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The Ultimate Guide to Skiing in Hakuba, Japan

The Ultimate Guide to Skiing in Hakuba, Japan
© Kezia Gabriella / Culture Trip
With its close proximity to Tokyo, stellar powder conditions, and a hopping nightlife scene, Hakuba is one of Asia’s top skiing and snowboarding destinations. The village offers a dazzling variety of terrains and experiences for beginners through to experts, including ample backcountry and off-piste opportunities.

Hakuba, which is situated in Nagano Prefecture on Japan’s main island of Honshu, played host to the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. While its profile on the international ski scene has only grown since then, it has remained relatively uncrowded and pleasantly affordable – particularly when compared to Niseko, Japan’s other leading ski destination, and destinations in the US and Europe. Home to 11 different ski and snowboard resorts in the Japanese Alps – 10 of which can share a single lift pass – Hakuba has some of Japan’s tallest mountains (many over 3,000 metres (9,843 feet) high) and is renowned for its magical combination of reliable snow dumps and bluebird days. The area also has a huge range of accommodation options, heaps of restaurants and a lively nightlife scene to match.

To help plan your visit, Culture Trip has compiled a guide to everything you need to know about skiing and snowboarding in Hakuba.

The snow in Hakuba is reliably good

Hakuba averages 11-13 metres (36-43 feet) of snow each year, with consistently excellent powder. Though it’s not quite as feathery light as the snow you might find up in Niseko, the trade-off is that Hakuba is slightly warmer and less windy. Because of the regular snow dumps, though, the powder can get very deep – excellent for off-piste skiing. Snow quality varies slightly among Hakuba Valley’s 11 ski resorts, based on elevation, but Cortina, Happo-One and Hakuba 47 (three of the valley’s highest mountains) are your safest bets to find the best powder.

© Kezia Gabriella / Culture Trip  

December to March is prime skiing season

Hakuba’s ski season generally lasts from late November to early May, with some variation based on location and elevation. The powder base starts to build up in mid- to late-December (which is also when most lodging options and restaurants open for the season), with the highest amounts of snowfall coming in January and February. Unsurprisingly, crowds peak between Christmas and New Year, and stay relatively high throughout January – particularly due to Australian school holidays and Chinese New Year, the latter of which draws families from all over Asia. February is an ideal time to visit, as it’s a little quieter, with an average annual snowfall of 2.4 metres (8 feet), while March offers up almost as much snow along with slightly warmer temperatures and sunny days, affording spectacular views of the surrounding Japanese Alps.

Hakuba is easily accessed by train or bus

Perhaps Hakuba’s biggest advantage over Niseko is that it’s on the same island as Tokyo, meaning it doesn’t require a separate flight for international travellers. The fastest way to reach Hakuba is by Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Station to Nagano (80-100 minutes), followed by a one-hour Limited Express Bus. Check out HyperDia for train times; you should be able to purchase your ticket from a kiosk at the train station or, if you plan to travel more around Japan, consider purchasing a JR Rail Pass. The Express Bus from Nagano to Hakuba costs between ¥2,000-¥2,300 (£15-£17) each way. A taxi or private car, meanwhile, will set you back around ¥20,000 (£151) and takes around four hours. There are also additional coach options available from different international airports, such as the Nagano Snow Shuttle, though these will take five to six hours. Check out Hakuba Tourism’s detailed transport guide for a full – if rather labyrinthine – breakdown of all transport options.

The mountain offers convenient all-access passes (and cheap single mountain lift tickets)

There are 11 ski resorts in Hakuba, and all but Minekata are part of the Hakuba Valley group, which offers an all-access lift ticket from one to seven days of use. Conveniently, these tickets even allow for days off (the two-day ticket can be spread over three days, the three-day ticket over five days, and so on). The global Epic Pass from Vail Resorts is also valid for five days of consecutive skiing at all 10 Hakuba Valley ski resorts, and in return Hakuba all-access pass holders can enjoy 50% off at any Vail Resorts ski mountain in the world.

