The winter sports capital of Japan’s main island is undoubtedly Hakuba, where no less than 12 ski resorts can be found in close proximity along the Hakuba Valley.
The sheer amount of diversified terrain found in one central location along the Hakuba Valley is unparalleled in Japan. It’s just a four-hour train ride from Shinjuku Station to Hakuba Station in Nagano Prefecture. Here the air is clean, the people friendly and the ski resorts attract alpine skiers, telemark skiers and snowboarders of all levels and ages.
With an average annual snowfall of 11 meters, a long season and some of the best elevation in Japan, there’s enough deep snow, warm beds, tasty food and hot baths to please the whole gang. Hakuba has been attracting winter sports enthusiasts for years so there’s plenty of places to stay to choose from. In fact, the area gained international notoriety as one of the venues for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Hakuba’s long courses were chosen to host alpine events including downhill skiing and slalom events among others.
The Chinese characters for Hakuba can be read two ways: “hakuba” and “shirouma,” both of which mean “white horse.” Hakuba gets its name from the shape of the rocks on the face of Shirouma-dake when the snow melts in spring.
The three peaks of the Hakuba Range—Shirouma-dake, Shakushi-dake and Shirouma Yari-ga-take—belong to the Ushiro-Tateyama Mountain Range, forming a backdrop above the ski resorts on the west side of Hakuba Valley.
Walter Weston, considered to be the father of alpinism in Japan, said in 1915 the Japanese Alps have “picturesque peaks and romantic valleys.” The beauty of the Japanese Alps is still apparent today.
The mountains in Hakuba are on par with the resorts in Colorado where I lived for four years during university days seven years ago. Having skied many of the state’s resorts, the snow in Hakuba compares to, if not surpasses, the best “Champaign powder” of the Rocky Mountains.
Most Japanese people to whim I have talked and who have skied Colorado and Hakuba agree, although North Americans who haven’t been to Hakuba generally shake their heads in disbelief and say, “No way!”
The overnight bus from Shinjuku leaves Friday at 10:30 p.m. arriving at the Happo-One bus terminal at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday—and I’m usually on it. There are more comfortable ways of getting to Hakuba, but to my friends and me, it’s a cheap alternative and a small sacrifice for fresh tracks on Saturday morning before the crowds arrive.
To stay warm, we stock up on portable pocket warmers available at pharmacies and convenience stores in Japan. These handy pouches heat up after a quick shake, and a couple tucked into your gloves or snowboard pants will keep you warm all day. We also grab some hot drinks from the vending machine while waiting for the gondola to open at Goryu Toomi.
After passing the three resorts near Lake Aokiko on your way into Hakuba from Omachi, you will find Goryu Toomi Ski Resort, the first of the central Hakuba ski resorts. The resort has terrain for all levels as well as mogul runs for skiers and a steep 35-degree section. The Family Iimori Area is, as its name suggests, great for families, with gentle slopes and massive four-meter balloons in the shapes of cartoon characters.
On this day, forty-five cms. of fresh snow had fallen overnight and, when we arrived, the sun was shining as I breathed in the crisp air, snowboard in hand, waxed and ready to go. By the time we finished our first run, we were covered from helmet to boot in powder and had smiles from ear to ear.
The snow and the terrain at Goryu is excellent. On weekends and holidays from January to March, the two chairlifts near the gondola, at the base of the mountain, open at 6:30 a.m. for early skiing. The same two lifts feature night skiing from 6 to 9:30 p.m. from the end of December to the end of March.
Just for fun, a Japanese-American friend and I decided to rent a “Snowscoot” from a rental shop across the street from Goryu’s Escal Plaza (\2,500). A Snowscoot is kind of like a seatless bicycle built for snow. You stand on the main ski deck and hold onto the handlebars connected to a front deck for steering.
Getting on and off the chairlift is a little tricky the first time, but you get used to it, and falling is half the fun. A safety strap with Velcro attaches to your boot and ensures your Snowscoot won’t race down the hill without you. We ended up taking turns riding the Snowscoot for half the day, which is all the time you need to enjoy it.
