Establishment: Hakuba Valley
Location: Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, Japan
Editor’s note: If you are looking for an alternative to Niseko this ski season, check out Ling’s mini-guide on Skiing in Hakuba. Located in central Japan just five hours from Tokyo, it’s great skiing minus the crowds over at the popular Hokkaido resort. We think it looks beautiful, too!
Hakuba Valley is located within the Nagano prefecture, on the main island of Japan, Honshu. Hakuba’s claim to fame – the city hosted the Winter Olympics of 1998. The ski resorts in the area, as you can imagine, are some of the best anywhere in the world.
We’ve just learned skiing the previous winter, a couple months back (at Niseko, of Hokkaido fame). Keen to practice our newfound “skills”, we thought a March ski trip was in order – any excuse for a holiday really! The plan is to ski together, this time without the instructors.
With only a few days on hand, we decided to visit one of the resorts closer to Tokyo, instead of venturing to Hokkaido. After studying many ski maps – of nearby Nozawa Onsen, Zao Onsen, Gala Yuzawa, Shiga Kogen etc, we finally decided on the Hakuba Valley. With nine resorts in the valley, connected by free, frequent shuttle services, we figured we would be kept well entertained! And while we are no party animals, we wanted a “township” with choices of izakayas and eateries for the evenings – we didn’t want to be boxed up in an all-inclusive resort.
Hakuba Valley is not as commercialised or westernised as Niseko and Hirafu village. Though hardly a “secret” amongst skiers and snowboarders, Hakuba is considerably less crowded. Skiing in Hakuba with the kids was fantastic. The snow kept falling though it was already almost spring when we visited. The landscape was beautiful.
Photo taken at Hakuba 47, at the view point by the Restaurant Alps 360, near to the submit. We stuck to the green runs, and were able to ski top to bottom at some resorts. We identified three resorts with green runs that looked challenging enough, yet “doable”, and were not disappointed.
Evenings were spent soaking in our hotel’s mineral bath, before venturing out for dinner at one of the many restaurants in the valley.
All in all, it was a great decision and we had a lovely holiday. If you’re looking for a location for that annual ski vacation, or indeed to pick up skiing, we’d recommend skiing in Hakuba wholeheartedly.
Hakuba Valley has 9 ski resorts. We spent four days skiing at three of them.
Happo One, the flagship and biggest ski resort in the valley. The Sakka Beginner’s area, with it’s wide, gentle ski slopes, are perfect for warm ups and getting back our ski legs. My younger son was at first jittery, but after several runs up and down Sakka 2, he’d gained back his confidence. Happo One offers a “beginners pass” for unlimited day use of the Sakka area, and this is great value if you need a day to get back into the groove of things. Later that afternoon, we attempted the Kitano course, further up the slopes.
This was a relatively flat run, so much so that we found ourselves having to “walk” along several stretches.
Widely reviewed as the resort with the gentlest runs, Tsugaike was beginners’ haven. With wide, gentle runs at the base, it doesn’t get much easier! The “Course through the Forest”, a gentle green slope starting near the peak, takes you on a winding, scenic route through the trees back to base. It’s really fun to do, and a great confidence boasting. “Best skiing in Hakuba, best ski day ever!”, according to my younger son.
We didn’t take the time to explore the village at Tsugaike, but it looked pretty and quaint – much more traditional in outlook than Happo Town where we stayed. An onsen is located near the resort’s ticketing booths, with a free footbath for tired skiers.
Personally felt that the gentle slopes here were most suited for beginners lessons. They have a ski school onsite, and more information are on their website.
Technically three separate resorts, Hakuba 47, Imori and Hakuba Goryu share a common lift pass. Hakuba 47 and Hakuba Goryu are joined right at the top too.
And on the quiet Imori slopes, by the Milky Four Chair Lift, there is a snow park – an obstacle course, where you can practice jumps and stunts with your snowboard or skis. Not my cup of tea, but the daredevil older son loved it, dubbing it “a giant snow playground” – multiple falls nonewithstanding.
