Wherever you are on a ski holiday – there’s always that annoying guy at the end of the bar who’s been to Japan. You’ll have just finished the monstrous run down from the top of the highest peak and be feeling on top of the world ad he'll give you the nod of someone who has done one better.
Now living a stone’s throw from Japan, we took the opportunity to see if any of those envy-rays we beamed at him went to waste. In short; they didn’t.
I’ll try to avoid the comparisons but Japan is smaller, lower and has less après-ski. To make up for it, there’s onsen, ramen, Japanese fashion, tempura and outstanding service.
… and amazing snow. It falls from the sky like balls of polystyrene box padding. Bashed snow is coated with a layer of silken powder in the time it takes to go around. Un-bashed runs come with the biggest warning; the powder is so deep you’ll be stuck for hours if you fall.
The views are breathtaking. Rolling, snow dusted hills on the opposite side of the valley are coated in a graduated layer of cross-shaded trees. Rather than endless scapes of mountains, the low altitude (600-1800m) gives a perspective over a string of dainty villages.
Everything from getting on the ski lift, to the announcements they make with tips for lunch, to the little hat that snowboards wear so they don’t scratch the gondola windows is turned into a pleasurable experience in a way only the Japanese know.
To a foodie one thing is just as important as the snow. It is formidable; steaming ramen and tempura-don for lunch seem at first sacrilege to spaghetti bolognese. Served by beaming chefs with a bowl of smooth miso that’s soon forgotten. Who needs fondue when there’s expert made hot pot, gyoza, tamogoyako and green tea ice cream. Divine. Yes foodie divinity comes at a price, but everything does.
And the prices, coupled with the snow’s accessibility for day trippers means that the evenings are sleepy. After an hour in a steamy public onsen, infinitely better than any amount of stretching, our thoughts turn not to a screaming bar of seasonaires but a glass of sake and a Manga DVD.
Snowboarding in Hakuba; The Guide
Without skiworld to pack us into the snow like sardines, we were booking alone. Thanks to some recent brouhaha between China and Japan, the tickets weren’t in high demand – running around £220 for PVG-NRT-PVG. We’ve heard that’s a steal and the going rate is almost double.
Flying into Tokyo Narita, there’s a 80min coach for Y3000 which runs into Shinjuku. It stops almost directly opposite to the snowbus to Hakuba. This is a Y4700, 4h30 ride directly to Hakuba bus station stopping off at some jap-pristine service stations selling hilariously priced kit kats. They run pretty frequently though best to call ahead and reserve (in Japanese).
On the snow bus - look out for the lake on which a massive swan shaped boat is cruising around.
Aside from the big hotels there are some awesome smaller guest houses sprinkled around the forests. We stayed in the Ryoken-like ‘Pension Hamac’ in Wadano which is truly amazing. The lodge has a homely, retreat feeling and their level of service is phenomenal (think Japanese uncle driving you down to the onsen every night, sewing up your gloves and drying your boots whilst you’re gone).
We paid around Y6500 per person including breakfast. We didn’t opt for the Y2500 extra for supper but ate there three nights because, quite honestly, they cook better and cheaper than the other places we went to.
We'll be staying there again next time.
There are 3 main ski areas around Hakuba – the map will have you think there are more but two really merge into one (Goryu and Hakuba 47) and the others are pint sized or less.
Happo is the largest area and has a plethora of wide runs, calming traverses and a few steep slopes. Of all the resorts this has the most variety and the most lifts.
Goryu/Hakuba 47 is snowboard dominated. It has a superwide green run down into town, a huge un-bashed powder field (drop everything and head straight there after fresh snowfall) and a well maintained snow-park. We spent two days and that was enough. All these areas could be fully covered in an earnest day.
Tsugaike Kogen is off the main Hakuba area map to the west but only a short bus ride away. Here is one of the longest runs I’ve ever been on. From the top of a 20 minute gondola there are a handful of ways to get down including a challenging itinerary and some tree dodging off-piste.
These mountains will cost around Y4500-4800 for a day pass. There’s an all-mountain pass for Y4800 which is a misnomer because it doesn’t allow you to switch resorts in the same day – best forgotten. The hotels have special prices for the area closest to them. Our place offered Y6800 for two week-days of Happo.
Goryu/47 and Tsugaike both take Y1000 deposit for the ski pass chip. Also be warned, Tsugaike doesn’t take credit card and we couldn’t see an ATM.