As Victoria Milner discovers, a ski getaway that’s close by and includes wonderful food, impeccable service, fresh powder snow and relaxing après ski activities makes for the perfect winter break.
A ski trip to Japan should be on every skier’s (or, in my case, snowboarder’s) bucket list. While Europe is a long flight away, Japan is close and has a reputation for some of the best powder snow in the world. The weather fronts that move across the Sea of Japan from Siberia create massive falls of super-dry and super-powdery snow – it’s not unheard of for over three metres of fresh powder to fall in one night.
Where to go?
Japan has several ski resort areas, but the easiest one to reach is Hakuba. Before our trip in January this year, I researched all the options – Sapporo, Niseko and more – but if you have limited time and you’re after good snow quality, Hakuba is perfect. Located in Nagano Prefecture, home to the 1998 Winter Olympics, Hakuba is not unlike an Alpine village in France or Austria. Many of the buildings are constructed of wood and have gabled roofs, and fir trees surround the pretty village.
What’s on offer?
Hakuba refers to an area that includes nine ski resorts, the largest and most popular being Happo-One. At Happo-One is the town of Wadano, one of the prettier villages with many hotels, restaurants and bars. Happo-One is where we did most of our skiing. The resort is easy to negotiate, incorporating an even balance of beginner, intermediate and advanced routes and also some of the best off-piste skiing (and the most relaxed ski-patrol!).
Although you will find plenty of signage indicating that you shouldn’t venture from marked trails, it’s common practice in Hakuba to go off piste. If you do this, I suggest you take a guide, or someone who knows the terrain. The powder can be deep and there’s a danger that you could get yourself into trouble. However, it’s some of the best snow to fall on this earth.
Don’t be deterred if you’re not a powder skier; the pistes are generally well groomed and – great for those who like moguls – they tend to let moguls form on the more advanced slopes when the snow stops falling. The real joy of skiing in Japan, though, is definitely the powder.
One particular point to mention about Hakuba is that the resort is predominantly frequented by Australians and Americans (one big upside being that English is widely spoken). However, unlike Niseko in the north, where I’m told the Australians have been known to run riot, Hakuba is a family-friendly resort and not a crazy party town. The resort offers a full-service ski school with lessons for adults and children, and children can stay in the school from 10am until 3pm. During our early January visit we did not experience queues on the slopes, and restaurants and other facilities were well staffed.
Eating and other activities
One aspect of a ski holiday in Hakuba that differs markedly from Europe is the food. I’m quite partial to a cheese fondue and other warm and hearty European foods, so I wasn’t sure what it would be like eating Japanese food in the mountains. I was also worried that here on the slopes we mightn’t find the kinds of traditional food that Japan is so famous for.
Luckily, I was wrong. I highly recommend the Japanese and Korean restaurants in Hakuba; the food, even in the simpler places, is often exceptional. The Japanese take great pride in their food and their service and it’s a pleasure to experience the eating culture here. It’s also a wonderful place to dine in a big group and share all the tasty morsels you may otherwise never have tried. Horse sashimi, anyone?
Another experience not to be missed in Japan is the onsen – even better when you’re in a snowy ski resort to warm up in one of these natural hot baths that will soothe tired muscles and completely relax you. There are public and private onsen, and if you’re a little shy a private one is definitely worth experiencing. The temperatures are pretty hot – more than 40 degrees – so lying in the snow after spending a few minutes in the hot water is not as ludicrous as it sounds. It’s actually quite invigorating.
For a group that includes non-skiers, Hakuba is also well placed for other activities. There’s Matsumoto Castle, Zenkoji Temple in Nagano and the famous Japanese Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park. These fascinating creatures spend their days bathing in the hot springs and performing tricks for the many tourists who come to be entertained by them.
As an exotic, cultural and vibrant skiing destination, Japan is unrivalled; and for a low-key, family-friendly ski resort with snow that’s out of this world, Hakuba is a must-visit resort.
