By Rob Volansky
Catching up with Michael Baker
Owner, Powder House Lodge & Hakuba Real Estate
(Mick getting some air)
Michael Baker arrived in Japan from his native Australia 12 years ago to pursue an interest in jujitsu. A cabinet maker by trade, he landed in the snowy resort of Hakuba in Nagano Prefecture, discovered snowboarding and left martial arts behind.
Slow and easy
The path of his career reflects how Michael Baker comes off as a person: low-key and easy-going. He began by working for a liquor store in Nagano, delivering alcohol to pensions and lodges and spending as much time on the slopes as possible. Riding quickly turned from hobby to habit. He chased winters, running a ramen shop in New Zealand during summertime in Japan.
After four or five years of this back-and-forth, then some time traveling and boarding in Europe and Alaska, Michael turned a corner. The relationship with his Japanese girlfriend at the time, now his wife, became more serious, so he decided to make Japan home.
In the post-Olympic lull in Hakuba, he took an opportunity to buy an old house, renovate it and turn it into a Bed & Breakfast. He transitioned smoothly back into his trade, garnering steady work as a free-lance builder. Though Japanese construction methods differ slightly from those at home, he's learned to adapt. Although he builds his own way on his own projects, he's comfortable observing local standards when sub-contracting.
After seven solid years, he finally sold that first B & B and is putting the finishing touches on a new place he built aptly named Powder House. As if he doesn't already have his hands full with the new accommodation, and his 2-year-old son, he recently teamed up with a Japanese partner to start Hakuba Real Estate, a small company from which he hopes will lead to more building and development work and expose the Hakuba area to a growing real estate market in Japan.
Ambitions for himself and the area appear fairly modest. He predicts Hakuba will remain a quiet hideout, but… "Deep down," he laughs, "that's fine with me." He has carved a comfortable niche and made some long-term friendships in the process and is happy to keep it that way.
Aside from the small difference in building styles, Michael has had great experiences both personally and professionally. The folks from the liquor store of his early days remain friends, and the representatives in the town office have been nothing but encouraging of his current prospects, appreciating the quality work he does and the business he brings to the community. Michael is quick to offer thanks to helpful Japanese relations and spread credit for his success to friendly competition in a small yet open market.
Reliable sources claim Michael is a "wicked" snowboarder; no small word of praise in an area packed with great riders. When asked whether he ever considered going pro, he was typically understated. He downplayed his skills and then mumbled something about "a couple of knee reconstructions."
In truth, personal and professional obligations always seemed to come to the forefront, he says, but his subdued demeanor most likely belies a craftsman as comfortable and confident on the hills as with a hammer.
Moving forward, it is hard to imagine Michael being anything but happy and settled. His two businesses appear ready to take off and his curious young son will no doubt be accompanying dad on the hills someday soon.
“The snow is good here,” he said. “I love the food, and the people are nice.” Sounds like a man content. What more is there to say.
Michael Baker at a Glance
Home country: Australia
Years in Japan: 12
Trade: Cabinet maker, Builder
Martial Art: Jujitsu. Does snowboarding count?
Hakuba Real Estate
Tel: (0261) 75-3073