How well do you know Hakuba? You probably know this Nagano town sits at the base of the majestic Northern Alps. You may even know Happo One was one of the host venues 1998 Nagano Winter But did you know the town has an 80-year ski history and Happo Village was once known as Hosono?
Text and Photos by Tetsuya Maruyama, Hotel Taigaku-kan
Skiing was first introduced to the Hakuba area from the outside world about 80 years ago. The first skiers from abroad walked and climbed the magnificent mountains around Hakuba since there were no lifts. Neither were there snowcats to groom the slopes, so the conditions were always powder. .
The skis they used back then were something akin to today’s telemark skis, and it was long before anyone imagined snowboarding. Even then, there were powder junkies and there are still photos of skiers hucking jumps.
The Happo One Ski Area opened 50 years ago. The passion of the Hakuba people was matched by the investment of wealthy Tokyo ski aficionados, and soon logs were being brought down from the mountains for the construction of the first wooden single lift.
There were none of today’s hotels, so those coming to ski stayed in real minshuku—the homes of local farmers. It’s probably accurate to say skiing in those days was the privilege of the wealthy class. Photographs from the period often show men skiing in suits and, while they may have been rich, they certainly also very cold.
The latter half of the 1960s saw the arrival of the ski boom in Japan, with the number of skiers rising along with the size of the ski resorts. During the bubble years of the late 1980s, the number of skiers exploded. It was simply expected to wait several hours just to board the gondola.
About the time of the first Gulf War, when there were the first hints of the bubble bursting, some 1.4 million skiers were visiting the Happo One Ski Area annually. Cars couldn’t move in the Echoland area because of the overflow of people onto the streets, with girls in mini-skirts and high heels heading out to the Maharaja disco.
Everyone in Hakuba was doing very well during those days; the town had the highest number of registered foreign cars per capita in the entire country.
The collapse of the bubble economy was matched by a crash in the number of skiers. The 1998 Nagano WInter Olympics saw international competitors and their supporters and organizing staff from around the world coming to Hakuba; but once the Olympics were over, it seemed like no one was left at all, and the investment in the games was a severe blow to Hakuba’s economy.
From 2006, however, there has been a sudden increase in skiers from the Asia-Pacific region—particularly Australia—and Hakuba has once again been transformed into an international resort. For Australians, used to little snow and low mountains, Hakuba must be a pleasant surprise.
On weeknights in January and February, it seems there are only foreigners walking the streets who have their own ways of enjoying a ski holiday. The Japanese style has been a weekend stay of one night with two meals in the hotel, with partying meaning going to the convenience store for a few beers back in the hotel room.
Australians and Europeans, however, seem to enjoy skiing during the day, then going out for some good local food for dinner and ending the night at a bar or club. This has had a strong effect on the local economy.
Yet 80 years ago, who could have imagined this? And in 80 years from now, what will Hakuba be like? Will the mountain be the same? Will the town change? Will we still have the outstanding powder to go out and enjoy? What kind of future do you see?
Local Tips: Fresh mountain air, pure water from melting snow that re-emerges after thousands of years in natural hot springs, this is what you’ll find in Happo. It’s just an hour drive to the Sea of Japan so you can enjoy sushi made from freshly caught fish, best with some delicious saké. There are events and live performances in bars and clubs nearly every night in winter and lots of activities for the whole family. On the mountain, Hakuba Happo ski resort features huge terrain to ride just on your doorstep as well as the High Cascade Snow Park, a park with something for everyone, from kids to professional riders.
This building was erected in 1852, the latter part of the Edo Period, as the estate of a wealthy merchant. This traditional Japanese house has pounded dirt floors and irori (sunken fireplaces). International travelers can try out a number of Japanese traditions, including making soba noodles, tsukemono (pickles), pounding mochi (glutinous rice cakes), folding origami and other arts handed down through generations. The restaurant within the building serves dishes with locally grown vegetables, sansai (mountain vegetables) collected around Hakuba, local saké and fresh fish from the Sea of Japan. Tel: (0261)75-5008
Happo Onsen Mimizuku no Yu
Known as a bijin no yu (beautiful woman’s onsen), this onsen has the highest alkaline level in Japan, which makes your skin very smooth. The view of the Hakuba Miyama mountain range from the spacious rotenburo (open-air bath) is an unforgettable experience. Entry ¥500. Tel: (0261)72-6542
Shio no Michi Onsen Kurashita no Yu
The source for this onsen comes from waters trapped deep beneath the earth some 25 million years ago; it emerges from the ground clear, but turns brown on contact with air. The Shio no Michi (salt road) Onsen name is reflected in the slightly salty taste of the water, which is made brown by a high concentration of iron, something that also makes it perfect for warming up after a cold day in the snow. Relax and enjoy the view of the mountains and the starry sky. Tel: (0261)72-7989
Azekura Sanso Rotenburo
This onsen is a huge half-cask set on a deck in the middle of the woods. It can welcome up to 10 guests at a time and, best of all, you reserve the onsen for your own private use: ¥2,000 per hour, regardless of how many are in your party. Tel: (0261)72-5238
Hosono Suwa Jinja
This historic Shinto shrine is not far from the Happo-one gondola station. It’s home to a giant tree some 1,000 years old that’s 10 meters in diameter and 41 meters tall, as well as 30 other massive conifers. Carefully guarded by the people of Happo for centuries, the shrine is beautifully illuminated at night for the first visit of the New Year.
