Hakuba Ski Diary
Day 1 – arrival in Hakuba
To get the Hakuba, we hired a car to drive us there from Shiga Kogen, and the journey took 2 hours and 20 minutes. On route we passed vineyards, rice paddies, lots of light industry, and low-density housing – overall it was not very picturesque journey. As we approached Hakuba though, we could see ski runs over the mountain, taking up quite a large area.
In Hakuba, the layout of the town is more like Niseko, with houses, small pensions, some hotels, independent restaurants, and bars, all mixed together. However is far less dense than Niseko, so only 2 or 3 restaurants are within walking distance, and for the rest you need to get a bus to reach them. The layout is quite different from Shiga Kogen, which was dominated by hotels, each of which had an affiliated restaurant and often a bar.
The hotel were we stayed in Hakuba was the Highmount Hotel. The hotel was not really ski-in (although it could be done, but only if you were skiing back from Happo One), and was definitely not ski-out. The hotel room in Hakuba was very small - there were only 2 beds, and a bit of space to move around the beds (which we filled with luggage), and no hanging space, so we basically lived out of our suitcases. Drying ski gear was very hard due to the space constraints, although the owners would put gear in the boiler room to dry overnight if you asked.
There is a small fridge and a little kettle/hot plate in each room. Beds are not made or changed daily (this is not unusual in Japanese ski hotels) and one small towel per person is changed every few days. (We later found out that the beds would be made and towels changed, but only if you put the "please make up my room" sign out, otherwise they would not).
Breakfast is quite okay, the usual Japanese assortment of cuisines, including some blessed bananas and other fruit, quite a rarity. Dinner, which the outside cold drives you to consider having in the hotel, is either a small menu of pizza/pasta/steak at premium but not silly prices, or a pre-ordered three course repast at 3150 yen. On the first day there were 60 people in the hotel of whom two were Japanese, and most of the rest were Aussies.
The Hakuba ski area is divided into a number of different resorts, but (apart from one exception) each resort is separate, and to travel between resorts requires taking a bus or taxi, and you can't ski between resorts. The ski pass we had entitled us to use 7 different resorts, but there are two factors to be aware of:
- The first is that once you trade in your day's pass (which you have to do every day) you get a ticket that entitles you to ski just that resort. This ticket is not accepted at any of the other resorts. So effectively you commit to a single resort for the day, and then at the end of the day return your ticket and get the deposit on your ticket back.
- The second is that of the 7 resorts we could ski, some are very small, with no gondolas and only a small number of runs. In effect, there were 4 resorts big enough to be interesting to us (each of those 4 having a gondola, and a variety of terrain that would fill a day). Those 4 resorts were Happo One, Tsugaike, Iwatake, and Hakuba47 + Goryu (which is the one combined exception, where one ticket covers both resorts).
The resort that is local to the hotel was "Happo One", which is is pronounced "Happo Onay" (and not how you would expect it to be pronounced). It's about 5 to 10 minutes walk away, or a 3 minute bus ride.
Day 2 – skiing Happo One
For the first day's skiing, we went on a free tour of the Happo One mountain provided by the hotel, starting at 9:30 am, which went until 11:45, and which went right to the top of the mountain, and came back down to the Sakka 3 lift. The view of the Japanese Alps was fantastic! The tour started with the short bus ride to the Sakka lifts, where we had to change our vouchers for lift chips and pay the 1000 yen deposit. The guide was Joe, who was also the chef and helper in the hotel. He was a great skier and knew the mountain well. He took us the the very top where we had marvellous views and we could see the cairns erected for dead mountain victims. Walker/climbers could go slightly higher to the very peak, but there were about fifty people admiring the top. A little lower was a Virgin Cafe!
We only covered Happo One, but that showed a lovely variety of slopes and conditions. In particular halfway up the mountain are some beautiful hidden runs. The mountain was fairly quiet, despite it being Saturday in January. The only busy bit was at the top, where a lot of people were admiring the day and the excellent view.
Coming down was a bit challenging for beginners!
Dinner was at "The Pub" which had good English beers - Bass - and usual pub grub like Fish and Chips. Quite good value.
