Miyagi Zaō Shiroishi Ski Resort: Protected and Run by the Townspeople
Located halfway up Mt. Fubō, Minamizaō, in Shiroishi City, Miyagi Prefecture, Miyagi Zaō Shiroishi Ski Resort (below: Shiroishi Ski Resort) is a ski resort established in 1969. This compact ski resort with four lifts and one center has a well-balanced layout, offering extreme slopes of up to 38 degrees coated in compacted snow, uncompacted courses where skiers can enjoy the natural powder, as well as more gentle slopes that are perfect for beginners to practice on.
What makes this ski resort unique is that it is a public facility operated by the residents of Shiroishi city. While the resort was originally run privately, it faced a crisis and almost closed down 23 years ago due to poor management by the operating company. With the townspeople at its core, a petition was carried out in favor of retaining the ski resort, and as a result, its survival was determined.
“Before the ski resort, many people would leave home to earn money during the farming off-season, causing families to become scattered. The ski resort was a vital existence for the townspeople in terms of being a sure means of local employment during the winter season.” These are the words of Tōru Sasaki, chairman of NPO Fubō Azalea, who is currently tasked with running the ski resort. NPO Fubō Azalea is an organization that was established by local skiers and other townspeople in order to protect the ski resort.
“While the funding for our activities currently comes from NPO entry fees and annual memberships, the workers also volunteer their own time to run events at the ski resort , as well as preservation and maintenance work such as grass-mowing in the summer. I take pride in this nationally unique ski resort, which has been made, protected, and run by the townspeople.”
The contributions of the local community are indispensable to both Mt. Fubo and Shiroishi Ski Resort, but this vignette tells the story of how Mt. Fubo has long been loved as a symbol of the region. “For instance, we use the timing of a snow formation called Mizubiki Nyūdō (“seed-sowing priest”) that appears on the outer rim of the crater in spring as our signal to sow our seeds in spring. When there is less snowfall on the mountain, there is less water at the base of the mountain, which in turn affects the growth of crops. In this way, the Zaō mountain range has long had a close connection to life in Shiroishi city. NPO Fubō Azalea seeks to create an environment where people and nature can coexist by protecting Zaō’s nature through clean-up operations and walking route maintenance, as well as by training and employing mountain guides.”
Making the Ski Resort an Easier Place to Work!
It was as part of this natural environment initiative that this season they have introduced workwear that is more environmentally friendly. The introduction was led by Operations Manager and Ropeway Manager of Shiroishi Ski Resort, Yusuke Kawamura. He is a ropeway professional only in his 30s, and serves as the executive director of Miyagi District Tōhoku Ropeway Association.
“I was born in a town less than five minutes from Shiroishi Ski Resort, and when I was young I was brought here instead of day-care, and went home by ski. As a high school and university student I worked at the ski resort part-time, and once I graduated, I took up full-time employment here. I have been involved with the work on site ever since. The decision to save the ski resort came as a policy for local farmers who had to leave home to work in the winter, which means that the workforce, including me, is made up of locals from the mountain base, as well as their children and grandchildren. This has created an at-home atmosphere, and the relationship between the staff and regulars is uniquely close. The staff are almost like kindly uncles, keeping a watch over the progress of young skiers and snowboarders.”
“I deal with everything from blocked toilets to broken-down snow groomers.” As he says himself, Kawamura-san’s job really is varied. In the morning he plows and compacts the snow on the ski resort and surrounding areas, and takes care of the lifts. During the day he is busy selling tickets and at the rental shop, and in the evenings he goes about maintaining the ski slopes. Not only that, but on days when there is snowfall, Kawamura-san goes with the ski resort supervisor to clear snow from a radius of 10km for the residents living at the mountain base.
“I have a grasp on who lives in which house, so if an elderly person hasn’t been seen in a few days, we go to their houses to make sure they are okay. They know me as “the Kawamura family’s boy,” so they seem more at ease to see me than if it were someone they didn’t know. A bigger ski resort might not have this sense, but as a ski resort closely linked to the local area, I work with the notion that the area within 10km radius of the resort is part of our facility.”
Creating an Environment where Young People Want to Work
It has only been in the last few years that Kawamura-san has been appointed Operations Manager, and been able to set about making the operations reforms at the ski resort that he has been wanting to make for some time.
