Bird’s Eye View of Hokkaido
Ben Kerr has had a keen eye for opportunity and an ability to create businesses that have taken off since flying over from Australia in the early 1990s. This didgeridoo-playing, road cycling, real estate expert’s latest passion has given him a bird’s eye view of a landscape he’s helped shape over more than two decades in Hokkaido. Gardner Robinson recently caught up with the Niseko-based pilot to find out what lies on the horizon.
Gardner Robinson: What initially brought you to Hokkaido?
Ben Kerr: A friend was making a snowboarding film in Niseko—he invited me to come lend a hand with translation.
GR: What’s kept you here?
BK: Powder, the people and Hokkaido’s delicious food.
GR: We first met in the late 90s in Niseko; you were working at Niseko Adventure Centre. A lot has happened since those days from building Niseko Real Estate and Niseko Green Farm to becoming a pilot.
BK: Great NAC memories of flipping rafts on the Mukawa River! I guess timing was on our side. With Japan’s domestic ski tourism in decline, welcoming overseas guests seemed the natural step. These same guests then started asking questions about real estate ownership and the best places to buy organic veggies.
GR: You’ve had a front row seat to the development in the Niseko area over the past 25 years. From big initial changes to steady progress; what stands out for you?
BK: It has been fascinating to watch Kutchan Town transform into the international hub for Niseko. Initially there were no ATMs so everyone was encouraged to turn up with big wads of cash—good thing Japan is such a safe country!
GR: Before flying you got pretty serious into road cycling and started racing. Do you still get on the bike?
BK: I think Hokkaido’s laid-back summer roads lull almost everyone into cycling. Having experienced the racing excitement of the Tour de Okinawa, it became a dream to create something similar here in Niseko—eventually growing into the Hanazono Hillclimb and Niseko Classic cycling events. I haven’t raced for a couple years, but always keen to head out for a spin with friends.
GR: Where did your interest for flying come from?
BK: Our father took us up in single-engine planes—got us hooked at a young age!
GR: Was it difficult getting a license in Japan?
BK: Transferring an Australian PPL (Private Pilot License) to the JCAB (Japan Civil Aviation Bureau) PPL is relatively simple, just requiring a Japanese radio license and local aviation law test. Most additions (e.g. seaplane rating) can also be secured overseas and added on to the JCAB license.
GR: Tell us about your plane. Why an XCub?
BK: I was hoping to fly from the farm, so I needed a rugged plane with full FAA Certification. Cubcrafter’s XCub fits the bill—needing only about 100 meters to take off and land. It has plenty of propeller clearance and those big Alaskan bush wheels help soak up any bumps.
All I have to do is look out for the goats when landing…
GR: What makes Hokkaido a great and challenging place to fly?
BK: With flats, mountains, rivers and lakes, Hokkaido has a lot to offer. It’s amazingly beautiful from the air! There are plenty of big and little airports to choose from, it’s easy to source aviation gas and general aviation airplanes are welcome pretty much everywhere.
Winter weather does make flying challenging at times, but fingers crossed we will have some skis approved for the plane shortly.
GR: What’s a typical flight if you wanted to go have some fun?
BK: Last year we put one of the XCubs on amphibious floats, adding the option of water landings. Lake Toya is amazing, with wharfs to dock at, and delicious places to have lunch. On a hot day jumping off the floats for a swim is hard to beat! Come ikura and uni season, a flight up to the majestic Rishiri Island is also lots of fun.
GR: Have you flown around to other parts of Japan?
BK: Within Japan, I have ventured as far south as Hiroshima. Beautiful adventure, but I actually had a flat tire mid-way. Everyone was so friendly and helpful and we were back on track in no time. I’ve yet to fly overseas from Japan—a vodka run to Sakhalin is only a quick dash from the top of Hokkaido. A group of AOPA-J (Japan’s Aircraft Owner and Pilot Association) members did this trip from Bibai Sky Park in 2019. I’m keen to join next time.
GR: What’s next on your flight path?
BK: This year I’m hoping to reach Okinawa and explore various lakes, rivers and dams during the trip. It appears many places have never have had a floatplane land. No doubt we will see a few surprised faces on the way!
Bird’s Eye View of Hokkaido