Hakuba Valley, Japan: A Mountain Paradise

With 11 alpine resorts and 133km of skiable area between them, you’ve got an abundance of choice at Hakuba Valley.

Surfers talk about chasing the perfect wave and endless summer. For skiers and snowboards alike, it’s the frigid air, snow-covered mountains and fresh powder that gets us excited. In mid-February last year my partner and I went in search of our own winter wonderland, and we found it. Nestled deep in Japan’s northern alps, we’d arrived at Hakuba Valley.

THE SLOPES

In the heart of Hakuba Valley you’ll find the largest ski resort, Happo-One, which was a venue for the 1998 Winter Olympics – the Downhill and Super G events took place. The resort accommodates all levels of skier/snowboarder, and includes 23km of skiing area, 13 lifts and 25 trails – the longest run is 3.3km. We ventured to Happo-One right after a powder dump and thoroughly enjoyed the variety of slops available. There’s an even mix of beginner and advanced runs, which made the mountain enjoyable for us both. It was extremely low visibility at the summit on the day we visited, but I was told the views are spectacular. Be warned, it can get quite busy (especially on the weekends), so it’s worth exploring some of the smaller resorts in the area during peak times. Night skiing is available at the Nakiyama ski area.

To the south you’ll find Hakuba Goryu and Hakuba 47, which share both a mountain and a single lift ticket between them. Combined, the skiable area is larger than Happo-One at 26km, with 19 lifts and 23 trails – the longest run is 6km. There’s a variety of trails that’ll suit both beginners and advanced skiers alike – including open tree areas, night skiing, a big terrain park and a much smaller snow park. One of our favourites was the leisurely green-run from the mountain peak right down to the base of the mountain at Hakuba 47. For those looking for a challenge, the Adventure Course should fill that need. Word of advice: don’t drink the Coronas sold at the start of the trail and then attempt it. Yes, I’m speaking from experience…

A 30-minute bus ride north of Happo-One and you’ll reach Tsugaike Kogen Ski Resort. At its base is a 1.2km-wide gentle slope which is very beginner (and child) friendly. We visited this resort late in the week after tackling both Happy-One and Goryu/Hakuba 47 and my partner loved the easy runs and incredible views on offer at the base area. The experienced skier isn’t left out in the cold either. Take the gondola to the mountain peak and you’ll find several intermediate and advanced trails on offer. Tsugaike Kogen includes 20km of ski area, 21 lifts and 11 trails – the longest run is 4.9km. Night skiing is available top to bottom – that’s 5km of downhill!

Another 20 minutes bus ride north from Tsugaike Kogen and you’ll reach Cortina Ski Resort. This resort is known for its deep powder, steep slopes and relaxed off-piste skiing policy. There’s also the remarkable ski-in/ski-out Green Plaza Hotel at the base of the mountain bowl. Cortina is a smaller resort, with 13km of ski area, 7 lifts and 16 marked trails – the longest run is 3.5km. Due to its unique features, it can get very busy on weekends. I’m not much of an off-piste skier, but enjoyed cutting the corners of a few trails and skiing in and out of the trees. Night skiing is also available.

Because of our limited time we couldn’t visit the remaining six resorts, but next time we’re at Hakuba Valley we’ll be sure to tick them off our bucket list.

ALL MOUNTAIN AREA PASS

During our stay, we took advantage of the Hakuba Valley All Mountain Area Pass, which gave us access to 9 of the 11 resorts – Yanaba Snow Park and Hakuba Sanosaka Snow Resort aren’t currently included. Many of the resorts have automated lift ticket scanners, which meant we didn’t need to line up each morning for a ticket, and the lift queues were processed quickly as a result. As a bonus, for the 2017-2018 snow season your activated pass gives you access to free shuttle rides to the other resorts via the HV-1, HV-2 or HV-3 shuttles. Don’t throw out your pass once it expires either; they can be recharged online. If you do recharge, be aware it won’t be activated until you pass through your first lift gate of the day (the HV bus service is only free to activated lift passes).

