Our Setsu Journey Part 3 - A Serendipitous Ski Holiday

  • By Sirada

Reputed across Asia for its embodiment of luxury living, Singaporean developer SC Global has been creating beautifully crafted apartments renowned for their quality and attention detail for 25 years. During a family holiday, Founder and Chairman Simon Cheong literally stumbled across an opportunity to bring SC Global’s ‘ultimate living’ experience to the foothills of the Niseko ski slopes.

You’ve skied for most of your life and been to the world’s best ski resorts. How does Niseko compare with the best resorts in the world? 

Our first trip to Niseko as a family was around 2008 and since then it has become an annual family ritual. The holiday was absolutely amazing, the family loved it and I was truly mesmerised by the snow. The ski resort is very kid-friendly, not every family wants to go skiing on the black slopes that you find in Vancouver or Zermatt, but in Niseko you have many different types of courses that you can visit within a 20-minute car ride.

At that time, back in 2008, Niseko was a quiet mountain town. I noticed that much of the accommodation were smaller ski lodges, mainly family run businesses with few international brands or larger resorts. It struck me as an opportunity, especially as at that time many of the restaurants were small and with my big family it could be tough to get large tables to eat together during the peak season.  

Food has always played an important part in the whole experience in Japan. The culinary offerings in Japan have really reached another level, and at every touchpoint, even down to the coffee or the chocolates, everything is so refined – I really appreciate the meticulous eye for detail that you experience when dining in Japan. 

The other key part of the whole ski experience in Japan is the onsen (hot spring), which really is second to none. Although the concept is not new, hot springs have been around for thousands of years, I believe that the Japanese have really perfected the onsen experience.

The fact that the resort is English speaking is crucial. I’ve been to Hakuba, and language can be a barrier. Niseko is pretty much bilingual which is a major plus factor for visitors, especially from ASEAN. Of course, last but not least the finest powder snow in the world is in Niseko. 

So with all these different factors in mind, I realised that all the fundamental ingredients of a world-class resort were there in Niseko.  And as a high-end real estate developer and businessman, I recognised that there was a tremendous opportunity to develop a large international luxury resort.  I believe that the world is looking for quality and there is no limit to the market for quality. 

I understand you bought property here after spraining your knee while skiing. What happened and please tell us how it lead to the development of Setsu? 

It was about our third or fourth season and I was skiing on Mt Annupuri when I sprained my knee and flipped over on the snow. I knew it wasn’t broken because I could walk, so I just rested and took painkillers, but it meant I couldn’t ski for the rest of the season. So for the subsequent trips, the kids would go off around 7am in the morning and come back around 4pm before sunset. I would spend time with my wife walking around the town, drinking coffee, and then started visiting the real estate agencies along Main Street and quiet naturally after a while I started to think about buying real estate and the potential of developing a resort.  This is pretty much how this adventure started.

After that, you bought several potential development sites. Why did you choose the Setsu site for your first project?

Frankly, it was quite opportunistic, the first site I bought which is the Setsu Niseko plot was the probably most expensive site of all those proposed by the real estate brokers. But it had the most incredible location with a perfectly clear view of Mount Yotei at the front and a view of the Annupuri mountain at the back which is magnificent at night when it is all lit up. The agents kept pulling me to other sites, but I kept gravitating back to this main site. I had a very good feeling about it. Although I ended up buying four plots around Niseko, I decided to focus on developing this one key site. When I first saw Mount Yotei I was taken aback by how stunning the view is, but it took me a few years to really fully appreciate its magnificence. At one point I even started to question “what’s the big deal”, isn’t Mount Fuji better. Then I realised the difference and why it was so special.  When you go close to Mount Fuji, you never really have the clear perfect view to enjoy the whole mountain, it has a very broad base with a lot of smaller mountains around the site. Whereas Mount Yotei, due to the smaller scale and the valley around the base which is very flat and forested, when you look at the mountain that’s all you see, it’s a picture-perfect view. 

What was your vision for what you wanted to create with Setsu as a Niseko holiday retreat?

We have been studying the rich history of ski culture and the style of services in resorts like Zermatt, Aspen, Whistler, Courchevel. We want to bring the romance of the European off-piste lifestyle into Niseko, if you remember how these resorts were depicted in the movies in the old days, the whole après-ski experience was very different.  The food, the music, the cognac, everyone is having a good time; these are the type of experiences that I am trying my best to recreate at Setsu Niseko.

If you look at where we are with the development of Setsu Niseko today, all these important fundamentals of a good ski resort are in place.  Setsu Niseko’s services and facilities will capture everything you need; public and private onsen, wellness centre, beauty spa, yoga studio, a children’s room, seasonal events and activities, a gymnasium, ski shop, ski concierge, guest services.  And when it comes to restaurants, Setsu Niseko will have one of the widest range of professionally managed restaurants of international standard for guests to enjoy. 

Aside from our in-house facilities and services, helping guests discover those experiences is something that we are very focused on.  There is so much to do in the local area, whether it be cultural journeys, wellness or more adventurous activities. Our team will be there to help guests discover the hidden experiences for a truly memorable holiday. 

I remember one year I took my 90-year-old parents along with us, we had pretty much three generations together. Yet and each of us could find things to do, to have a memorable holiday. That is very powerful. For the older folks, they were able to walk in the snow, stroll around the shops in Kutchan, visit Otaru, enjoy the onsen, visit the tofu shop, so many things they could do. And then in the evening, we would all join together for dinner. It was such a wonderful experience. Unforgettable. 

You’re obviously very experienced in developing large scale projects in high-profile locations. How did this experience ensure Setsu’s architecture integrated within the Hirafu landscape?

We are probably the largest project in the Hirafu area, it is not huge by international standards, but for a small town like Niseko, it’s very large. The architecture must be timeless, must be practical, stand up to the harsh environment. But most importantly it must also have the presence of the place. At SC Global, we are very particular about having the right architecture, the right design, even the right artwork that reflects the place. We don’t want a New York or Singapore style design in a ski resort.  So if you take a look at the Setsu Niseko interior you will find that the design is very Japanese. When you stay at Setsu Niseko, we want you to experience Japan, there is a lot of wood to give warmth to the space and a number of Japanese elements in the interior design, the shoji screens, the washi paper on the walls and authentic tatami rooms. We have spared no effort to make sure that we get it right.  

Can you give us a peek into your crystal ball – How do you see Niseko maturing over the next 10-20 years?

That is an easy question because I thought about this a lot when I first decided to embark on the development of the site.  I went to school in Seattle Washington, which is very close to Vancouver. That was in the late 70s.  I have always felt and told friends at the time that Niseko today is like Whistler was 50 years ago. Whistler was a quiet sleepy town with just one hotel and now look at it today. Demand creates supply and supply creates demand.  It’s a process where people demand the convenience of facilities, luxury hotels, the reliable brand names that they recognise. Those are the places they will go to the first time, after that as people get to know the town well, they move on to even more luxurious hotels, but without the need for international branding, something more local and unique. Niseko is still developing and with the Shinkansen train coming in 2030, it will really open up the domestic market and bring the charms of Niseko back to the local market.

Reproduction of an interview in Powderlife Winter 2021/22   

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