Winds Calm, Temperature Fair, Polymers Moist

Japan's Snova Corporation perfects pseudo-snow and launches an indoor empire

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
"Watch closely, please!" with the flair of a Vegas magician, Japanese entrepreneur Masahisa Otsuka pours a small packet of granules into a cup of water. Instantly, the beaker overflows with fluffy, white, superabsorbent polymers. "Freeze it, and you get Hokkaido-quality synthetic snow," he gushes, referring to northern Japan's primo powder.

Once a Sanyo refrigeration engineer with a dream, Otsuka, 53, coinvented faux snow in 1987, believing it could revolutionize the ski industry. He couldn't sell the fake flakes to his employer, so he got the Japanese government to back him. Today he's president of the Snova Corporation, an empire of indoor snowboarding stadia, where for $53 (including equipment rental) per 90-minute session, visitors can shred polymers on a swath of mock-Nagano.

At the unveiling of Snova Yokohama last fall, Otsuka's eighth such facility in Japan, baggy-clothed riders carved down the 108-foot-wide slope as techno music pumped through the air. "Unlike traditional artificial snow," the proud inventor shouted, "Snova snow won't melt or ice up." Otsuka's designer powder also costs half as much to maintain, feels surprisingly like the real thing, and keeps boarders dry when they fall. "The Japanese are so enamored of their technology that if man can make better snow than God can, so much the better," says Ski Japan! author T. R. Reid.

Despite Japan's saturated ski market (many of the nation's approximately 600 resorts were built in the last decade), business is booming for Snova. The firm's indoor slope in Kobe, which opened in 1997, attracts about 500 visitors a day and has already recouped its $8.5 million construction cost. By the end of the year, Snova plans to open its first snowboard arena in Singapore.

Opportunities might also beckon in the packaged food industry. "It's a coated resin molecule that has no taste and no harmful effects on the body or the environment," Otsuka says of his product, which has the texture of microscopic roe. "It's similar to the material used in diapers and sanitary napkins, but with the right flavoring, I could market it as imitation caviar!" With that, the Snovaboarding evangelist shoves off to practice his fakey backside 360-indy.