When you travel to Niseko for the first time, one image you may notice showing up here and there is a brown, bulbous figure on skis, with a cute smile and beanie that is inscribed with the word "Kutchan". You may also hear whispers among locals and tourists around festival periods like Yukitopia or Christmas - "Oh we have to go to the festival, he's going to make an appearance..."
These floating rumours may sound ominous or confusing at first, but don't worry - everyone is simply hoping to catch a glimpse of the iconic mascot of Kutchan town and the Niseko ski area: Jagata-kun [じゃがたくん], or "fat little potato boy" if you roughly translate it in Japanese. He is possibly the most beloved and revered icon of Niseko (second only to Mt Yotei itself), and represents what the area is most proud of: skiing, mountains and delicious natural produce, potatoes in particular - not to mention he's just so darn cute!
Jagata-kun was designed and chosen to represent the township of Kutchan in 1991, and his birthday is listed as August 3rd, 1991. According to his profile, he is a baron potato (the specialty potato of Kutchan) who loves to ski and is seen wearing a beanie in the shape of the nearby mountain, Mt Yotei. He is described as 'jumping forward' on his skis, to represent Kutchan's progression through history, and his design was chosen to highlight Kutchan's biggest exports: potatoes, snowsports, and the iconic image of Mt Yotei [or Ezo Fuji as it used to be called - Ezo was the original name for Hokkaido, and the shape resembles Japan's tallest mountain, Mt Fuji].
Jagata-kun has been warmly embraced by the locals and many tourists that reside in Kutchan every year, and is a popular image to use on souvenirs and Niseko-related merchadise. You can walk into any of the supermarkets, trinket stores or retail shops in the area, and you're bound to find something with Jagata-kun printed on it: T-Shirts, omiyage (Japanese souvenir sweets like cookies, crackers or chocolate), bags, pins and even underwear. Quite a few of the seasonal staff who have worked in Niseko over the years will also boast about how much Jagata-kun merch they collected over the 6 months they spent there, and some may even show you a sneaky Jagata-kun tattoo - that's how much we love him here in Niseko.
During festive periods in Winter and matsuri days in the Summer, the community comes together to celebrate some of the shared joys of life in Kutchan: plentiful snowfall, the Christmas spirit, a good Autumn harvest or the annual town holiday. It's also a great time to invite the town mascot Jagata-kun and bring smiles to the faces of both children and adults. If you're in Niseko for Yukitopia (late January/early February) or the Kutchan Jaga Festival in Summer, there's a very good chance you can spot Jagata-kun, so make sure you get to see him! You may also be able to spot Jagata-kun's girlfriend (or sister, it's never been confirmed), Jagako-chan. She's Jagata-kun's right-hand lady with a passion for snowboarding and wears a pink beanie and bow.
Jagata-kun isn't the only mascot you'll find in Japan - almost every town in the country has developed a mascot to help promote the unique aspects of their area and draw tourists in based on their cuteness and/or interesting design. Check out the other mascots of nearby towns in Hokkaido!
Hanazono - Kamonohashi
Niseko Town - Anniky and Nicky
These mascots are twin spotted woodpeckers (or akagera in Japanese) that promote nearby Niseko Town.
Rankoshi - Rabu-chan
Rabu-chan (or Love-chan) is a little child mascot with a kobushi magnolia for hair, which is a species of flower native to Japan and common in Rankoshi. Every year, Rabu-chan appears at JR Sapporo station to promote Rankoshi rice.
Makkari - Yurineh-san
Yurineh-san is a lily bulb mascot that is a play on words with yurine (Japanese for lily bulb) and neh-san (an affectionate Japanese term for a young woman). Lily bulbs are the local delicacy of Makkari, so it's the perfect fit for their mascot.
Kimobetsu - Usapara-kun
Usapara-kun is a very popular mascot in central Hokkaido, that represents the town of Kimobetsu. You can see him as you stop in at the busy Nakayamatoge roadside stop on the way to Sapporo from Niseko. He is a bunny with asparagus ears and loves to eat the fried potato balls at Nakayamatoge.
Jozankei Onsen - Kappon
Kappon is a cute frog-like mascot that represents Jozankei onsen, just outside Sapporo. He wears a flower shaped towel on his head and always sits in a wooden bucket - he likes to bring the onsen with him!
Noboribetsu - Tomu-kun
Iwanai - Taramaru
Taramaru is a pollock fish with a red headband, black boots and an asparagus staff. Since Iwanai is on the coast and is home to the pollock longline fishery, it makes sense to have a pollock as its mascot!