If you’ll only be in Hakuba for a few days, or prefer to stick to one or two mountains, note that accommodation packages often include lift tickets, and many hotels sell discounted lift tickets on the day as well (but be aware that these may be cash only). In addition, Goryu and Hakuba 47, and Cortina and Norikura offer dual access with a single lift ticket.

Hakuba Valley has varied terrain

Each of Hakuba Valley’s 11 mountains has its own unique selling points, but overall Hakuba is considered fantastic for intermediate skiers (40 to 50 percent of trails at most resorts fall into the intermediate category) with lots of long, wide runs. Powderhounds should head to Norikura, Cortina or Tsugaike (the last two are popular for off-piste and tree skiing, too). Hakuba 47 equals Cortina for the most advanced runs in the area, and also offers some tree skiing, along with an excellent terrain park and half-pipe. For beginners, Goryu (which can be accessed with the same lift ticket) has long, wide trails owing to its 926m (3,038 feet) vertical drop. Iwatake is also known for its wide runs, along with 360-degree views of the surrounding Japanese Alps. And Happo-One, which played host to Olympic events in 1998, is considered Hakuba’s flagship resort, with the highest elevation and vertical drop along with many well-groomed intermediate runs, plenty of moguls and backcountry skiing to boot.

© Kezia Gabriella / Culture Trip  

It’s easier to bring ski equipment than you think… or you can rent your gear

If you want to bring your own skis or snowboard but are visiting from abroad and worried about having to schlep your gear halfway across Japan, there’s good news: Japan offers multiple luggage forwarding services that you can use either at the airport or at Tokyo Station. Ta-Q-Bin even offers same-day luggage delivery, and you can book online in advance or simply visit one of their convenient counters. You can send luggage back too, and prices range from ¥1,500–¥3,000 (£11-£23).

For those without their own gear, or who prefer to rent it, Rhythm Snow Sports in Wadano, near the base of Happo-One, has a massive selection of rental equipment in Hakuba and also provides free pick-up and drop-off when you rent your gear, with skis, snowboards, poles, boots, helmets, jackets and snow pants all available. Hakuba Central Snowsports has four locations across Hakuba (two near Happo-One, as well as one in Echoland and one in Goryu) and allows for online booking ahead of time. With five locations, Spicy Rentals is the largest ski and snowboard shop in Hakuba Valley, and also offers mountain bikes and camping equipment rentals in the summer.

Places to stay in Hakuba, range from ‘pensions’ to ski-in/ski-out accommodation…

A big selling point for Hakuba is its range of affordable lodging options, including basic (but clean) pensions, which feature rooms with single beds or bunk beds and often shared bathrooms. Some pensions will also offer more traditional Japanese accommodation, including tatami mats and futons.

Pensions tend to be lively and communal, with big living rooms, perhaps a TV screen or video games and amenities such as karaoke machines and board games. Many will have a restaurant (or bar) on site and some even boast their own onsen. Among the most popular pensions in Hakuba are The Lab which is 500m (1,640ft) from Happo-One’s lifts, Penke Panke which is just steps to Happo-One’s Sakka Lifts and Landhaus Dancru Netz, which is a faux-Swiss chalet with easy access to the Hakuba Shuttle. Most pensions are in the Wadano and Echoland areas (not coincidentally, where you’re also apt to find Hakuba’s best bars).

For a slight step up in price, consider Morino Lodge, or check out the apartments in Hakuba Village near the Happo-One gondola (Powderhounds and Airbnb both have plenty of listings). For those after ski-in/ski-out accommodation, consider checking out Hakuba Gondola Hotel at Happo-One, Hotel Green Plaza at Cortina, or Hakuba Iwatake Apartments at Iwatake.

