I was operating on 2 hours of sleep during a three-day period by the time I could strap on my snowboard at Hakuba. The flight from California was long and exhausting.
By the time the plane landed at Narita airport I was greeted by sensory overload – holographic attendants, 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 run the damn thing. But enough of that, this post is not about the complexities of toilet operation. This is about snowboarding fluffy, soft, powder in Hakuba!
I still remember dropping lines in powder a few years ago, at Alpine Meadows, 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 I would go to great lengths just to find that sweet white fluffy stuff; Calfornia rarely gets a few dumps a year. Then I heard about Japow and Hakuba gets plenty, 11 meters per season.
Hakuba lies 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 caters well to English speakers whilst still providing a Japanese cultural experience. It offers a range of accommodation including luxury options and self-contained lodging with hot spring bathing facilities (called Onsens).
The Ski resorts in Hakuba are: Cortina, Norikura, Tsugaike Kogen, Goryu, Sanosaka, Iwatake, Happo-One, Hakuba 47, Minekata, Kashimayari, and Jigatake are on the inverse 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 really 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. From what I’ve heard, the locals don’t go into the trees for fear of angering the spirits (Shinto Religion) and there are spots where it’s gated off so expert riders and powder hounds may get a little frustrated with the uptight approach to tree skiing at many of the Hakuba ski resorts.
Some resorts are strict with the off-piste skiing and it’s policed, two resorts may tolerate it, and at the other end of the spectrum, Cortina is more relaxed and is powder, Mecca! Be careful, I got chased by a Japanese patrolman with a stick after going off-piste; he was ready to flog me!
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 famous Japow!
Hakuba is 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.
There’s a full spectrum of lodging from backpacker hostels to luxury accommodation. Some offer lodging, lift tickets, and one meal voucher as packaged deals, such as Ninja Ski. 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 ATM machines that take Amerian debit cards. You won’t find many ATM’s at the resort and most places don’t take credit card, most places take CASH ONLY!
Unlike North American ski resorts, the food in Japanese resorts is superb and very cheap! While you’re paying $17 for a nasty burger at a Lake Tahoe resort, you’ll be chowing down on some savory Ramen at Hakuba. There’s also booze dispensers everywhere in vending machines. You’d think they’ll have issues with underage drinking because the booze is accessible, but amazingly they don’t – well-behaved 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 2 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 urge you to slide down the mountains in Hakuba. See you on the slopes!
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!