After lunch, we made our way over to Hakuba 47, a separate ski resort connected to Goryu Toomi but sharing a common lift pass. Hakuba 47 has a gondola, and 30 percent of its terrain is for beginners. There are plenty of runs from which to choose, as well as a big snowboard park with one of Japan’s larger half pipes.
“Forty-Seven” is also a great resort for intermediate to advanced levels and where most locals ride, since they offer season passes with “Early Bird” discounts if you purchase them in October or November.
We soon met up with some travelers I’d met the weekend before. They’d been taking runs all morning at “47.” At the gondola, a lift operator asked us in fluent English, “You guys aren’t planning on going out-of-bounds, are you?”
“No, of course not,” I replied. Just because we all have helmets and daypacks, doesn’t mean we’re going to break the Japanese ski code.
“But you guys are absolutely covered in snow,” she said.
“We’ve just had a great run!” we proclaimed.
The liftie smiled and wished us a good day, as we settled into the gondola. We were soon flashing down the slopes again, lapping up the snow.
After returning to our lodging, we headed out to the pub at the plush Mominoki Hotel, which sometimes has DJs and live music, but not this night. So, instead, we headed to Echoland, an area between Hakuba 47 and Happo-One to check out bar 902 (“Kyu-maru-ni”) where DJs also spin. Although Hakuba has plenty of places to relax and have a quiet evening, we’re out until 2 a.m. and rise at 7 to get back on the mountain.
Early Sunday, we go to Happo-One. The bottom half of the mountain is a great place for beginners. Ski, snowboard and even telemark lessons can are available in Japanese for a reasonable price at the ski school in Nakiyama. Evergreen Outdoor Center, based in the Wadano area, offers ski and snowboard lessons in English, plus a variety of activities in winter.
We go straight to the top of the resort where advanced riders will find one of Japan’s largest lift-accessed ski areas above the alpine line. All morning we float through waist-deep powder with snow blasting up at our faces during turns.
There are some good restaurants on the mountain at “Happo,” including an easy-going Thai restaurant, at the base of Nakiyama, called Bangkok-ya and run by a local telemarker. If you have money in your pocket, there’s a Virgin Café on top of the Gurato Quad Chairlift, and Uncle Steven’s is an adequately priced Tex-Mex restaurant and located down the street from the gondola.
After calling it a day, we decide to go over to Zen, a well-known izakaya near Echoland that has a great eggplant dish sautéed in miso. There is also a reggae bar in the area called Master Blaster.
A few doors down from Hakuba Station, Gravity Worx is another local favorite with great pizza and pasta, international wines and delicious cook-to-order western dishes with English-speaking staff. It’s also a good place to find info on surfing in Japan.
Non Jaya is another large izakaya in Hakuba, and there is also word of a “yurt” bar being set up on the slopes at Goryu this season.
No ski trip in Japan is complete without an onsen (hot spring bath), as it is the perfect way to end a day. We retreat to Mimizuku-no-yu, an onsen with breathtaking views of the Hakuba mountains from the rotenburo (outdoor bath). I soak my muscles and enjoy the view, thinking about these mountains.
Entering the indoor bath filled with steam, I can’t see more than a meter in front of me. When I open a can of cold beer, I hear an old Japanese guy murmur, “Umasou, ne” (“That sounds delicious.”). I’m not thinking about the bus I have to take back to Tokyo in two hours; I’m not thinking about my work week; I’m just appreciating the friendships and memories I’ve made in Hakuba and looking forward to coming back.
Hakuba is not the most convenient place to get to by train, but from Shinjuku Station take the "Azusa Express” to Hakuba Station (3 hours, 53 minutes, ¥8,070). Some trains require a transfer in Matsumoto and/or Omachi.
