The flight from California was long and exhausting, and I was operating on 2 hours of sleep during a three-day period by the time I could strap on my snowboard and enjoy the fluffy champagne Powder (premium snow) at Hakuba.
Japan, Home of the Awesome Toilets
By the time the plane landed at Narita airport I was greeted by sensory overload –there futuristic holographic attendants and everyone’s wearing a surgical mask. What’s up with that? The toilets look like the captain’s seat from the USS Enterprise – You had to be Captain James T. Kirk to operate the damn thing. But enough of that, this article is not about the complexities of toilet operation. This is about snowboarding fluffy, soft, POWder in Hakuba!
I still remember dropping lines on deep powder a few years ago, at Alpine Meadows in California, it was waist deep, and it took only a few minutes of sliding before I was hooked. Ever since then I’ve become a Powderhound and soon after that, I would go to great lengths to find that sweet white fluffy stuff. My home state, Calfornia rarely gets a few dumps a year, so then I would seek out where in the world where most of this white stuff could be found with the ideal terrain.
Tons of Powder!
Then I heard about the snow in Japan and the region Hakuba gets plenty at 11 meters per season.
Hakuba is located in the Japanese Alps in the Nagano prefecture. It is a valley with many ski resorts. The “Hakuba ski resort” is popular with international tourists because it caters well to English speakers while still providing a traditional Japanese cultural experience when one isn’t slaying the powder. It offers a range of accommodation including luxury options and self-contained lodging with hot spring bathing facilities (called Onsens).
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The Ski resorts in Hakuba are: Cortina, Norikura, Tsugaike Kogen, Goryu, Sanosaka, Iwatake, Happo-One, Hakuba 47, Minekata, Kashimayari, and Jigatake are on the opposite side of the valley from the town of Hakuba. Check out the Ski Hakuba page for an outline of the ski regions to help you choose which resorts you want to go to. It’s refreshing to experience the culture here with it being more traditional Japanese than catered towards westerners like Niseko. Even the signs are misspelled!
The are many long groomed runs and fantastic fall-line and amazing untouched tree-runs (off-piste) which mostly free of local skiers and snowboarders. From what I’ve heard, the locals don’t go into the trees for fear of angering the spirits (of the Shinto Religion), and some of these are gated off. Expert riders and powder hounds looking for deep runs may get a little frustrated with the uptight approach to tree skiing at many of the Hakuba ski resorts.
To Off-Piste or Not To Off-Piste
Some resorts are strict with the off-piste skiing, and it’s very well policed, two resorts may tolerate it, and at the other end of the spectrum, Cortina is more relaxed and is powder, Mecca! Be careful though, I got chased by a Japanese patrolman with a stick after going off-piste, and he was ready to flog me after catching up.
Hakuba is blessed with plenty of snow, maybe not as much as Niseko and maybe not as champagne dry, but powder hounds should be at home to play with the great Japow!
Hakuba can be accessed from Tokyo or the Tokyo International Airport (Narita) via bullet train and bus, or a direct transfer. It is located 44km west of Nagano (about one hour drive) in the Nagano Prefecture on the island of Honshu (the main island of Japan), which is 270km northwest of Tokyo.
Places To Stay
There’s a full spectrum of lodging from backpacker hostels to luxury accommodation. Some offer lift tickets, and one meal voucher as packaged deals with lodging. One such is Ninja Ski which was where I purchased the packaged deal for a hostel at Echoland. I had a good experience at the backpacker hostel at Echoland and even met with a few riders to ride with. Echoland has a few restaurants and ATMs that take Amerian debit cards. This was convenient because you won’t find many ATM’s at the resort and most places don’t take credit card. Japan operates mostly on cash only.
Unlike North American ski resorts, the food in Japanese resorts is superb and very cheap! While you’re paying $17 for a mediocre burger at a Lake Tahoe resort, you’ll be chowing down on some delicious Ramen at Hakuba. There’s also booze dispensers everywhere on vending machines. You’d think they’ll have issues with underage drinking because the booze is accessible, but amazingly they don’t – civil and polite society.
There are also various Nagano ski resorts accessible by bus; they are Madarao and Nozawa Onsen (Awesome during the Fire Festival!), Shiga Kogen, and Myoko Kogen. Having ridden both Hokkaido/Niseko and Nagano/Hakuba for about two weeks each, I had a better experience at Hakuba. The vibe at Hakuba was cool; you can feel westernization but not like Niseko where it felt like I never left the U.S.
It snowed a lot more at Niseko, but it was tracked out by 11 am, too many people. It didn’t snow as much at Hakuba, but the snow stuck around, nobody wanted to go off-piste! While the terrain in Japan was tame, I found Hakuba’s terrain to have more edge to it. Hakuba was also cheaper than Niseko, which catered only to the western tourist.
At any rate, Japow is amazing, and I urge you to slide down the mountains in Hakuba and see it for yourself.
Get your powder on at Hakuba, Japan
From Narita Airport, you can take the train/train/bus combo (the fastest route). You can get a Japan rail pass to save you money from using the trains in Japan. Know that it’s only available for purchase outside of Japan. You can take the train to Tokyo and from there take a bullet train (Shinkansen) to Nagano. From Nagano, it’s a short bus ride to Hakuba. You can also do a direct transfer, and this involves getting a shuttle bus or shared taxi: Nagano Snow Shuttle.
Some hostels have packaged deals that combine lodging and lift tickets, so I went this route. I had to purchase a separate lift ticket at Cortina, but it was cheap. $50 gets you a lift ticket and a free buffet with a pass to the Onsen (Japanese hot bath). I used Ski Ninja to purchase my packaged deal.
Costs? Japan is relatively cheap compared to the U.S. On average I was paying $5 a meal. Superb quality meals, not McDonald’s. Lift tickets on average are $40. That’s a third of a California Ski lift ticket!