Welcome to Niseko, Australia

niseko

As a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back for graduating university, I’ve spent the last three or so weeks backpacking around Japan. For the last few days I’ve been in the skiing town of Niseko, on the northern island of Hokkaido. You may have heard of it before – to say it’s popular with Aussies would be an understatement. Even though throughout the last few weeks I’ve seen my fair share of Australian travellers (which isn’t too surprising, considering the dollar is doing well against the Yen and the cost of flights are at an all time low), it’s been nothing like the amount I’ve encountered in Niseko.

Suddenly, the stock-standard backpacker greeting has changed from “What country are you from?” to “What city are you from?”, “What school did you go to?”, or even worse – “What NRL team do you back?” We’ve brought over the skis, the drawling accents and the ever-important tourist dollar. But there’s something else that we’ve brought that is slightly more worrying – our heavy drinking culture.

Now don’t get me wrong, after three weeks of pointing at pictures and hoping what I’m ordering isn’t whale meat, it’s been quite nice to hear another familiar accent. But Niseko takes it one step further – asides from my wonderfully loopy Japanese ski instructor, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single local in this town.

I was told by numerous friends before arriving in Japan about the country’s lax drinking laws. You can buy a bottle of vodka here for the equivalent of about $12; beer and almost every other alcohol is available from7/11s and the oddly-titled Family Marts, which are literally on every street corner. Talk about convenience stores. You can even buy beer from vending machines, and it’s perfectly legal to drink on the street.

While this may all seem completely removed from what it’s like in Aus, it all boils down to the fact that Japan has a very different culture of drinking. Binge drinking in Japan isn’t nearly as much of a problem as it is in Australia, and the laws here reflect that. Unfortunately, many of the Australians in Niseko have taken advantage of this.

In the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen my first bouts of violence since I arrived in the country. Walking down the street at night is akin to a night in the valley – there are sing-a-longs, yelling, and the inevitable drunken spew. Some bars have even resorted to serving drinks solely in plastic. Sound familiar?

I don’t want to be hypocritial, because even I have been taken advantage of the cheap alcohol and beer vending machines, and back home I’m as partial to a night of drinking as the next impoverished recent arts graduate. And of course people should have fun on their holidays, it’s inevitable that alcohol is often a part of that. But we’re in a different country here, which has different ways of doing things… and no-one seems to respect that.

Of course it’s not all bad – I can see why they say the best snow in the world is here. I would know, I’ve spent plenty of time looking at it up-close after falling on my ass for the umpteenth time. Every Japanese person I’ve met on this trip has been so welcoming, but I’m afraid of that hospitality wearing thin. Even the very few Japanese people I have encountered here in Niseko don’t seem as friendly as they do elsewhere. And why should they? From what I’ve seen the tourists aren’t particularly nice to them, especially when it comes to their English skills.

In my short time as a traveller, I’ve realised that when people say that everyone overseas loves Australians, they really are telling the truth. But as a whole, we need to uphold that by being more respectful towards the cultures we visit, so that impression stays true.

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