Feature: A Pint of Petrol Barman

By Ian MacKenzie
November 2002

Two problems with Niseko. One is the “penguins”. I don’t mean the black and white kind. I mean school kids waddling up and down the road. Lobbing snowballs at one another, giggling, moments from colliding with a scowling pension owner, hurtling by in a Hiace. The other is the nightlife. A resort that boasts fantastic powder, at least four tour companies bringing increasing numbers of foreigners to it’s sleepy pensions and, until now only a handful of bars, of which only one is usually open past 12am. The penguins will come in droves again this season, bunched in awkward groups at the base of the D-sen lift, poles jutting like tank traps. But the nightlife may be changing.

The infamous Jam Second burnt down in 2000, leaving the surrounding pension owners thrilled, and drinkers inconsolable. Hirafu’s only truly late night bar was gone, and anyone looking for a night of drinking till the wee hours, found themselves trudging home at midnight, grumbling, “What Hirafu needs is a bar!” Well, this year four new bars will be opening their doors to those booze hungry powder hounds who are looking for somewhere to brag, share stories and warm themselves with flagons of ale. One of those new bars is being run by gaijin. Dave and Matt are from Australia and decided to start a little project, by opening their own bar, with a slight difference.

It has ten wheels.

“ We knew we wanted to start a bar but rent is ridiculous. We had the chance to get a ten-ton truck so we took it. Thought it may be a little more interesting, “ explains Dave. Dave has been in Niseko for three years, working as a rafting guide in summer and a snowboard instructor in winter. He first came to Niseko on a tour from Australia. When asked how long he plans to stay he laughs and says, “ I came for a holiday and I’m still here. God knows!” Rafting is fun, mainly because he can “chat up school girls”.

Matt is from Melbourne and is a carpenter. “ Back home I can earn good money and work with all the right tools for he job. I’m not here for money, I’m here for the lifestyle. I basically built a house with a hammer and a toy power saw. In summer I work eight to ten hours a day, at least to make up for the crazy winter. Last year, I almost turned Japanese, working 10 hour days, 6 days a week. The bar is the chance to have a little fun. It doesn’t interfere with snowboarding, so I’m happy.”

Both of them decided to convert a truck and make it into a bar. A truck poses a few interesting problems, first of which is obtaining a licence. As Dave says, “We had to put a submission in with the local hokenjo, or Health office, for a licence to sell food and beer. There are certain criteria we had to fulfill regarding water drainage, water capacity and so on. It involved submitting plans of what we intend to do. It’s quite frantic and nerve wracking, because they can yes or no you there and then. In our case we had to change a sign and make a few minor adjustments. We were told to go away and fix it, then take it back to the office to be checked again ? a lot of back and forth with a ten ton truck.”

With snowfall in Hirafu this week, they are racing the clock to have everything finished.

“ We have to set the truck level, get toilets, build an entrance and finish renovating the inside. It is fun but hard work. It is a challenge ? not many carpenters get to turn a truck into a bar. We want to have live music and DJ’s so I to have build a mini night club in a space 10 metres long and 3 metres wide,” says Matt. “We have a window in the truck, and I have built the door, and the bar, which was a bugger to get right, but there is still a lot to do. I have never built a bar before. The truck walls are not as sturdy as an actual building. It’s hard build something level if the truck isn’t level to start with. Also, the walls are thin so it’s hard to screw to.”

There are also the negotiations with suppliers. “Basically, the beer company provides everything from glasses to showcase fridge, server and so on. We just have to decide which brewery to go with and see what we can squeeze out of them, and we have to see who can provide us with VB and crown lager!” says Dave. “ There is also a lot of planning, from food to T shirts designs, logos, and what alcohol to put behind the bar.”

Both of them agree that it is long overdue. Niseko has been lacking in truly good places to drink. Most pensions still have 11pm curfew, and are quite stubborn about noise late at night. This season, however, sees the return of Jam Second, Gentem - the Mongolian tent - moving to the heart of Hirafu, and a new bar or two springing up not far away. Hirafu looks set to have it’s own entertainment district. Add this to the izakayas that dot the village, and the choice of places to part with your hard earned cash, is better than ever.

Running any business in Japan is challenging for a foreigner. For Matt it is simple. “It is a good opportunity, and a chance to have your own business and to be able to do it in Japan is good as well,” says Matt, “and running a bar is going to be great way to meet cool people from all over the mountain. I‘m looking forward to it.” For Dave, it sounds like fun. “ It should be good running a bar in Niseko. I think it will be a good place to hang out. It is great watching it all come together”.

With more and more foreigners visiting every year, it isn’t surprising that Matt and Dave have decided to exploit the potential beer swinging gaijin market. Being foreigners, they are obviously facing a few problems but are enjoying the experience. ”We want to run the kind of place that we would want to drink in, somewhere a lot of people can meet after a good day on the mountain.” Says Dave. When I ask him where it is, he just laughs and says, “Come to Hirafu - you can’t miss it.” Adds Matt, “ It’s the only bar with a gear stick.”

Only a few weeks remain until the first creak of the gondola, and the soft “ohayos” of first lifts, and everyone is thinking about fresh tracks. Niseko has always had a solid base of powder fans, but this season, with more places to sink a few jars, there may be a few more hangovers clambering up to the peak to get the powder. Dave and Matt have decide to try something a little different in Niseko this year, and are hoping to add a little to Niseko’s night life, but both have promised not to drink and drive.