this trip I also got to witness the impacts of climate change firsthand. The 2019/2020 winter brought Japan’s lowest snowfall in history, largely due to how warm it was in the area. I lucked out, and for the first half of my stay we received three feet of fresh snow, which was plenty to make it some of the best skiing of my life. However, by the end of the week, the weather had shifted dramatically. Temperatures increased, snow turned to rain, and on my last day many of the lower altitude areas were down to grass. And remember, this was in one of the snowiest places in the world. In February.
This trip to Japan was extremely valuable for me. I got to witness firsthand a lot of what I have learned in classes here at SLU, I had an amazing cultural experience, and I got some pretty amazing skiing in while I was at it.