Far from their tropical home country and its sun-baked beaches, three Thai men toiled through biting winds and bone-chilling temperatures on a snow-covered mountainside here in their quest for Olympic glory.
“It is extremely cold today. But after I started the practice, my body became warm. I feel good when I am skiing,” said Japakiya Ni-Amart, 23, who had been working as an English interpreter for Thailand’s Foreign Ministry.
Japakiya, Chehleh Arisaman, 24, a junior at the Institute of Physical Education Yala, and Phetrsrichai Pattara, 20, a freshman at the same institute, have joined a Higashikawa government project to nurture high-level cross-country skiers from abroad.
Although rookies in the sport, the three Thais and a Taiwanese man have dreams of competing in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchan, South Korea.
The cross-country course winds along the side of 2,291-meter Asahidake, a mountain in the Daisetsuzan group that is the highest in Hokkaido.
Yoshiyuki Yanbe, 66, a former All-Japan cross-country champion, and a Norwegian coach are training the Olympic hopefuls.
The cross-country course, located near the Asahidake hot spring resort, can be used for more than seven months from late October through early June, the longest period in Japan. The national teams of Japan and South Korea, as well as university and corporate teams, train there every year.
The town government started its skiing project in fiscal 2014 to take advantage of the locale. Participants receive special cross-country training while learning Japanese at a local language school.
The town and other organizations jointly cover about 3 million yen (about $25,000) for each participant, including school tuition and the costs for ski gear.
Higashikawa officials say that participants who complete the one-and-a-half-year project and return to their home countries will be able to obtain support from the town government if they revisit the mountain.
The town introduced the project to the governments of Thailand and Vietnam. The Thai government chose three participants and dispatched them to Japan.
When Japakiya learned about the program, he was considering advancing to a graduate school to study political science. However, he decided to go to Hokkaido, thinking, “Such an opportunity will never come again in my life.”
Chehleh majors in sport science and is studying health management. Before coming to Japan, he hit the gym to strengthen the muscles used for skiing.
“The sport (skiing) does not exist in Thailand,” he said. “The program is a wonderful challenge for me.”
Japakiya and Chehleh are more familiar with soccer pitches than snow fields.
Phetrsrichai, who is studying to be a physical education teacher or to work at a Japanese company, has played volleyball and tennis.
When the three Thais started cross-country skiing, a Taiwanese man, Tsai Cheng-ruei, who had been studying in the town, joined them.
While living together in a dormitory, the four learn Japanese in the morning and ski in the afternoon. They also take part in exchange programs with Higashikawa citizens to experience Japanese culture.
On March 15, the four entered a competition in the neighboring municipality of Asahikawa and completed the 5-kilometer course. Phetrsrichai placed fourth among the more than 1,200 entrants.
“It was difficult,” he said. “But I enjoyed it.”
The four plan to enter international competitions next season.
To qualify for the Winter Olympic Games, they must accumulate a certain number of points based on the results of international competitions.
“It is hard to acquire the qualifications to compete in the Olympic Games,” Yanbe said. “But all four of them have good athletic abilities. I think that they will be able to drastically heighten their levels.”
With a population of about 8,000, the town of Higashikawa has invited tourists and migrants by publicizing its affluent nature.
“If the Thais can take part in the Olympic Games, their participation will lead to the promotion of our town as a tourist spot,” Higashikawa Mayor Ichiro Matsuoka said.
The town government plans to increase the number of foreigners who can join the special cross-country training project.
Similar projects of accepting and training cross-country skiers from overseas are run in Nagano and Fukushima prefectures, according to the Ski Association of Japan.
But Yanbe said: “The Higashikawa town’s project is nurturing cross-country skiers from scratch. It is a new challenge.”