Heli-Lodges in Hakuba
There’s something for every ability of skier and snowboarder, cementing Hakuba as an incredibly versatile ski destination. Freeriders, freestylers, racers, and even mogullers will all be equally at home here, so it should come as no surprise that Winter Olympic athletes once battled for medals in these exquisite mountains.
In the heaviest years Niseko can receive up to 17m of the white gold. In comparison, the annual average of Val d’Isère is a mere 5m. While locals have been lapping up the crème-de-la-crème snow drifts and world-class tree-skiing for decades, foreigners have only recently begun to appreciate the wonders of snow sports in Japan. Over the last decade, this deep cover has attracted film-makers, photographers and increasing numbers of European and North American skiers to what many consider is the holy grail of powder skiing.
Be prepared for some Japanese-styled Après-ski (think Onsens surrounded by Japanese Pink Cherry blossom and snowflakes the size of apples), with some Saki on the side. Then there’s the gastronomy, even if you hate snowsports, the cold, jet lag and onsens, the cuisine will never disappoint.
You can also buy passes linking several slopes together, as well as dozens of cosy izakayas (bars that serve food). Equipment rental is pretty cheap too, as are passes, by Western standards.
Huge average snowfall
Hakuba Ski Overview
The Hakuba Valley incorporates 11 ski resorts that offer an expanse of terrain. The Hakuba ski resorts aren’t interconnected via the slopes (except for Hakuba 47 and Goryu, and Cortina and Norikura), but they can be accessed off a common lift ticket and there are free shuttle buses to get around to the different ski areas. The ski resorts from north to south are: Cortina, Norikura, Tsugaike Kogen, Iwatake, Happo-One, Hakuba 47, Goryu, Sanosaka, Kashimayari, Jigatake, and Minekata is on the opposite side of the valley from the town of Hakuba.
One major advantage of Hakuba is the terrain size on offer with 137km of piste and 200+ courses, 135 lifts (5 gondolas) and 9 terrain parks, you won’t cover the territory any time soon! The Hakuba skiing is varied across the resorts but it’s generally very well suited to beginners and intermediates with many long perfectly groomed runs and fantastic fall-line. Advanced skiers and snowboarders will also love the steep groomers at a few of the resorts, and freestylers are amply well catered for.
Some of the resorts are old-school strict whereby off-piste skiing is completely banned and heavily policed, a couple of resorts tolerate some tree skiing, whilst at the other end of the spectrum, Cortina is a relaxed freeriding powder mecca. On the plus side if you’re prepared to earn your turns, the Hakuba backcountry skiing and snowboarding can be phenomenal, and powder hounds should consider doing a backcountry tour.
There’s plenty to do in Hakuba Ski Resort aside from riding the slopes. For the adrenaline seekers, there is plenty of exploring and excitement to be done by Snowmobile, cross-country skiing and even Heli Skiing, whilst there are plenty of other cultural experiences to taste too.
Onsens are Japanese hot tubs or, at their best, natural thermal rock pools in the woods or foothills. This is an apres-ski tradition I particularly like. It is almost mandatory to bathe naked in man-made onsens found in hotels or public spa areas. The ritual includes a thorough washing before entering the hot thermal waters. This is as much part of Japanese daily life as saunas are to Scandinavians. It is physically and mentally cleansing and relaxing.
Hiking & Snowshoeing
It is definitely worth a trip to the city of Nagano to see the Olympic museum in the M-Wave speed skating stadium. Another worthwhile trip is to the beautiful 7th Century Zenkoji temple, believed to house the first image of Buddha to arrive in Japan.
Given the close proximity of Tokyo and Kyoto, via the bullet train, it would be churlish to take a skiing trip to Hakuba without spending two or three nights exploring the shopping malls, temples and markets of at least one of these historic cities.
Hakuba offers a wide variety of restaurants and has some fantastic après ski entertainment. Most hotels have a bar and lounge area, however if you are looking for something a little outside the box and a great cultural experience, head down to Echoland and the Happo area. It is incredibly refreshing to trade typical Western alpine fare for its Eastern counterpart. Tofu or tempura instead of tartiflette, sushi and sashimi instead of salami. And instead of spaghetti - udon noodles or ramen, a hot bowl of meaty broth with bean sprouts, grated pickles and toppings such as sliced pork or an egg still poaching in the soup.
For the less faint hearted, venture to Miyama, the culinary equivalent of extreme skiing. Included in their eye-opening menu is offal in the form of heart, third stomach, reproductive gland with contents and bowel! Sake accompanies these rich flavours impeccably well.
Kikyo-yaJapanese, Seafood, Sushi
Kikyo-ya offers the freshest sushi & sashimi in Hakuba. Simply watching the fugu accredited master chef on hand is enough to send you on a sushi and sashimi trip to heaven. The service is very polite and the beer is fantastic too.
There are plenty of fun activities for kids to do around Hakuba, from sushi-making classes to fancy dress (in the wonderful kimonos), there is something for every child.
Don’t miss out on the wild monkey onsen at Jigokudani, about a two-hour drive from Hakuba and a 30-minute stroll up into the snowy, fairytale foothills. In the natural thermal waters of the rock pool some 200 wild macaque monkeys bathe in the steamy natural springs. Unphased by tourists, they carry on with little care for the constant attention, continuing with their everyday life of grooming one another with a nonchalance humans could never get away with. Kids will love to get up close and personal to the 200 odd Jigokudani wild monkeys here, something not to be missed out on!
Matsumoto Castle is a must visit for families and is child-friendly (with the exception of steep stairs if you decide to climb to the top)! The castle’s buildings have been designated a national treasure. The outer walls on each level feature white plaster above black lacquer, and it is this striking contrast that has made the castle famous for its beauty. As Matsumoto Castle was built for the purpose of withstanding attacks by firearms, the exterior is not decorated. The result is an austere but powerful facade. Nagano Prefecture gets a lot of snow, and the sight of the castle covered with snow in winter is truly breathtaking.
The Yeti Club looks after kids 3-6 at the Evergreen Snow Sports School. Here they are able to take a group class with other kids on the magic carpet, with an inside play area and creche. Included is a fully equipped daycare centre, with lunch included.
Even if your kids are too young to ski, Evergreen offers daycare for littles from 18 months of age. Phoenix Chalets also works with a number of reputable babysitting agencies who can look after babies at the chalet if you prefer.