No Business Like Snow Business
The Peak, February 2015
By Diana Khoo
Tan Sri (Dr) Francis Yeoh, Managing Director of YTL Corporation, is on a quest to put Japan’s Niseko at the peak of the world ski destination map – and keep it there.
To the untrained ear, the Japanese word for "snow-capped mountains" (ginref) might sound vaguely similar to that for "beauty" (kiref). But for anyone who's made the journey from Hokkaido capital Sapporo to Niseko, the two words might as well be one and the same. The 100km drive (which would take about two hours, depending on weather conditions) southwards from Sapporo to Niseko would take you past pristine swathes of open terrain, glass-clear, pebble-studded rivers and virgin forests of snow-capped conifers where Sika deer, kuma (bear) and red foxes may be found; a world as far away as you can possibly imagine from the frenetic Blade Runner-like pace of Tokyo and its other major cities.
For newcomers, Niseko may well be the place where one views snow as a luxury you visit.
With a staggering 18m of snowfall annually, Siberian winds and moisture from the Sea of Japan couple every winter to create snow that is dry, refined to a fault and light as powder. Enthusiasts have even gone as far as to pronounce it the Dom Perignon of snow. Clearly, Niseko is easy to fall in love with, a sentiment echoed by Tan Sri (Dr) Francis Yeoh, Managing Director of YTL Corporation. "Japan has always held a special place in my heart," says the 61-year-old billionaire when we met recently over caramel lattes at the Village Pattiserie, a charming alpine-style cafe that is part of the new F&B and retail village he has created in the heart of Niseko Village, his multi-faceted destination that is fast being hailed as the "Aspen of Asia".
It is clear that Yeoh's ties with Japan run deep and strong. Having travelled back and forth for two decades, for work as well as pleasure, he fondly recalls a moment in 1996 when YTL became the first non-Japanese Asian company to be listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. "I was very touched when they stopped trading for five minutes just to clap for us as we listed. It was a very emotional moment for me and I've since learnt that Japan welcomes YTL and I've never felt otherwise since.'' It is this fondness for the country, its people and culture that has led Yeoh, through his Singapore-based real estate investment trust, Starhill Global REIT, to own several strategic investments in Japan, the pride and joy of which is Niseko Village.
Sharing part of Mount Niseko Annupuri, which has a peak elevation of 1,308m, Niseko Village is in good company. It's part of Niseko United, a quadrumvirate of resorts that includes Hanazono - owned by Richard Li, the younger son of Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing - Chuo Bus' Niseko Annupuri and Tokyu Land Corporation's Grand Hirafu. Bolstering its reputation as the top spot in Japan for international property investors is also Niseko United's win at last year's World Ski Awards for Best Ski Resort in Japan. "In the past, travellers like me would look to the west whenever we thought of skiing or ski resorts. We'd talk of St Moritz, holidaying in Aspen or buying a ski lodge in Whistler," says Yeoh. "But today, Asians are the biggest emerging group of skiers and everyone is talking about Japan, especially Niseko. And this makes sense as Japan has an old, established ski culture and runs right along a corridor of over a billion people, including some of its wealthiest. It also helps as airlines are now opening up direct routes to this part of the world."
Having learnt to ski in Lake Tahoe's Heavenly Valley way back in 1982, Yeoh picked up the sport with gusto as "it's something the family can do together and is more inclusive than golf. Skiing is also like swimming - once you learn, you won't ever forget" although Yeoh admits his teaching methods are rather maverick, which consist primarily of pushing his family members willy-nilly down the slopes. "That's how my wife and kids learnt and quite possibly the main reason why no one ever wants me to teach them skiing," he chortles. Once he discovered Niseko, though, that was it.
I have been skiing here every winter for the past 15 years. Yasuo Takahashi, who owns the Japanese restaurant Yang Shu Ten in Niseko Village, is an old friend of mine. When he retired, he bought a house nearby and I'd stay with him. Together, we'd comb the whole area on our skis. I'm very familiar with this region so when my brother (Dato' Mark Yeoh, Executive Director of YTL Hotels) told me an opportunity had come up to buy over Niseko Village, I was like 'shucks', as I really wanted to keep this beautiful place secret," he says, stifling a laugh.
