It's dumping at Japan's resorts, creating ideal conditions for skiers looking for last-minute holidays, writes Susan Bredow.
Winter in Japan has begun with the best snowfalls in seven years. A little more than a month into the season, resorts such as Niseko and Rusutsu on the northern-most island of Hokkaido have had more than nine metres of snow and good falls have been reported at the popular Hakuba and Shiga Kogen slopes on the main island of Honshu.
During the past month Japanese resorts have received regular storms bearing the light powder the region is famous for. Quite simply, it's dumping. The question is: where are the skiers?
The Niseko-based general manager of SkiJapan, Belinda White, says many skiers and boarders have been tentative about booking ski holidays in Japan, dissuaded by memories of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami last March and the prevailing global economic downturn.
"Bookings have been down as much as 35 per cent this season compared to past years. But this number is improving," she says.
"Although Christmas and New Year is one of the busiest times, the numbers across the village are down.
"Most of the village is feeling that."
Though early-season bookings have been slow, White reports business at Niseko is picking up.
"January has been filling in with late bookers booking a week or two in advance and the snowfall has helped a lot with that too," she says.
Fewer Australians have booked at Honshu resorts this year than is usual, though the region remains popular with Asian skiers, White says.
SkiJapan is running a promotion to entice travellers to the region, offering up to four free nights' accommodation in 14-night bookings. "That is certainly helping the bookings come through," she says.
Elizabeth Laugher, the consumer marketing manager of Value Tours, Australia's largest ski holiday operator, says travellers began searching online for Japan ski holidays much later this season. Laugher reports sales have picked up significantly in the past three months as skiers regained confidence in Japan and word spread of heavy snowfalls.
Instead of booking in advance, skiers are waiting until the last minute.
"There are so many fantastic offers out there to get people back to Japan and onto the ski fields ... Japan is in the top three of our most searched destinations - just a bit later than what it would normally be," she says.
This season facilities at Niseko have been upgraded, with the old red gondola replaced by a high-speed, eight-person gondola that significantly improves access to the mid-mountain. The lift company, Tokyu, has also redeveloped the gondola base station, with an elegant cafe restaurant serving lunch and dinner with impressive views each side of the complex.
White says the snow in Japan is predictable and consistent. Typically the season throughout Japanese resorts is long, extending from late November to early May.
"Snow is falling at the moment ... and it looks like it's going to keep going. So, more fresh powder," she says.