Dreamy powder in the Japanese mountains


With its ten ski resorts and a guarantee of thick, dry powder, the quiet Hakuba valley offers skiing alternatives for an entire winter. 

Japan is famous for its reliable snow cover, and skiing is a popular sport. The mountains collect an average of 15 metres of snow annually – twice as much as in the Alps.

During our two-week stay in Hakuba valley in January 2011, more than two metres of snow fell, and we skied under blue skies with fresh fluffy powder punctuating each turn. Located 300 kilometres from Tokyo in the Nagano prefecture, Hakuba’s latitude is also the same as that of Morocco, and most locals protect their faces from the fierce ultraviolet rays with scarves and masks.

Hakuba also stands out with its peacefulness. Locals rarely ski off-piste and there are still relatively few foreigners. While Niseko in Hokkaido has already been turned into party central by the Australians, Hakuba has so far been spared from the masses.

Here – as anywhere in Japan – the service culture is light years ahead of Europe’s. Slope employees smile cheerfully, and each lift seat is brushed off before you sit. Not everyone speaks English, but gestures and a few phrases of Japanese will get you far.

Happo One, the heart of Hakuba 

The largest and most popular of Hakuba valley’s ten resorts is Happo One, located within the town of Hakuba itself. It boasts easygoing slopes, forest routes, broad fields of powder and long gorges.

The slopes are all kept in excellent condition, so even when the lifts open at 8:00 am, you’re unlikely to encounter any uneven spots. No wonder Happo One was chosen to host the Alpine events at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.

Most ski centres here have strict rules against off-piste skiing, which can be punishable by fines or even prison. With this amount of snow, the rules are understandable, as an avalanche could destroy the ski lifts and the homes below the resorts. On the other hand, there is plenty of information online about where you can ski unsupervised off the beaten trails. Remember to never ski under the lift lines, for your own safety and that of others.

Bathhouses and lodge accommodations

Hakuba’s après-ski scene is low-key. It focuses on the area’s many onsen bathhouses, which feature hot pools or tubs to soothe sore muscles. Mimizukunoyu spa has impressive mountain views and boasts both indoor and outdoor pools. The Jigokudani hot springs, known for their monkey populations, are worth the extra two-hour trip.

Hakuba also has a wide range of dining possibilities, from traditional Japanese (Zen restaurant comes recommended) to French and Italian cuisine. Reservations at least a day in advance are advisable. A popular choice is a family-owned log cabin called Little Alaska that serves hamburgers; try the gigantic AK Burger.

Many skiers in Hakuba stay at private lodges that usually house 20-50 people. With single or shared bedrooms, common social spaces and the opportunity to prepare one’s own food, they are suited to longer stays. The Hakuba Powder Lodge, which is a bit outside the centre of town, is a favourite of powder skiing enthusiasts. Hakuba House, closer to Happo One, is another popular lodge with a special plus: heated floors.

Tokyo without a ski bag 

Hakuba is easily accessible from Tokyo via bullet train and bus. Those planning to spend a few days exploring the capital can send their ski equipment to Hakuba separately for roughly 20 euros; contact the transport service desk at Narita Airport.  

Text and photos by Arttu Muukkonen

Published February 6, 2012

Category: Local features