3 March, 2017
Travel

Hakuba: A Japanese Winter Wonderland That’s Closer Than you Think

3 March, 2017

Hit the Slopes in Hakuba!

 

If you love to ski or snowboard (or you simply want to experience a bit of winter wonderland) – here’s everything you need to know for a smooth and seamless trip to Hakuba, Japan.

Getting There

We chose Hakuba (where the skiing events from the 1998 Nagano Olympics were held) over Japan’s other, larger ski paradise (Niseko) because it’s easily accessible by train and car from Tokyo. Niseko is on the island of Hokkaido, which requires a separate flight. I will always choose the non-flying option, particularly since Japan’s trains are some of the best in the world and a true travel pleasure.

After landing in Tokyo we took the Narita Express to Tokyo Station (which is also where the bullet train – Shinkansen – for Nagano departs from). Check out HyperDia.com for train timings; you can usually book your tickets the day before or even a couple hours before departure.

If you want to avoid schlepping your ski or snowboard equipment through train stations, Japan offers a number of luggage forwarding services that you can use at either the airport or Tokyo Station.

We arrived to Tokyo Station at about 7 p.m., so we opted to do an overnight in Tokyo (world class sushi for dinner? Twist my arm why don’t you). We stayed at the Shangri-La Tokyo, which is adjacent to the station and offers a super-convenient (and complimentary) meet-and-greet service where a bellman meets you at the train platform, helps you with your bags, and leads you through busy Tokyo Station right to the hotel. They also helped book our bullet train tickets and escorted us to our train when we departed.

The bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano ranges from 80-100 minutes (depending how many stops you make). From Nagano Station, most people opt to take the 90-minute shuttle bus to Hakuba, which costs ¥1,500 per person, each way. Unsure about the bus, we opted to take a private taxi from the station for ¥17,000. It only saved us about 15 minutes and given the difference in cost, I’d definitely opt for the bus next time around. Our accommodation was very helpful in arranging the transport beforehand, however.

Once in Hakuba, our accommodation provided a handy shuttle service with stops at multiple mountains, along with a daily afternoon van to the supermarket and town. It’s also easy to arrange taxis around town; nowhere seems to be more than 10 or 15 minutes away!

hakuba mountains skiing

Gear

Although I grew up skiing, my gear is still sitting halfway around the world in my parent’s basement. Our accommodation recommended renting from Rhythm Snow Sports, one of the biggest ski and snowboard equipment rental places in Japan that happens to be a five minute walk from the hotel (they also provide free pick-up and drop-off when you go to rent your gear).

From Rhythm we were able to rent skis, poles, boots, helmets, jackets and snow pants. We were not able to rent goggles, hats or gloves, so be prepared to buy your own or borrow some beforehand. With the amount of snow we got during our stay, goggles are a MUST. Rhythm also rents out apres-ski boots, another mandatory item given the massive snow drifts everywhere. Luckily, I ordered both beforehand from American outdoor outfitter LL Bean (which ships free globally on orders over $100).

There are lots of gear and equipment shops throughout Hakuba so you can always pick something up in a pinch at a decent price, though things were still more expensive than what I’m used to in the U.S.

hakuba ski chalet

Accommodation

We stayed at Phoenix Chalets, as recommended by the villa specialists at TheLuxeNomad.com. We wanted to have the space to spread, and it was wonderful having amenities like a fully-equipped kitchen, washing machine and dryer. Chalets are available in two- and three-bedroom configurations (sleeping up to 6 people); on the ground floor were the bedrooms, full baths, and a drying room for all our gear. Upstairs was the living room with flat-screen TV (and Netflix!), the kitchen and another half-bath. Our chalet would have been perfect for a group of 6 (and it’s way more economical that way, too!).

The villas are on the premises of The Phoenix Hotel, four-star accommodation with a well-regarded restaurant (note that we had to pay ¥3,000 per person for breakfast) and an on-site steam room. The complex is in the Wadano Woods area of Hakuba, about a 10-minute walk from Happo-One (pronounced “Happo-Oh-Nay”), which is one of the largest mountains in the area. There are lots of restaurants (mostly set within other hotels) within walking distance – one night we stumbled right next door for yummy homemade pizzas at Morino Lodge. If you want to go further afield, the hotel is super helpful in making restaurants reservations and arranging taxis for you.

In fact, the outstanding service was the highlight of our stay at Phoenix Chalets, whether it was the manager (a lovely Aussie lady named Sally) arranging our transfers and recommending equipment rental and ski schools beforehand over email, or the team dropping us off for lunch in town on the day we arrived. As aforementioned the hotel also has a daily afternoon shuttle to take you to the local supermarket (hot tip: don’t expect to find any cereal there!), and there’s a morning and afternoon shuttle that makes multiple stops at Happo-One (just five minutes away by car) and other mountains along with your gear.