You can also go from Tokyo Station to Nagano Station by bullet train (1 hour, 40 minutes, ¥7,970 one way). From Nagano Station, take the bus to Happo Bus Terminal. It's a five-minute walk to Happo-One Gondola. (45 minutes, ¥1,400, www.alpico.co.jp).
If you are driving, take the Chuo Expressway to Toyoshina Interchange and then take Route 148 through Omachi toward Hakuba. Buses are also available from Shinjuku Station (4 ½ hours, ¥8,500 – ¥10,500, www.alpico.co.jp).
Otari Village is located north of Hakuba on Route 148. Tsugaike-Kogen Ski Resort, Hakuba Norikura Ski Resort and Hakuba Cortina Ski Resort all close by, and the village is famous for its hot springs. Otari has 10 onsen, including a village-operated open-air bath in the mountains (Otari Hot Springs). The Oami Fire Festival takes place each year deep in the mountains with drums and dancing on the second Saturday of February. Trains run infrequently, so it’s best to go by car. You can also take a taxi from Hakuba to get around.
CROSS-COUNTRY (NORDIC) SKIING
Hakuba also features some cross-country ski (Nordic) courses for those who enjoy sliding on the flats. Hakuba Minekata has a cross-country ski trail that offers great views of Hakuba's mountains. Hakuba SnowHarp, located at Sanosaka, has three courses, each five kilometers long, and rental equipment is available. Close to Tsugaike Kogen is another 5K course. Rentals available at Spicy for a full day (\2,625).
Tsugaike Kogen Skiing Ground （栂池高原スキー場）
Place: Hakuba, Nagano / 長野県白馬
Fee: ¥9,500（※リフト券料金は含まず Unguided, does not include lift ticket／ガイドなし）
Trail Length：10-14 kms. Level Required：Beginner to intermediate／初中級者向け
Date: Mid-March to early April, late April to early May（３月中旬〜４月上旬、４月下旬〜５月上旬）
Capacity： 400 people
Contact： Tsugaike Kogen Tourism Board（栂池高原観光協会）
W: www.tsugaike.gr.jp（Japanese）T: (0261) 83-2515
Note: You could also invest in an avalanche safety course and get back country gear since hiking up the same ski field is free.
Places to Stay
Grove Inn Skala W: www.janis.or.jp/users/skala/ T: (0261) 72-4325
Hakuba Alps Backpackers W: www.hakubabackpackers.com T: (0261) 75-4038
Hakuba Powder Lodging W: www.hakubapowderlodging.com T: (E) 090-1147-8741 (J) 090-1147-9079
Ski Japan Holidays: W: www.japanspecialists.com T: (0261) 72-6663
Lodge Shirogane W: www.geocities.com/lodge_shirogane/ T: (0261) 82-2388
Mominoki Hotel W: www.mominokihotel.com T: (0261) 72-5001
Monkey Rider W: www.monkeyrider.com.au T:
Morino Lodge W: www.morinolodge.com T: 080-3127-1878 / 090-9380-8817
Petit Hotel Schanze W: www2u.biglobe.ne.jp/~schanze/ T: (0261) 83-2421
Powderhouse W: www.powderhouse.jp T: (0261) 75-3343
Snowbeds W: www.snowbedsjapan.com T: (0261) 72-5242
Yamago Snow Lover’s Club W: www.5yama5.com T: (E) 090-6511-0792 (J) 090-6513-5578
Yamano Hotel W: www.janis.or.jp/users/yamano-h/ T: (0261) 72-8311
Evergreen Outdoor Center Evergreen has ski and snowboard lessons in English, and childcare on and off the slopes for young children. Inquire about snowshoe tours and avalanche safety courses and more. W: www.evergreen-outdoors.com T: (0261) 72-5150
Hakuba Outdoor Sports Club HOSC offers snowshoe and cross-country ski tours, snow rafting and a “fun ski” school. W: http://hakuba.lion-adventure.com T: (0261) 72-5061
Hakuba Village www.vill.hakuba.nagano.jp
Hakuba Pow www.hakubapow.com
Tracks Bar www.tracksbar.com