Hokkaido's Outdoor Entrepreneur

Back to Contents of Issue: July 2003

Australian adventurer Ross Findlay heats up Hokkaido.

by David Wolman

IN NISEKO, HOKKAIDO, ROSS Findlay has become the go-to guy for vacationers seeking something other than golf. Findlay's thriving adventure guide service is a reminder that Japan is about much more than neon-lit cities, and the greatest challenge the outdoor entrepreneur faces now is deciding what new thrills to offer next.

Findlay came to Hokkaido from Sydney to work as a ski instructor in 1989. The company he founded, Niseko Adventure Center (NAC), offers skiing, snowboarding, backcountry skiing and snowshoe tours during the winter season, and rafting, kayaking, biking and rock-climbing throughout the summer. Recent additions to the NAC docket include an autumn raft-run-ride adventure relay race and a singles-only camping program. But the rafting adventures alone are by far the business's greatest success: Last summer NAC took 30,000 customers out for whitewater excitement.

"Without Findlay, Niseko would
not be a center of adventure"

"Back when I first came here, this area had nothing in the summer except golf," says Findlay, his crinkly smile and weathered face revealing just how much time he spends outdoors. After a couple of seasons teaching skiing in the winter and working carpentry during the summer, he decided to launch a business.

He started small, thinking the operation would only be a weekend gig, meeting clients in a parking lot before heading out on a rafting trip or a trek in the mountains. Soon those lots were filling up though, and Findlay had to keep finding new places to rendezvous. Now he has a staff of about 70 people, an entire adventure center with an outdoor equipment shop, climbing wall and restaurant, plus two additional outposts in the towns of Mukawa and Oshoro. Although his guides are mostly Japanese, the clientele is a mix of Japanese and foreigners, and non-Japanese speakers should not worry about communication difficulties because many of the guides can get by with English.

"I was the first to do rafting here," says Findlay, who is now 38 with a wife and twin four-year-old boys. At home in Australia he was an avid kayaker, but he had never rafted before arriving in Japan. "I bought a boat and learned." Since then, rafting has become much more popular throughout Hokkaido, and though some fishermen have voiced grievances about increased traffic on the rivers, for the most part the activity is welcome. "The rule in Japan is: The river's for everybody. You can't do better than that," Findlay says, referring to the morass of regulations and permits that sometimes hamper similar guiding services in other countries.

"The dream just keeps getting better," he says while sipping a cup of coffee at JoJo's, the second floor cafeat NAC. A bright, open building, much of NAC was constructed using recycled wood from an old school gymnasium Findlay learned was going to be torn down. He managed to sweet-talk the right people and get his hands on some materials before it was scrapped.

"Without Ross Findlay, Niseko would not be the center of outdoor adventure that it has become," says Niseko native Masayuki Itoh, who manages the Higashiyama Prince Hotel. "He has made a lot more outdoor activities possible and accessible." Niseko, with its heavy snowfall in winter and green, mild summers, has long been one of Japan's most popular destinations for ski and golf vacations. Yet only in recent years, due much in part to Findlay's efforts, has Niseko become popular with outdoor adventurers.

Still, Niseko is a far cry from more crowded meccas like Queenstown, New Zealand; Aspen, Colorado; or Chamonix, France. "It's far from North America and Europe, though that's sort of the point," says Findlay. On the one hand, heavy travel costs and relative isolation limit just how large local businesses can become. But being so far away is also what makes Niseko a gem of a place. According to Findlay, once people make the trip and finally get a feel for all Niseko has to offer, they become part of a small fraternity of people who all wear the same grin that says, "We made it here."

Beyond running a successful business and providing a service that was clearly missing in the region, Findlay takes pride in the fact that most of his employees are locals. With Japan's continuing urban migration problem draining small towns all over the country -- including resort towns like Niseko -- offering young people a reason to stick around is perhaps Findlay's most valuable contribution to the community. Other programs at NAC, such as a children's camp, school group visits to the climbing wall and seminars on river safety all show a similar commitment on Findlay's behalf to the people who live in and around Niseko.

Last time we caught up with him at NAC's upstairs caf, Findlay was drafting a speech on outdoor education -- written in English, to be delivered in Japanese, while his twin boys giggled and chased one another around the room. What's next for Niseko's adventure man? A climbing gym in Sapporo is high on the list, he says, and possibly a cat-skiing operation a few years down the road. (Cat-skiing is when a snow-cat, or piston bully, ferries skiers up a mountain to access premium powder snow.) After that, will he launch his own ski area or a satellite operation on Honshu? At the rate NAC has been growing, we wouldn't be surprised. @

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