Day 3 – skiing Tsugaike
We took a taxi to get to Tsugaike, which was the only way to get there according to the hotel. It took about 20 to 30 minutes and cost 4000 yen each way. Against this expense, it was super convenient after marching around icy roads in shoes and ski gear. We arranged the return in the morning so we were dropped at the ticket office and picked up afterwards at the same place at 4 PM as agreed.
Note that the chip/ski pass from Happo One does not work at Tsugaike, so you have to present your paperwork, get a new chip, pay 1000 yen and then get this amount back from the refund machine after skiing. Also each resort will only refund the deposit on their own chips, so the best approach is to get your deposit back at the end of each day, before leaving the ski area.
Tsugaike itself is largely a huge family area with several lifts on the lower slopes covering an extremely wide and gentle slope, and then a gondola which takes 15 minutes from the mid station – or 20 minutes from the bottom – up to the higher slopes. Even up here there are several green trails and few black/mogul/off piste areas.
You do not have to leave the mountain to eat, or even have you boots tuned. There are lots of facilities higher up, including a KFC. Again not too many people at all, and in fact even some green run lifts were not working. Not one real wait for a lift all day, although a couple of minutes waiting briefly for the gondola.
Morning weather was lovely with pleasant temperatures, but around lunchtime some high cloud came in with a colder front and heavier clothes would have been welcome.
There seemed to be quite a compact and varied village at the base, with plenty of restaurants, smaller accommodation options and services. Quite a few were ski in/ski out or very close to the runs. It could be worth considering staying here.
The resort also felt more Japanese than the 3 other resorts, and I saw maybe 10 other westerners all day, as opposed to much higher numbers elsewhere. Also only a few signs were in English, fewer than at other resorts.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this resort, with its gentle lower slopes, long gondola, and long runs down from the gondola. However, it would probably not suit an advanced skier or boarder.
Day 4 – Hakuba47 + Goryu
Today we skied Habukba47 + Goryu, which was good. Including this one, we've been to 3 of the 4 larger areas so far (each of which is roughly the size of Perisher/Blue-Cow), and have 3 days skiing left, and will probably visit the last one tomorrow or the day after.
The weather today was not great though, especially at the top of the mountain, where we were in low cloud, and had very poor visibility. In Habukba47 there is a terrain park, which you pass over in the Gondola, and you can watch people doing various tricks and jumps. Getting the bus to and from Hakuba47 + Goryu was a bit of a hassle though - you had to get the hotel bus to and/from a bus stop, and then get the resort's bus to/from the resort, all whilst in ski gear, and only at certain times.
Also, we have found that Jetstar fly into Osaka and Nagoya for a cheaper fare than we paid, and have found places that charge around AU$50 per night per person, but for fairly basic accommodation. So this means that it may be possible to have a week's ski holiday in Japan for $2000 or a bit less, which is about what it costs in Australia.
The idea that Japan is always expensive for food is quite wrong. Ski lunches of the type found around the world are about 1000 yen plus a drink. For dinners the most expensive that we found was a Thai Restaurant at 4000 yen each, and the cheapest about 2000 yen, all including a couple of beers, sake or soft drinks.
Day 5 – Happo One
Skied at Happo One. Dad had a full day group lesson (cost Y4000, and there were 3 students in the class, all English-speakers). The class was given by a Japanese instructor in basic English, and went back-to-basics and focussed on improving turning technique. He thoroughly enjoyed and recommended the lesson.
We had dinner at Kikoyo-ya, an authentic sushi restaurant. The sushi chef was very entertaining, and had a big blowfish certificate on the wall (since the blowfish is a poisonous fish, unless you prepare it in a very exact way). We both had the Sushi set, and the meal and sushi were extremely good. Cost for two people including beers was about sixty australian dollars.
