Japanuary – Hakuba

The first in a series of 4 blog posts from Japan for Ski Club Great Britain

Stepping off the plane in Tokyo after a comfortable 10 hour skip north from NZ is like shutting your eyes on earth and opening them again only to see Mars. Our mixed group of Japan veterans and virgins left a balmy dry kiwi summer to embark on a shared adventure for what we were sure was to be everything but what we expected. That was a very good assumption to start with.

Ninja Bar – Asakusa, Tokyo

Japan can conjure fear in many travellers with the threat of the language barrier, size of population, scary cuisine and earthquakes. I can safely say from my hotel room in magical Hakuba that all those worries are unfounded. In fact it’s true. I have fallen a little in love.

We skipped through customs at Narita airport with ease, made a beeline (with the help of a lot of English signage!) to the bag drop desk that would whisk our main luggage and skis on to Hakuba where we would meet it the next day. The no fuss process and now light over night bags had us more than frothing to step out into the mammoth giant that is Tokyo (a mere 36.8 million people as a movie kindly informed us on the plane).

Shibuya, Tokyo

But movies, stats and other peoples stories can never quite inject you with the wonder and slightly weird edge that you feel looking out the window at a place so modern but so different from home. We spent the evening training our taste buds with exotic Japanese food at the aptly named “Ninja Bar” topped off with hot sake to hammer out our jet lag. With half a day before our Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano we tested our navigation skills with the Tokyo train system and found that the looping Yamanote Line was super tourist friendly, lots of English signage and easy to understand pictures! With all senses firing we absorbed ourselves fully in the Tokyo madness of people, fashion, traffic and general craziness. We had arrived in the beating heart of Japan and it was loud!

Hotel at base of Cortina Ski Area, Hakuba, Nagano

With the dreams of dry Japanese powder wafting through our minds we boarded our Shinkansen (bullet train) for Nagano and sliced through the Tokyo outer suburbs and towns watching the shadowy tree clad mountains draw closer by the second. With a quick transfer from train to shuttle we were then on our way to Hakuba in the drawing darkness of late afternoon.

Now this is when the story really starts. The Hakuba valley is host to 10 ski areas within 30 minutes of each other, with small town centres surrounded by farmland and scattered around the base areas of the resorts. Unlike the somewhat rolling slopes of Niseko up north, Hakuba hugs high tree clad mountains and the bare rugged tops of the Japanese Alps. Majestic was the word that constantly sprung to mind.

Our first day was probably typical. We set off on a short 25 minute shuttle ride from our fantastic Hakuba Tokyu Hotelenroute to Hakuba Cortina ski area. With no doubt in my mind I can honestly say that place plays host to one of the most impressive and unusual hotels I have ever seen!

Two lifts up and we scarcely skied 200 metres of piste before tearing blindly into the trees, a bit of a big ask for the first day of skiing, but the promise of pow had as acting on impulse. Powder has been explained and described to death and everyone has their favourite spots. For me it’s Japan all the way. And at that moment, Hakuba owned every snowy fibre in my body.

Me giving it a go!

We all were spat out of the trees back onto the piste at the bottom, some a little whiter than when they went in, screaming thighs and heaving lungs and all with a crazed glint in their eye that meant this trip had only just begun. Set up with the frothy, icing sugar light pow we spent the rest of the day adventuring some amazing open tree runs with exciting undulating terrain, pillows and ridges to play on.

Our dreams had been verified for the first time and the only way to top it off was to suck it up and head for the much talked about onsen in the hotel.

Yes you do get naked. Completely starkers with not only your friends (separate male and female!) but any other visitors who might be around. It’s strange and you begin by scrambling to cover all your “important” bits with the tiny “modesty” towel that you are allowed to take in. But let me tell you, and I speak as a somewhat prude and round kiwi girl, once you get in amongst the steam, sink into the magically silky hot water and take in the snowy slopes that you have shredded all day, you will quickly fall in love with the whole process. Since our first we have had no less than one onsen a day and have grown to relish the ritualistic relaxation of the whole process. Getting nude with my buddies is just a non-event now!

Backcountry accessed from the top of Happo One Ski Area, Hakuba

The magic of Hakuba continued for another two days with the sun coming out and giving us the rare opportunity to take in the winter views of the whole valley. Happo One put on her best for us and we decided to take on the shining white summit and back bowls with Canadian guide Dave from Evergreen Outdoor Centre. We were presented with alpine terrain and views that are perhaps a secret to many visiting Japan but this was what back country skiers dreams are made of.

Our time here didn’t aid our waistlines in the fact that the food has been totally and utterly delicious. Chicken Katsu with pickle and miso soup, soba noodles and tempura, “self cook” Okonomiyaki and fish taco’s at a western style pub. There is something for everyone and the most valuable lesson learnt is that it the scarier it looks, generally the yummier it is!

The reality of ski trips is that as much as that brain wants to ski at every opportunity, the body will most likely go on strike and a little R & R is called for. We sort this in the form of a visit to the ski jumps that were host to the Nagano Olympics in 1998, eating in amazing local café’s and restaurants and a 45 minute drive into the hills to visit a luxurious riverside onsen which blew our minds with it’s beauty and serenity.

Throw in some local wildlife spotting with the crazy looking deer/goat combo of the Kamoshika and fuzz-ball snow monkeys hanging from trees, it begun to transform into the exotic snowy adventure we had hoped for.

I think the three days spent in Hakuba have left us feeling totally overwhelmed. To an extent we all expect to meet that legendary pow, and that we did. But the beauty of the mountains, the charm and easily accessible culture of the township and the utterly incredible hospitality of the people completely blew us away.

Next stop Shiga Kogen! Stay posted…

Words by Julia Atkinson
Photos by Camilla Stoddart

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