“There are many elderly locals employed as staff here, and perhaps because their preferences were too strong, we struggled to maintain any young staff. I started working here aged 23, but I am still the youngest here. Personally, my motto is “speed and energy over experience” for on-site work, so I would like to secure more young employees with speed and energy, not only for the future of the ski resort, but also for local employment. This is why I have started creating an environment where young people won’t want to quit.”
In order to gather younger staff, they must first be made aware of Shiroishi Ski Resort, and to understand the attraction of working there. Based on this, he introduced a scheme that made it easy even for high school students to start skiing and snowboarding, and to come frequently. As part of this, he has prepared a discount pack for high school and university students, for gear and wear rentals, and for the lifts. Snowboarding is extremely popular among high school and university students, so there is also talk of changing the ski slope layout to accommodate snowboarders more easily.
“I decided to introduce Goldwin’s workwear from the perspective of encouraging young people to work here. If I recall how I felt when I was a part-time worker as a student, a comment such as “they have cool workwear there,” about another ski resort staff would become a reason to work there, and serves as motivation to work harder.
Of course, “because it’s cool” isn’t enough of a reason for its introduction. The mission we tout as NPO Fubo Azalea is ‘the preservation of Mt. Fubō’s natural environment,’ so the fact that this workwear realizes long-term use and recycling, is aligned with our mission from the perspective of sustainability, which was a big part of the reason too. From a cost perspective, there is also the practical reason that it greatly reduces the amount of wasted costs compared to workwear we have been using until now. They will even repair any damage after the season ends. The cost performance is good and it has excellent functionality, it has been made with concern for the environment, and the design is cool; what reason is there not to make the switch?”
After deciding upon the introduction, what Kawamura-san was surprised by was the reaction from older members of staff. He had anticipated a backlash from staff who seemed to be satisfied with the previous workwear, but in actuality…
“I was almost disappointed by the lack of opposition. Its insulation properties are good, so it is ideal even for extreme winter conditions, it is easy to take off and put on inner layers for temperature moderation, and the fact that snow doesn’t leak into the salopettes when doing tasks where they get covered in snow – I guess these are some of the reasons. I also expect that, above all, they were happy when guests said they looked ‘cool’ in their uniforms.
For work on the ropeways, we need wear that is easy to move in, so it’s good that the number of pockets is limited and cuts down on waste. The wear is made to be loose-fitting, so it doesn’t restrict our movement while we work. There is no hood, but the collar can be adjusted to provide a guard for the neck area. Personally, I am really taken by the design of the uniform, which I wouldn’t be embarrassed to walk into the supermarket in. If anything, I want everyone to see the “Shiroishi Ski Resort” badge on my chest.”
The Future of the Region, Connected by Shiroishi Ski Resort
Kawamura-san’s thoughts move to the future of ski resorts and how they might be.
“During the green season, I work as a guide on Mt. Fubō, and I think that from the perspective of helping guests enjoy the mountains, the guides are indispensable. After all, if we only deal with people who love mountains, we can’t hope for any more share of the pie. This is why, in my work as a guide, I always consider ‘what is needed to help people who don’t like mountains or nature to appreciate Mt. Fubō?’ I do my best to keep people intrigued, even if they don’t like nature, by sharing the origins of flower names and unveiling funny stories about the mountains.”
“The ski resort is the same. It is necessary to look at it from a third-party perspective, namely those who aren’t hardcore snow fans, but who are ‘interested in skiing or snowboarding but never given it a go.’ In that case, how do we get those types of people to make their ways here? It is the young staff who hold the key to this.”
“This is because young skiers and snowboarders will want to come and enjoy a snow resort where young staff are working enthusiastically. This is why we first need to prepare an easy environment for young people to work in, and contribute to local employment. When the younger generation come together, their sensibilities will no doubt birth unique new ideas and perspectives.”
Revitalizing the town and rejuvenating Shiroishi Ski Resort using the ideas born from the next generation, and protecting the natural environment of Zaō mountain base and the region for many years to come. Kawamura-san and the other ski resort staff consider this to be the mission of Shiroishi Ski Resort. The introduction of Goldwin workwear is the first step in this mission. The road ahead is still long, but beyond the first step is where the future opens up.