Adventure, travel, fun, culture, lifestyle – that’s what Outdoor Japan Media is all about. The company, founded by American Gardner Robinson, is best known for its Outdoor Japan website, celebrating its 11th anniversary this year, and Outdoor Japan Traveler magazine, marking its 6th year of publication. Outdoor Japan also publishes the Japanese version of the world-class surfing magazine, The Surfer’s Journal, the Golf in Japan website, and an annual free Japan Winter Sports Guide, and distributes the award-winning Snow-Search Japan guidebook.
Born in Portland, Oregon, Robinson majored in journalism and English at the University of Oregon. The travel bug took him to Australia, New Zealand and a Micronesia resort where 80% of the guests were Japanese.
He decided to check out Japan in 1997, just before the Winter Olympics in Nagano where he worked as a junior high school teacher. Around that time, he started writing about outdoor sports and travel for local newspapers and magazines – and Outdoor Japan was born.
Japan Today catches up with Robinson to hear more.
What was the main motivation for starting Outdoor Japan?
At that time, I was part of a network of like-minded people who were snowboarders, rafters, hikers, mountain bikers and so on. But I found there wasn’t any connection between them and international residents and travelers. So I came up with the idea of starting Outdoor Japan as an online magazine to bring all the information and people together. We officially went online in 2000. The bilingual magazine launched in 2005.
Was it tough at first?
Yes. I was going door to door to little companies, but it grew quickly with the support of a lot of outdoor operators and small pensions, ryokans. We purposely didn’t cover the usual tourist spots. Instead, we focused on adventure, travel off the beaten path, and inspirational and “aspirational” topics. We started to get advertising from accommodation and outdoor activity operators on the site as well as brands such as Montbell.
Was it a full-time job for you?
Not at first. I remained in Nagano until 2000, then went to Niigata for about 8 months and came to Tokyo in 2001 where I was hired as the online editor for the old Tokyo Weekender from 2001 until about 2004. I was encouraged to continue developing OJ and contribute travel and outdoor content to Weekender.
You started Outdoor Japan magazine in 2005 at a time when many magazines were struggling due to competition from online publications. Wasn’t that a big risk?
Our strong point was that we were niche and passionate. We weren’t competing with Metropolis or other English publications. In the outdoor industry, you have to be in it for the right reasons and it takes a long time to build relationships with client companies. We also went bilingual despite being advised not to. I really wanted Japanese readers to get the perspective of foreigners doing things like snowboarding and hiking and vice versa.
So it was a bit risky, but I did have a business plan and persistence. I should point out as a media company, we not only publish Outdoor Japan Traveler, we do the Japanese edition of the world-class The Surfer’s Journal, arguably the best surfing magazine in the world. The photography and writing quality are so high that I was confident it would do well in Japan. It is reader-supported in the U.S. through subscriptions and we follow the same model, to grow organically.
We also do consulting for the Japan Tourism Agency. Last year, we launched a global campaign focused on adventure travel, shot winter promotional videos for JNTO and produced three short television programs for NHK Worldwide.
How is the magazine doing?
We started with 10 issues a year, but were killing ourselves, so we cut back to six times a year. After the earthquake, we went quarterly. One thing we have tried to really stick to is our high standard of editorial content and photography. That’s helped keep advertising stable, but there’s no doubt the tourism industry has taken a big hit this year and we, and our sponsors, have felt that. However, although digital content has increased exponentially, I still believe there will always be a demand for high quality content.
While the print circulation has gone down some, we have become much more strategic with our distribution and have grown our readership by offering the entire magazine online for free. We are using Facebook, YouTube and Twitter much more, too. This is effective because people come to us looking for help and advice, and then later on, they, in turn, offer us a lot of cool stuff. Currently, we have contributors and photographers all over Japan.
What other activities does the company do?
We organize winter and summer music events called Snow Splash and Summer Splash. Snow Splash in Naeba will be held on Jan 21, a Snow Splash Party in Nozawa on Feb 11 and Snow Splash in Hakuba on Feb 25. We will also organize an after party for the FIS World Cup in Naeba on Feb 18 and have a charity live event in Nozawa Onsen on March 10. Buses run from Tokyo and stay at local accommodation.
What do you focus on?
I focus on business development, but I also love editorial work and writing when I have time. I always am looking at ways to give our readers and sponsors a better product, find ways to show the world what a diverse destination Japan is and to give our readers more choices so they can enjoy what they love to do in Japan.
And who are your readers?
About 60% of readers of the magazine are Japanese. They pick it up at stores throughout Japan such as Montbell, Mammut, The North Face, Wild-1 and other outdoor activity stores. We have an increasing number of international readers online because the inbound market is very important for us as well as the international community in Japan.
How do you like to relax when you are not working?
I play basketball with a group on weekends and I love snowboarding, craft beer, traveling and spending time with friends.