How to get there
From Hong Kong you can fly into Narita or Haneda airports in Japan in around four hours. If you’re taking skiing equipment, it may be easiest to book a direct shuttle or taxi transfer. This can take up to six hours, but took us only about three. If you’re staying overnight in Tokyo, you can catch the Shinkansen Bullet Train from Tokyo Central Station – it leaves for Nagano every 20 minutes and takes around two hours. Then it’s a bus or taxi from Nagano. In all, it’s about three hours from Tokyo. The hotel you book will have full details of the transport options. It’s also worth noting that Black Cat Luggage Services can arrange for your ski gear to be transported from the airport directly to your hotel in Hakuba by the next business day.
When to go
This is the million-dollar question. For various reasons, we had to make our trip during the first week of January, which is early in the season. Toward the end of the week, the snow came thick and fast but until then it was a bit scant. I would suggest mid-January until mid-February as the best time. Apparently March can get a bit slushy – the mountains are not very high and can warm up quickly. However, if you get lucky and have a powder day in March, you have the dual benefit of fewer people and longer days.
Where to stay?
For couples and groups
Hakuba House is a ski-in-ski-out lodge in Wadano, Hakuba. The lodge provides Western-style accommodation in 11 rooms (sleeping 33 in total) with a range of configurations. Rooms are simply but comfortably furnished, and have very small bathrooms. The lodge is homey and offers a friendly bar for relaxing after a day’s skiing. Hakuba House serves breakfast, and also provides dinner for guests a few nights per week on an entirely flexible, pay-as-you-go basis. We very much enjoyed both the Western and Japanese cuisine here. Down the road are several restaurants, and the lodge offers a shuttle service to restaurants further away. It’s a comfortable and friendly base, and there’s a private onsen right next door.
Black Bear Properties comes recommended and has a selection of self-contained rentals that are popular with families.
The Ridge is a five-star property offering modern amenities and a range of accommodation options to suit different groups.
La Neige is a five-star hotel that nestles in the forest and has been built in keeping with its magnificent surroundings. The French fine-dining restaurant here is popular.
What to eat and drink?
Hakuba and Wadano in particular boast an excellent selection of restaurants offering both Western and Japanese cuisine. These restaurants are all well known and hotels can direct you or provide transport. Many restaurants also offer a pick-up and drop-off service.
Zen is a traditional Japanese restaurant with seating on floor cushions and a menu encompassing everything from sashimi to tempura and their famous soba noodles. You should also try the sake here – there are hundreds if not thousands of varieties, served hot or cold. You’ll pay about ¥1,500 ($20) for a meal here.
Kikyoya is a renowned traditional Japanese restaurant specialising in sushi, but offering other options for non-fish eaters. Set meals are quite good value at around 2,100 Yen ($30).
Kobeya Restaurant boasts one of the more popular cuisines in Japan – Korean barbecue. Kobeya Restaurant at Windy Lodge does an authentic Korean barbecue with genuine marbled Wagyu beef and other options.
Where to ski?
Happo-One is the main ski area at Hakuba. The other eight resorts are between 10 and 30 minutes away by bus; it’s worth visiting a couple of variety’s sake. Cortina in particular is definitely worth a look, especially if it snows 60cm overnight like it did when we visited. The resort itself is a huge and unusual Tudor-style hotel that will have you thinking you’ve just landed in rural England. Although the resort is small, the runs are wonderful tree-lined avenues with many areas for off-piste skiing and getting lost in the powder.
For the 2012/13 season it was best to purchase lift passes each day, allowing flexibility in visiting the different resorts where snow cover can vary significantly. It is reported that for 2013/14 you will be able to purchase a Hakuba All Mountain lift pass that you can exchange at any of the nine resorts for a pass on the day.
I’m sure the ski school only takes children on lifts where there are safety bars, but you should be aware that several lifts we were on at Happo did not have safety bars. This was surprising and more than a little scary. In general the facilities in the resorts were decent, but they did lack the ambience and modern touches of a European ski resort.
Hotels can arrange ski hire from recommended providers in the village.