Ski Japan: chasing powder in Hakuba

A couple of months before Christmas last year, over a glass of wine, we got to thinking “wouldn’t it be nice to go snowboarding for Christmas?” Given that it’s 40 degrees in our hometown of Perth at that time of year (and never snows and it doesn’t have mountains), we decided Japan was a better option. After working a season in the snowboarding Mecca of Colorado when I was younger, I’ve always been keen to snowboard in Japan, after hearing many comparisons of the two places. And after boarding Japan, I have to say, I couldn’t choose between the two.

japan snow nagano

The trip:

Normally I organise my own travel, but since we were super tight on time, and a ski holiday is generally more affordable as a package deal, I called my good friend who's a travel agent and very kindly let her do all the work. The whole trip was sorted in under 3 days. The package included flights, transfers, accommodation, board hire and lift passes and came in at around AUD$3,500.

We flew into Tokyo and waited around for an hour or so before a bus took us the five hour trip to Nagano prefecture (where they had the winter Olympics in 1998).  We were dropped at the tourist centre in Hakuba town and half an hour later, the shuttle bus from our hotel arrived. After dropping our bags off, and despite the fact we hadn’t slept for a really long time, we headed straight out to the snowboard rental shop and got all our gear sorted. By the next day, we were ready to hit the slopes.

The snowboarding:

The Hakuba Valley has 11 ski resorts offering all types of different terrain. Our pass gave us access to five of them, but unlike some other resorts, they aren’t all interconnected by slopes or lifts, so you have to get on a free shuttle bus to get from one to the other.

Hakuba is well known for its consistent snow (apparently it gets an average of 11 metres of powder each season) and blue skies. It has 960 hectares of skiable terrain, 135 lifts and at least 9 terrain parks, so there’s something for everyone, no matter what level you’re at.

japan snow nagano

Since we hadn’t snowboarded for an eternity, we decided to get a private lesson on the first day just to iron some of the kinks out. Let’s just say, it wasn’t exactly like getting back on a bike. It took us the whole first day to do anything that even resembled snowboarding, and without the lesson, we probably still would have been on the bunny slopes by the end of the day.

By day three, we got a powder day and we were more than ready for it. There’s nothing in the whole world like carving down a mountain with snow coming down, spilling over the sides of your board like fluffy white cotton wool. We boarded that day until they shut the lifts down, and even then we tried to board across the carpark to the shuttle bus to get us home (with varying degrees of success).

japan snow nagano
japan snow nagano

There was so much to love about boarding Hakuba. Despite the fact it was peak time, most days the runs were not too crowded and we rarely had to queue for the lifts. The place (like most things in Japan) runs like a well oiled machine. There was enough variety in the runs to keep us occupied, including tree runs and jumps. There’s also a really good selection of restaurants on the mountain to stop for lunch or a cup of hot chocolate.

japan snow nagano

Accommodation:

We stayed at the three star Goryukan hotel, and we could not have loved it more. The staff were absolutely lovely, and spoke enough English to communicate pretty well. The staff at the front desk knew absolutely everything about the town of Happo (less than a 10 minute walk), and if they didn’t know, they’d call a friend and ask them.

The view from our room

The view from our room

Our room was absolutely massive by Japanese standards (they’re usually about the size of a postage stamp), with a big, comfortable bed and best of all, a toilet with a heated seat.

I'm not kidding, these things are the BEST!

I'm not kidding, these things are the BEST!

Our room looked straight out over the slopes of Happo One (pronounced Oh-nay), and watching the night skiing from the warmth of our room was both peaceful and entertaining.

OK, this photo was actually taken inside the room

OK, this photo was actually taken inside the room

The hotel also had its own indoor and outdoor onsens (public baths), one for males and females. If you’re going to Japan, make sure you read up on onsen etiquette, but the main tip is that clothes of any sort are definitely not allowed. After a day of snowboarding, lying in a warm onsen, watching the snow come down outside was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Sitting in the outside onsen was also a really special, if somewhat freezing, experience.

We also arranged a massage while we were at the hotel, and I can definitely say it was one of the best I’ve had and really helped with all the muscle stiffness from snowboarding (and falling over).

The Goryukan had a small restaurant onsite, but there are much better options in town, less than a 10 minute walk away. The Happo town is adorable, with a mix of Western, Asian and Japanese restaurants. There are also several traditional Japanese bars serving sake and Japanese beers.

Day trip:

Even the keenest snowboarders need to take a rest, so we took a day off the slopes and went on a snow monkey tour. We stopped first at a beautiful sake brewery for lunch and had an explore around the traditional town with its quaint little shops, the smell of roasted chestnuts drifting down the streets.

Next we stopped in at the 1400 year old Zenko-ji temple, and our guide explained the fascinating history of this national treasure, as well as Japanese Buddhism and Shintoism.

japan

The highlight of the tour was definitely its namesake, the snow monkeys. Even though monkeys are not exactly one of my favourite animals (you can read about my experiences with them on this blog), these little fellas were by far the cutest monkeys I’ve ever seen.

japan

A local family built the monkeys their very own hot springs after getting sick of them commandeering the one they had for their guesthouse. The trek to get to the hot springs is about half an hour on foot along a slippery, narrow path, which is more effort than I ever thought I'd go to to see monkeys!

But these guys are so cute, they were actually worth the trek, and you can see the dozens of monkeys who turn up every day to bathe, play, do bombies, fight and get free food.

japan

The next day, we were back on the slopes and on the last day we got up the courage to take the Gondola up to the top of the mountain. It was absolutely worth the effort, with stunning views from the top. Sitting in the snow, watching the silent, blanketed world below was a surprisingly peaceful experience, given there was very little traffic on the upper slopes.

japan snow

The runs were so much fun and we mostly had them to ourselves. The trail we chose to come down on was fun, but very narrow in parts, which meant it took us forever to get back to the bottom. We briefly ended up on a black run covered in moguls, which is not any fun on a snowboard, but luckily we managed to find an exit pretty quickly and got back on an intermediate run. Once we finally got to the bottom, we were relieved to have made it though our last day without breaking anything, and celebrated with a few well earned Asahis (Japanese beer).

Notes: the ski season is Nagano officially runs from December to May, but if you want the best snow, then February/March is probably the best time to go (although every season is different).

For more info, see: www.snowjapan.com

Nanny warning: snow boarding can be dangerous, so make sure you're insured. For this trip, we used Australian based insurer FastCover, and you can get a quote for a policy here: https://fastcover.com.au/ref?id=Wafaraway