Then to get back to the hotel we waited outside in the cold and snow for 15 minutes a bus that never came! Eventually we caught a bus going in the other direction. Transport is a very big issue in Hakuba. There is a bus system with a series of number stops, and buses run every 45 minutes or so. But there are no bus stop shelters, and conditions can be very cold and windy, and sometimes buses run late, and sometimes they run early, and sometimes they just don't come at all. Combine the erratic service, with an infrequent service, with the cold conditions, and the result is that travelling for dinner is not much fun. Some restaurants (e.g. the “Thaifoon”) provide a shuttle service that will collect you for dinner and take you home again afterwards, and this is a good option. Also make sure that your hotel is right next to a bus stop (so that you don't have far to walk on the icy roads), and try to go for a hotel which is next to a number of restaurants (so that you can sometimes avoid using the bus service altogether). The Highmount Hotel, for example, is friendly enough, quite new and clean, but to get anywhere is hard, starting with the icy lane outside. Some of the hotels that we would look at next time instead for our accommodation are the Hakuba Tokyu Hotel, and the Monike Hotel, or perhaps a hotel in “Echo Land” (which is near Happo One's Olympic ski jump).
Day 6 – Iwatake
Skied Iwatake resort today. The Iwatake Shuttle Bus went form bus stop number 2, and they dropped us back outside the hotel on the return journey, which was nice. However the conditions were very bad, with heavy wet snow falling throughout the day, which created white-out conditions. As a result, sometimes a lump in the ground would be a clump of powder snow that you would cut through like a hot knife through butter, and sometimes a lump would be a mogul of compacted ice that would stop you cold, and both looked identical in the white-out conditions. So by 2:30 PM we had both had enough and headed back. It's a pity, because I would have liked to have seen Iwatake in better conditions.
We had lunch at the nice Japanese restaurant across the car park from the Gondola, which we both enjoyed. The restaurant was very hot, with a big mountain stove with 3 kettles boiling on top of it. Food was very warm and filling.
Day 7 – Journey home, via Tokyo
For the trip home, we took a taxi in the morning from the hotel to Nagano station (took 80 minutes), then caught a shinkansen / bullet train from Nagano station to Tokyo station (which took one hour 45 minutes). The shinkansen was very pleasant, and if you have luggage you should sit in the back row of the carriage so that you can store you luggage behind your seat.
In Tokyo, the main station was quite confusing - people everywhere, a very busy layout over a number of underground levels, and we didn't know where anything was, didn't speak the language, and were carrying lots of heavy luggage! Eventually we found the left-luggage area, left our bags there (Y500 per bag), and went for a wander to fill in the 5 hours until our next train. I was looking for fancy Japanese electronics to play with, but was disappointed because the place we were in was a financial district, with mostly expensive clothing and department stores. We stopped and had lunch in a side street, at a traditional sushi place, which was very good and cheap (at around 10 Australian dollars each). Then we wandered some more and found ourselves in the Ginza, with various shops, but no electronics. We walked back to the station, and found the Sony store, and got to play with the toys there, including some very light Sony Vaio laptops, which weighed 1 kilo. Then we headed back to the station, and carried our luggage to meet our "Narita Express" train. The journey took around 50 minutes, with no stops, and was moving very fast. Narita station was badly laid out, requiring us to carry our luggage up 4 escalators, which was a struggle with skis! Overall, I like the Japanese trains a lot (once you're actually on the train itself) because they are fast and safe and comfortable, but dislike the train stations, which are very busy and seem to be badly laid out. The cost of our ticket from Nagano to Narita was approximately 12000 Yen (or 120 Australian dollars) per person.
We had dinner in Narita airport (which was surprisingly good), and then had a shower at the airport (thoroughly recommended, only costs 500 Yen, or Aus $5, for half an hour, and you feel human again afterwards). Then we caught the overnight JAL flight from Tokyo to Sydney. This flight was awful - the seats were incredibly small (I had bruising on my knees from the seats being so compact in both width and length), the plane was totally full, there were screaming kids, and the in-flight entertainment was exactly the same as the inbound flight (so we had seen all the movies), and I was in the middle seat. I'd strongly suggest flying Jetstar instead, because JAL is just not worth the premium that they charge.
The holiday was great, and we'd definitely look at going to Japan again, although next time we would organize it ourselves (and fly Jetstar), rather than using a travel agent. Places that we heard good things about from other skiers were Mount Zao (in the north of Honshu), and Nozawa Onsen (near Nagano).