In the fall of 2021, UNWIND Sapporo began a local collaboration with one of the most exciting new restaurants in Sapporo, “mountainman”, an outdoor establishment without an official address. It was there that the hotel manager, Shinji Oba, and mountainman’s creative director, Kenichi Mearashi, began to discuss their vision for a collaborative project.
─ For starters, let’s hear about how this collaboration came to fruition.
Oba： The initial reason for it was the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic began, over 60% of our hotel’s guests were inbound tourists. We experienced some difficulty after losing our usual demand, so I began to think about how to better express, accentuate, and market the unique lodge-like appeal of our hotel while also contributing to the charm of Sapporo. I then heard from my staff that Mearashi-san, the creative director who worked with us to design our hotel, had just opened an outdoor restaurant. I thought to myself, “This place looks great!”, and called him up right away.
Mearashi： You came over the day after calling me, right? It was still a week before we opened (laughter).
Oba： I wanted to see the place right away, so I came with my family and, sure enough, we were very impressed. When I suggested teaming up with mountainman as the first step in a local Sapporo collaboration, Mearashi-san felt the same way, thus beginning our partnership in the fall of last year.
─ So you connected with mountainman, which you felt shared your outlook, at just the right time.
Oba： That’s right. I felt like Sapporo had become very desolate due to the pandemic. Of course, it was important to remain cautious, but news of businesses forced to close kept coming out, so I felt a personal responsibility to not only improve the hotel’s performance but also to help renew the appeal of Sapporo through our hotel. If we think of our hotel as one singular point, and we connect with mountainman to make a line, then we can continue to extend that line to other points, connecting with local businesses and creators, and eventually taking shape into a renewed and well-connected Sapporo. I felt that our partnership with mountainman, a place that shares our sensibilities, was an especially appropriate starting point.
Mearashi： Actually, we were talking about doing a local collaboration even before starting mountainman. At the time, Oba-san told me he was concerned less with partnering for mutual profit and more about teaming up with people he respects, which left a big impression on me. I had previously helped UNWIND with design, but even before that I simply thought UNWIND had a cool vibe to it. Being able to enjoy a campfire on top of a hotel roof was a novel idea in Sapporo, and I appreciated that someone was opening a lifestyle hotel with an overseas influence in Sapporo.
I often talk with Oba-san about the culture of Portland, Oregon, and I think that’s kind of a keyword for both mountainman and UNWIND. For example, we both put importance on a DIY mindset and the local community. I feel like that notion is our standard. You spent a while in America doing outdoor activities like skiing, right?
Oba： Actually I was living in Seattle, close to Portland. When it comes to Portland, that’s a long story (laughter), but our hotel has worked with America’s long-standing fashion brand Pendleton, which is famous for its wool products, to provide the hotel with original uniforms and specialized Pendleton rooms. Pendleton is in fact headquartered in Portland. When I was thinking about the branding for UNWIND, I wanted to make a point of acknowledging the sister city relationship between Sapporo and Portland. One of the things the people of Portland value is a sense of community. They really place a lot of importance on local connections. So, I thought it would be great if I could take and introduce not only physical things from there but also the lifestyle and culture.
Mearashi： I often hear the words, ”vacation like you live there”, and I think people who have come to Sapporo several times really want to experience the authentic local lifestyle. Rather than just the usual eating good food and seeing the annual snow festival, why not experience Sapporo as though it were your home? This is the notion that sparked the idea for local collaboration. Oba-san also shared the desire to have people experience the authentic Sapporo lifestyle.
It just so happened that mountainman was first up to bat, so when I thought about what else we could do, I had the idea to team up with Sam’s Bike to give guests the option to ride a wide-tired bicycle (“fat bike”) in the snow, something unique to Sapporo. As the local collaborative effort continues to grow, it would be nice to present guests with new opportunities.
Oba： Definitely. When I was thinking of how I could add to our lodge-style atmosphere, words like “craft”, “outdoor”, “DIY”, “camping”…those kinds of things came to mind, so I wanted our hotel to project an image as a homebase for those kind of adventurous activities. Up until now, when I was asked by guests, “Are there any interesting places around here?”, I was at a bit of a loss every time. I could of course give meal recommendations, but when it came to fun things to do during the day, I couldn’t think of much. I hope to solve that problem with this collaboration project.
─ How did you come up with the idea for mountainman?
Mearashi： The location of mountainman is actually where my roots are. Although it’s within Sapporo city, it’s far from any residential areas, so it’s quite inconvenient and didn’t use to have much appeal, but once I became an adult and had seen various places throughout Japan and abroad, I came to appreciate its merits, including a great balance between city and nature. At the same time, I wanted to introduce the fun breakfast and brunch culture that I loved in Portland, but just when I was most excited, the pandemic began and made it very difficult to run a restaurant. But I don’t want to complain. I used to be a punk rocker, and punk rock is not about destruction, but creation. So, I thought if we couldn’t operate at night, then why not open in the morning? And if we have to keep social distance, then why not serve outdoors? I thought, “let’s do something interesting and fresh,” and got started on this place. I’m lucky to have my staff, a location filled with nature, creativity, and the know-how to serve people good food. Of course, we had some tough times, but I tried not to make that apparent (laughter).
Oba： For sure （laughter）.