Every request was handled quickly and with a smile, and it made our stay a total pleasure. If you want to take a break from skiing the hotel can also arrange fun activities like a snow monkey tour, sushi-making class, or massage – I look forward to returning so we can do more of these things next time!

hakuba skiing chairlift

The Skiing and Snowboarding

I honestly feel like I barely scraped the tip of the proverbial iceberg here! The Hakuba Valley comprises nine different ski resorts with over 200 trails and 135 lifts. We only made it to two of them! With some of the longest runs in Japan, frequent snowfall that ensures a 10-meter snow base, and otherworldly powder conditions (fondly known as #Japow), Hakuba is fantastic for everyone from beginners to experts. I hadn’t been on the slopes in nearly a decade, and my husband (who grew up in the oh-so flat Midwest) had only skiied a handful of times before, so we definitely took it easy.

On Day 1, at the hotel’s recommendation, we took private lessons with Hakuba Snow Sports School, which is located at the small, family-friendly Iimori area that’s part of Goryu and Hakuba47 (these mountains are all inter-connected, which means one lift ticket can get you around all of them).

My husband and I took a lesson with a Kiwi instructor named Toby, who was equally patient with both of us despite our differing abilities, taking us all over the mountain and giving us individualised instruction. If you’ve never skiied before (or need a major refresher), I’d highly recommend starting off with a private lesson. Hakuba Snow Sports School also charges the same regardless of how many people are in your group (meaning, my husband and I together cost the same as one person).

Iimori was about 10 minutes from Phoenix Chalets; Hakuba Snow Sports School will pick you up with your gear if you take a morning lesson, and they’ll drop you off if you take an afternoon lesson. Otherwise there’s also a shuttle to the hotel, or it’s super easy to take a taxi.

On the second day we decided to check out Happo-One closer to the hotel. With 13 trails and 23 lifts, it’s among the biggest mountains in Hakuba. It also played host to the downhill events at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. The mountain has a lot of good intermediate and advanced terrain, but its beginner slopes are either very short, or else lengthy cat tracks that tend to get quite crowded. My husband, who prefers greens, was a much bigger fan of Iimori.

On the plus side, Happo-One is only about a 10-minute walk from Phoenix Chalets, or it’s easy to have someone at the lodge call you a taxi if you don’t feel like waiting for the shuttle.

Where to Eat & Drink

This was my fourth trip to Japan and, as ever, the food did not disappoint. Whether noshing on ramen or udon noodles slopeside, or eating delicious sushi, or even grabbing a pizza, there is every kind of food available, and it’s all quite delicious. There are also lots of cosy pubs and bars (and even a microbrewery).

For our first lunch we ate at Maeda, a lovely little noodle shop in the heart of Hakuba village. It was really fun to see people walk in in their ski and snowboard boots (the Hakuba Gondola is just about five minutes away on foot).  For dinner on our first night we ate our fill of delicious sushi at Sharaku in the Hakuba Springs Hotel. Because it’s owned by the same group as Phoenix Chalets, we were even able to score free rides to and from the restaurant.

Another night we went up the road in Wadano to Wagyu Kobeya, which serves up delicious Kobe beef that you can cook yourself tableside. I think it’s the first Japanese restaurant I’ve ever been to that was staffed entirely by Australian servers!

On our final night we dined at a tiny restaurant in the lively Echoland neighbourhood, Sakura Ramen. There were just two tables and while the chef laboured away in the kitchen, his adorable toddler daughter played out front near the warm stove. Equally delectable are their famous gyoza dumplings; we loved this charming little spot but it was hard to seek out, as there are actually two other restaurants with the same name in town so make sure you find the right one. The noodles were firm and springy, the broth was delicious, and the egg was absolutely perfectly cooked. It totally hit the spot on a chilly, snowy night.

At the mountains there are plenty of cafes and restaurants both at the base and on the slopes. You’ll find universal ski mountain staples like burgers and fries, along with more regional favorites like noodles, soups, kimchi, and spaghetti bolognese! There’s a great vegetarian restaurant next to Evergreen called Roots Café. One of my favorite treats was a green matcha latte from the café near the Sakka lift.

Hakuba isn’t the wildest town around, but you can definitely find a party if you want to. In Wadano (just down the road from Phoenix Chalets) you’ll find the lively institution The Pub (which I’m pretty sure has its own party bus to shuttle patrons around) and cool live music spot The Rabbit Hole. Echoland is also chock full of drinking spots; a few I’ve heard good things about are Master Braster (a reggae bar!), Q-Tips and Cherry Pub. Echoland is basically one long, charming street with little pockets off to the side. It struck me as a fun and easy place for a pub crawl if you’re so inclined!

I could obviously go on and on raving about this wonderful trip, but what I will say is that you should GO NOW! Crowds majorly die down following Chinese New Year and the Aussie/New Zealand school holidays, but the conditions stay excellent through March and beyond.

Featured image sourced via Pinterest

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