…Or, splash out on a luxury ski chalet

On Hakuba’s higher accommodation end you’ll find luxury chalets and villas kitted out with swish kitchens, heated floors, washers and dryers and sometimes even an on-site 4WD vehicle; check out The Luxe Nomad for the best selection of chalets and luxury apartment accommodation. These are mostly located in the Happo and Wadano Woods areas at the base of Happo-One, Hakuba’s biggest ski area (a shuttle bus provides access to other ski areas).

Other luxurious accommodation options include large, European-style lodge hotels such as La Neige Higashkan or Hakuba Tokyu Hotel in the heart of the village (the latter has its own on-site onsen). Hakuba Onsen Ryokan, also at the base of Happo-One, provides traditional Japanese lodging – think tatami mats, paper screen walls and cosy yukatas (summer kimonos) – as well as a soothing on-site onsen with relaxed rules to cater to Westerners (for example, tattoos are allowed).

Dine out in style on excellent Japanese and international cuisine

Hakuba dining options run the gamut from traditional Japanese noodles, sushi and yakiniku (grilled meat) to Western-style dishes such as pizza and burgers. Excellent Japanese cuisine abounds, though; in Happo Village try Maeda for deliciously warming noodles just steps from the gondola, or Sharaku for super-fresh seafood and sushi. Zen in Echoland is renowned for its handmade soba noodles and tempura, while Kobeya in Wadano offers outstanding Kobe and Wagyu beef that you can cook up tableside.

Nearby in Wadano, Morino Lodge serves up hand-rolled pizzas at pleasing prices from ¥1,000 (£7.50) and The Rabbit Hole shifts from healthy Aussie-style breakfasts in the morning to burgers and beers at night. Beer lovers should also check out Hakuba Brewing Company, either at its hydro-powered brewery or on tap at Hakuba Brew Pub near Iwatake Snowfield. Head to Echoland if you’re up for a pub crawl; reggae bar Master Braster and Mocking Bird Pub are two firm favourites for live music and DJ sets respectively.

Perhaps the most unique and memorable dining experience in Hakuba, though, is at Pilar, a café and restaurant at the top of Happo-One’s upper chairlift. Serving a combination of European and Japanese cuisine alongside stellar mountain views, Pilar is only open for lunch.

At peak times Hakuba restaurants can get quite packed (and are often on the small side to begin with), so it’s best to call ahead from your accommodation to make restaurant bookings. Many hotels will include pickup and drop-off to restaurants, too. Note that many Hakuba restaurants are only open from December to March, so be sure to always call ahead.

© Kezia Gabriella / Culture Trip  

When you’re not skiing, relax in an onsen

Hakuba Valley is home to four different hot springs, and nearly every hotel in the area has some sort of onsen bath to ease sore muscles après-ski. Hakuba also has 12 public onsen spread across the valley, including four in the Happo-One area. A must-visit onsen located not too far from the train station is Tenjin No Yu, situated within Hakuba Highland Hotel, which offers soothing alkaline waters and stupendous views of the Japanese Alps from both its indoor and outdoor baths. Check out the Hakuba Village website for a full rundown of onsen baths in the area (including prices and opening times), and be sure to follow proper onsen etiquette at whichever you visit (cover up tattoos, prepare to go completely naked, tie up long hair and keep your towel out of the water).

For white-out days, there are snow monkeys, historic castles and more

Believe it or not it can sometimes snow too much in Hakuba, leading to white-out conditions that aren’t safe for skiing or snowboarding. Not to worry though, as there is plenty else to see and do in the region. An extremely popular day trip – particularly in winter – is a visit to the popular snow monkeys at Jingokudani Park, which are famous for bathing in hot springs. Hakuba is about a 90-minute drive from the monkey park, with numerous day-tour packages available.

You can also try your hand at popular local activities such as origami, Taiko drumming or soba noodle-making; all can be arranged through your hotel or the local tourism office. For a heavier dose of culture, head by train to nearby Matsumoto Castle – at over 400 years old, it’s one of the oldest castles in Japan.

To make the most of the snow on a white-out day, try snowshoeing, a popular outdoor pastime in Hakuba and a lovely way to explore the area’s forests.