"But, on a business note, I was already imagining the possibilities. The ski season here is long (from December to late March) and Niseko is really the snowiest place on earth! I mean, if you had to pick the single best spot to ski on this earth, I'd say Niseko, without hesitation. It's an incredible destination with the best snow in the world! The nature is pristine, the onsen (natural hot springs) wonderful and the cuisine marvellous, with Hokkaido's seafood being second to none. Add to that Japan's culture and people and you'd find no other place ticks all the right boxes like Niseko does. This location is also very special because of its proximity to Mount Yotei," he continues, referring to the majestic standalone mountain in whose shadow lies Niseko Village and whose graceful outline is a dead-ringer for the hallowed Mount Fuji. "Yotei is truly majestic. When you look at it, you know immediately you are in Japan and you can feel the essence of the land."
With a land mass of around 615ha and a GDV of USD 5 billion to USD 8 billion, YTL is building on the area's natural attractions to holistically transform Niseko Village into the most sought-after ski resort in Asia over the next 10 to 15 years. It's a vision that is already unfolding.
Assuming ownership of Niseko Village in 2008, YTL Hotels has since unveiled a steady stream of upgrades, including the recent multi-million dollar facelift undergone by The Green Leaf Niseko Village. "We enjoyed tremendous occupancy growth last year," shares Yeoh. "Where, previously, our two resorts - the Hilton Niseko Village and The Green Leaf Niseko Village - were strongly targeted towards the Japanese market, we have made all the necessary changes and upgrades to appeal to the international jet set and powderhounds, seeing results as early as a year or two after our takeover. It's a little like Bintang Walk all over again," continues Yeoh, recalling his transformation of a once-dingy stretch of Kuala Lumpur into one of the world's top shopping destinations. "I love rehabilitating places, which is all part of life's wonderful journey."
The latest feather to adorn YTL Hotels' already well-decorated cap also marked the unveiling of its Kasara brand. Part of the group's new and unique collection of luxury hotels and resorts, the first phase of the Kasara Niseko Village Townhouse currently offers eight beautifully-formed ski-in, ski-out townhouses that are available for rent or immediate ownership.
With every privilege and convenience afforded, guests and owners of these luxurious three-bedroom homes can look forward to being pampered and cared for in every way conceivable, from dedicated concierge services that include organising chefs-on-call and in-residence sports massages to complimentary driver-on-call service around Niseko Village. "This will push Niseko Village to greater heights as, apart from the townhouses, we have also unveiled a host of exciting apres-ski options at a new purpose-built retail and F&B village, just minutes' away from the Hilton," says Yeoh.
Guests of Niseko Village can now explore and experience a wide variety of post-piste recreation and entertainment, from DIY grill dinners of the freshest Hokkaido king crabs and scallops at the Crab Shack to drinks and dancing at Two Sticks, an Asian-inspired tapas bar with nightly live entertainment, within a charming cluster of shops, each resembling machiya (traditional Japanese wooden shophouses), complete with lantern-lit walkways, wooden lattice facades and shoji screen doors. "It's a microcosm of the world's best here," Yeoh adds.
"I am very pleased my people have created this so beautifully as I've always loved the architecture of Kyoto. In whichever destination Kasara is present, be it alpine, rainforest or beach, it will be an inspirational experience of luxury and authenticity. I want Kasara Niseko Village Townhouse to be the brand's flag-bearer. In this, I must also stress that YTL is not here to buy, polish or sell. We are in this for the long-term and we aim to do it well or not at all. Also, ultimately, why are we doing this? It's all about touching people's lives and giving them the very best experience."
It is clear from his ebullience that Niseko is a source of delight for Yeoh. "I love it here and I come, literally, to chill," he laughs. "I also think snow is one of God's most wondrous creations. It is gentle and pure, with each snowflake perfectly unique. I also notice something happens to me whenever I see gentle snowfall like Niseko's. My mind and body immediately relax and there's peace of mind, joy and calmness simply by being here."
With a testimony like that, those who have yet to visit Niseko should know that there's still time to catch its white season, which runs till the end of March. Money might not be able to buy happiness but at least it'll get you tickets to a destination that comes pretty darn close.