We had several satisfying top to bottom runs from the Zizou peak, at 1,676m. Route 8 intertwines route 1, a popular intermediate slope, good for the more advanced skiers in the group. The boys were, by days 3 and 4, always that much faster than me…
Hakuba 47 was also the boys fave for another reason – Pizza House Louise. Located at the base of the 47 Express Line 8 Gondola, each pizza is made to order in an authentic wood stove, and supposedly serve the “best mountain lunch” in Japan. The boys love it.
Several resorts we didn’t visit included Iwatake Snowfield, Hakuba Cortina and Hakuba Norikura.
A tip on purchasing lift passes – several locals advise against buying multi-days passes, advising instead utilizing coupons and special daily deals. At our hotel, the coupons were available at the information counter too. Check out Hakuba.wordpress.com and SnowNavi Hakuba for their recommendations.
We stayed at the Hakuba Panoroma, a 15-room hotel in the Happo town area, located a 5-minute walk from Happo Information Centre. We had a mountain view family room, which comes with a Queen and two single beds. It was basic, but comfy, clean and well-sized. While housekeeping service was a bit of a hit and miss, we really enjoyed the simple home-cooked breakfast served every morning. The onsite indoor mineral water bath (like an onsen) was also a big plus – we used it twice daily, before and after the slopes.
The hotel offers free pick up service for arriving guests from the Happo Bus Station and the Hakuba Train station. They will also ferry you to Spicy Rental to pick up your gears.
Shuttle buses to Hakuba 47 & Hakuba Goryu stop directly at the hotel, and if you’ve ever lugged around skis and poles with kids in tow, you’d surely appreciate that! The hotel also organizes a scheduled transfer for guests to the Nakamichi slopes (of Happo One) and the Happo Information Centre in the morning.
On cold evenings, walking out to dinner might be a little daunting, the main downside. But then again, we are a little spoilt
All in all, Hakuba Panoroma was a very decent choice, delivering what my son calls good “price to quality ratio”
Do check out Hakuba Hotel for more choices – many to choose from, from traditional ryokans that offer half board, to western style hotels, and self-catering apartments and chalets. Echoland and the area near Sakka ski area (Happo-One Beginners’ ski area) are most popular for families. Logistically, staying near to the Happo Bus Station is good too, especially if you plan to ski at the various resorts around the valley.
We really, really wanted to try the Hakuba Sierra Resort; however it was fully booked the weekend we were there, as there was a ski competition going on that weekend. Never mind, good reason to revisit 😉
Many stores to choose from. Spicy Rental has a huge presence and we see them at all the resorts we visited, as well in Happo Town and in Echoland. I had some probelm with my ski boots on the second day, and was able to exchange them for another pair at the Tsugaike outlet, though my rental was originally with the Echoland outlet.
While Hakuba is an expansive area, getting to the ski resorts is easy, with free, frequent shuttle service. The boys, waiting for the bus in front of our hotel, making snow balls to pass the time.
The Happo Information Centre and bus station acts the main “interchange”. Check the timing for the ski buses before heading out – very well organised and fuss free. Note though that these buses are for skiers and snowboarders with equipment only
In the evening, a Genki-Go Night Shuttle bus runs during the peak winter season, taking you between resorts and dining hotspots. It costs 300JPY for adults and children above six. Much easier we felt, to call a cab for our family of four. Base fare starts at 800JPY, and a ride between Echoland and Happo is usually under 1,000JPY.
We caught the NEX train from Narita to Shinjuku, where we caught the Highway Bus to Hakuba (a five-hour bus ride).
During the winter season, there are regular buses between Narita / Haneda International Airport and Hakuba Valley. Two companies provide this service: Nagano Snow Shuttle and Alpico Bus. These buses run only from mid- December to mid-March every year, so check the websites and pre-book your seats. This would have been our choice – had we been travelling during the ski season
Chuo Taxi also offer a “shared” taxi service, where international visitors are consolidated into small groups base on flight arrival timing. It’s costlier, but the drivers great you on arrival and send you directly to your hotel in Hakuba – for international visitors it doesn’t get easier than this.
It is also possible to catch the Shinkasen to Nagano station, from where you could connect to Hakuba on an one-hour bus ride. There are also limited express trains running from Tokyo to Hakuba station. We didn’t want the hassle of changing trains and buses frequently, what with two boys and four tag-along luggages between us. Check Hyperdia for information on connecting trains.