Mearashi： It’s hard to make something out of nothing, and it’s really heavy work, but that has its own merits and leads to new encounters. I think it would be fun if, a few years down the line, people started associating Sapporo with breakfast. What’s great about Sapporo is how much it snows for a city of 2 million, and that if you drive 30 minutes away you can have a bonfire or go camping in the great outdoors. I feel like we’re blessed to be able to have an authentic outdoor experience anytime, almost as if watching TV.
─ How did you feel when Oba-san first approached you about collaborating?
Mearashi：I had already worked with UNWIND before and thought it was a lovely place, so I was happy to hear that Oba-san and the staff were paying attention to what I was doing. On top of that, Oba-san’s level of enthusiasm is really very high (laughter). Personally, I think “passion” is one of our mutual keywords in this collaboration. Even if it’s just one branch of a company, I think the level of passion of the people involved correlates to the quality of the planning, so I think passion and a sense of speed are extremely important.
While mountainman was being built, we were posting pictures of the progress on Instagram. As a result, our number of followers went way up, reaching over 2000 before we opened. That included several people just as passionate as us, many of whom even asked if they could come and help, so I really felt a response.
─ Was there anything you were particular about the second time around?
Oba： The first time around, we started with a simple plan: just a stay at our hotel plus brunch at mountainman. For the winter version, we wanted to step it up and provide more options. For that reason, we prepared a plan in which the guest can choose freely between lunch, dinner, and a tent sauna experience, for which we are offering a plan including 3000 yen of credit for each person to use at mountainman. The guest can also choose from the menu on mountainman’s reservation page.
Mearashi： In the summer, our concept was to operate from sunrise to sunset, but for the winter we’re going to change to a midday to night schedule, serving spiced curry cooked over an open flame for lunch and a course meal for dinner. As for experiences, our best seller is the tent sauna. Being able to take a snow bath surrounded by nature is a rare thing, even in Sapporo. We might actually be the only place in Sapporo where you can dive naked into the snow (laughter). I’d like for people from saunas all over the country to come try it out. If someone were to spend 2 nights in Sapporo, I would have them go to Susukino or Odori for the big city atmosphere on the first night, then venture out to mountainman the next morning for a curry lunch, or they could come later and pair dinner with a tent sauna experience.
Oba： People who are in good shape could even come to mountainman from the hotel on one of our fat bikes (laughter). It’s a pretty tough trip, but not impossible (laughter).
Mearashi：（laughter） Lately I really feel like people from Honshu don’t come to Sapporo, or Hokkaido in general, for a big city experience. I think they’re more interested in, for example, eating like the locals. I think they tend to want to experience nature and interact with the locals, so I believe we should take more pride in our everyday lifestyle.
Oba： Throughout the pandemic I spent a lot of time thinking about the branding aspect of this hotel, and as I continued to envision this collaboration, I became more aware of its connection to the larger branding of the city of Sapporo, or rather, I’ve come to think of it in the same sense as branding a city.
Mearashi： It feels presumptuous for us to talk about Sapporo’s branding, but if people who see our efforts think “we want to join in!”, and other hotels and local businesses start collaborating more, then I think we’ll really have impacted the branding of Sapporo as a city.
─ It’s also a great move for people living here, rather than those looking from the outside in, to take the initiative to present things that were previously lacking.
Mearashi： That’s DIY. Things like a mass campaign set up by an ad agency or getting directions straight from the government can be beneficial for everyone, but those things can also be kind of dull and fleeting. That being the case, we think doing things together with close allies is more fun and in the spirit of DIY.
Oba： There are people doing creative work in Sapporo, but I think until now there’s been a strong tendency for creative types to move to Tokyo. I want to create the kind of culture that makes people think “Sapporo is the place to be!”, and I feel like we’ve just hit the ground running.
─ What kind of thoughts and feelings do you want guests to have by experiencing the collaboration project?
Oba： I’d like for them to feel the closeness between nature and the city, experience service with warmth, and I’d be happy if they left thinking, “I’m glad I came to Sapporo” or “We really had a Sapporo-like experience”. I’d also love it if they took the experience of the culture they felt here, and a sense of DIY, home with them and introduce it into their own lifestyle. From there I want people to become more and more interested in Sapporo.
Mearashi： If we can achieve that, the value of Sapporo will increase.
Oba： That’s true. I think it will come back to the people living in Sapporo too. I think they’ll become more confident and feel prouder of the place they live in.
Mearashi： I often go to places like Portland and LA, and whether it’s the lifestyle, the shop design, or the sense of values, there are lots of things I always want to imitate when I get back home. I always do a lot of shopping and making things when I return to Japan. Just like Oba-san said, I’d like people to go to mountainman and UNWIND, say “I’m so inspired!”, and after getting back home, do something like covering their bed in a Pendleton blanket and calling that “UNWIND chic”, or “Sapporo style”.
Local Collaboration Project vol.1
【UNWIND x mountaiman】
UNWIND provides innovation in travel 〜vacation like you live in Sapporo〜
UNWIND HOTEL & BAR Sapporo / Otaru Manager
Born in Yamagata Prefecture. He worked at a city bank after graduating university, then studied in the U.S. Following work as a ski instructor in New Zealand, he served as principal of Kiroro Resort’s ski academy. Following further experience in the food service industry, he became the manager of UNWIND HOTEL & BAR Sapporo in December of 2016, concurrently managing UNWIND Otaru since April of 2019.
Creative Director at APRIL Co.Born in 1972. As the creative director of April Co., he leads branding direction throughout the country, with a focus on Hokkaido. He opened mountainman, the “forest restaurant with no address”, in the summer of 2021. He spends weekdays in the city and weekends in the forest.