GETTING AROUND

Each individual resort runs its own shuttle bus, but finding accurate information in online about the route and pick-up/drop-off times that are in English can be a challenge. During our stay, we mostly utilised the Hakuba Valley shuttle bus service to travel between the resorts (free in the 17/18 season if you’ve an All Mountain Pass). If your plan is to visit multiple resorts during your stay, I’d recommend basing yourself in the Happo area as these shuttles run to and from the Hakuba Happo Bus Terminal. We stayed at the Lady Diana & St.Georges Hotel in the Goryu area, which meant additional travel time into Happo before catching a second bus north or south.

OFF THE SLOPES

Japan has a rich cultural heritage, with nothing more so than their ritual visits to the Onsen, or hot springs, for purification. The traditional Onsen we visited was outdoors and had separate male and female bathing areas. Before entering the water you need to fully wash and rinse yourself. Swimsuits or bathers are usually not permitted, and the Onsen we visited was no exception. It’s an extremely relaxing experience – especially after a long day on the slopes – and well worth the visit.

Restaurants serving both local and Western cuisine are scattered throughout Hakuba Valley. I found Japanese food to be both rich and diverse, but when I wanted food from back home I easily found burgers and fries. If you like to party, Echoland is a popular area and well worth the visit.

The Genki Go Night Bus (run from late December to late February) is available for pick-up/drop-off at popular areas in the Happo/Goryu area, but pay attention to the time as it doesn’t run past midnight. A taxi service is available and runs until 1am, but after being left stranded in Echoland for two-hours we steered clear (special thanks to the Aussies who let us share their cab after I tried to commandeer it).

If you need a break from skiing, you can go on a day tour like the Snow Monkey Tour or Matsumoto City Culture Tour. We spent all our time on the slopes so didn’t experience a tour. Stop by the information desk at the Happo Bus Terminal to find out what’s on offer.

GETTING THERE

There are regular flights from Australia’s major airports to Tokyo – Japan’s capital. On our trip, we flew Sydney to Tokyo with All Nippon Airways – one of Japan’s largest airlines – and landed at Haneda International Airport in the early morning. Pay attention to the airport you’re landing at as Tokyo has two major international airports: Haneda and Narita. Also, aim to arrive in the morning so you’ve enough time to travel to Hakuba; it’ll take you a little over half a day, but will depend on your method of transport.

Once you’re on the ground, there are various options to get to Hakuba Valley:

  • Shuttle Bus from the Airport: Between late December and the beginning of March a shuttle bus can pick you up directly from the airport and drop you off at one of three locations in Hakuba Valley. It takes a little over five hours, with one refreshment stop at the half-way point. Shuttles run from both Haneda Airport and Narita Airport. We took the shuttle on our trip. It was a comfortable and relaxing journey up into the mountains. Not to mention getting picked up right outside the airport was extremely convenient.
  • Train/Train/Bus: You can choose to go via train to Tokyo, then ride the Bullet Train (Shinkansen, as the Japanese call them) to Nagano, before catching a bus to Hakuba Valley. It’s considered one of the faster ways get to Hakuba (between three-and-a-half and four hours, depending on your connections and timing). If you’re on an extended stay and purchased a JR Rail Pass it’s a smart way to go. However, I wouldn’t recommend it for first time visitors to Japan. The stress of having to navigate Toyko’s busy public transport after a 10-hour flight (which you didn’t get enough sleep on), plus the language barrier, is enough to ruin anyone’s day. With that said, after a week familiarising ourselves with the Japanese culture and language we felt comfortable taking this route on the return journey.
  • Hire Car: If you have an international driver’s license you can hire vehicles from the airport and drive to Hakuba Valley. It’s not cheap, but it’s another option available to you. Should you choose to drive, be aware that Japan has a zero-tolerance drink driving policy. If you drink, you cannot drive.

WHEN TO GO

Hakuba Valley has quite a long ski season, beginning in late November and ending in early May. With that said, the HV bus shuttles only run from December through to mid-March, while the direct airport shuttle runs from late December to the beginning of March. If you’re planning to visit multiple resorts on your visit, January and February are an ideal time to go.

WRAPPING UP

Hakuba Valley has world class snow and excellent (and growing) infrastructure to support the visitors coming to the area each season. Off the slopes, Japan’s rich culture and language was a wonder to discover. If you know little Japanese, there’s no need to be concerned; we made do with Google Translator and a lot of pointing at maps. If you’re thinking of taking a ski trip, Hakuba Valley in Japan should definitely be on your shortlist.