Hakuba Anshin Tofu
Soybeans from the Shinshu area—the old name for this part of Nagano—and natural Hakuba spring water are used to make this delicious handmade tofu with a characteristic rich flavor. Two types—kinu and momen—both ¥250. The company also produces Jinenja Tofu, an original product made with natural yamaimo (yam) from southern Shinshu (¥400). Try the tofu ice cream and parfait, as well as drinks made from soymilk. Only available at Mame no Tei, located next door to Mimizuku no Yu. Tel: (0261)72-9800
HAPPO LOCAL VOICES
David Enright, Founder, Evergreen Outdoor Adventures
Canadian David Enright first came to Hakuba in 1994, teaching English and working for the Hakuba Ski Patrol—and then he fell in love with the area.
“The mountains and snow conditions are great here,” he says. “Big mountains and lots of snow—without a doubt, I think it’s the best place in Japan.”
David’s a real powder junkie who loves skiing in the backcountry. “I want to share the fun of the mountains and mountain culture,” he says.
His recommended winter activity: “During our night snowshoeing tour, we head out trekking in the woods, then stop midway to enjoy some hot wine and chocolate fondue. It’s the perfect winter dessert tour,” he says.
Charles Lawrence, Wine Consulting
The Vendemia Wine Bar is owned and operated by Charles Lawrence. The Wyoming, USA, native was living and surfing in Kyushu when he first visited Hakuba in 1998 and was amazed by the snow.
“I couldn’t believe snow like this fell in Japan,” he says. “I quickly made up my mind and moved straight out here.” After living and boarding in Nagano for a few years, he opened his wine bar in 2007.
What’s the attraction of Hakuba for him? “Great snow conditions, fantastic mountains and a great lifestyle with lots of good friends,” he says with a big smile.
A visit to the wine bar will get you some good information on the town and the mountains and, of course, naturally, some great wines.
Matt Dunn, Owner, Morino Lodge
Scottish native Matt Dunn began his Nagano experience in 2002 in true ski bum style, living in his car while enjoying the powder.
“I’ve traveled all over the world, but Hakuba is where I decided to live,” he says. “And I think this is the best backcountry mountain.”
Matt feels, unlike other ski areas in Nagano, there is a real local community here even in the off-season. His Hakuba recommendation: “I encourage everyone to visit Hoshino Suwa Jinja.” It’s a sacred place, with its giant, 1,000-year-old sugi tree. The shrine is beautiful on New Year’s when it’s lit up at night, and you also get an aomamori (amulet) when you visit.
“If you want sushi, you need to visit Kikyo-ya. The master is friendly, and it’s a great place for picking up local information. Of course, I can’t forget Morino Lodge.”
Masuo Ohta, Owner, Sushi Kikyo-ya
With 33 years in Hakuba, sushi chef Masuo Ohta is now truly a local. “I opened my restaurant 26 years ago, but I started getting foreign customers about five years ago, and today it’s almost all foreigners in winter. I get guests from all over the world, but I never really studied languages. I have memorized greetings in almost every language, so at least I can welcome them on their way in and thank them on the way out.
“What really makes me happy is that many foreign guests enjoy coming to my restaurant so much, they come back nearly every night.
“My advice for visitors to Hakuba is to go places where you can meet and talk with the ‘master’ of the restaurant and other guests, so you can get to know more about Japan.
“Tonkatsu, gyoza and okonomiyaki seem to be popular for Australians. Other than that, be sure to enjoy the onsen.”
Local Guide Books
Hakuba Resort Guide Book is an English-language guide to Hakuba. This free publication includes a map of Hakuba Town, useful Japanese phrases, a guide to ski and onsen etiquette and an event guide. Pick up a copy at local restaurants, hotels and shops.
Hakuba Essential Guide is another free publication created for international visitors, with a range of information on Hakuba restaurants, bars and other topics. Available at the Hakuba Information Center and Hakuba hotels.
The Genki Go Fuyu Monogatari night shuttle bus (¥200) travels through the main areas of Hakuba and is a convenient way to get to restaurants, shops and bars. The Hakuba Resort Bus was made possible by a cooperative effort of local bars to help people get out for a drink without having to drive. The shuttle bus covers the Happo, Wadano, Hakuba Station and Goryu areas. Operating hours: 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Hakuba Kanko Taxi: Tel: (0261) 72-2327, Alps Dai-Ichi Kotsu: Tel: (0261) 72-2221.
Hakuba Tourist Office
All kinds of information on Hakuba activities, events, restaurants and more. In front of the Happo One Ski Jump. Tel: (0261) 72-7100.
Happo Information Center
Provides information on Happo One Ski Area and other area resorts, activities… Internet service also available for a small fee. Tel: (0261) 72-3066.
From Tokyo Station to Nagano Station on the Nagano Shinkansen (Approx. one hour, 40 minutes) then by bus from Nagano Station to Hakuba (Approx. one hour).
Keio Express Bus: Express bus service from near Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to Hakuba. Departs Tokyo every two hours; travel time approx. four hours, 30 minutes. One-way fare ¥4,700. Tel: (03) 5376-2222.
Alpico Bus: Regular bus service from Nagano Station to Hakuba (Approx. one hour). One-way fare ¥1,500. Tel: (0261) 72-3155.
Helicopter Service: If you want to get there in a hurry, call the Momi no ki Hotel to arrange a six-person helicopter service from Narita Airport to Hakuba (Approx. one hour, 10 minutes). One-way fare ¥500,000. Tel: (0261) 72-5001.
This is the biggest supermarket in the area with groceries as well as reasonable prices on Hakuba souvenirs, liquor and clothing. There is also a bakery and ¥100 shop. Tel: (0261) 72-5133.