Travel period 24-31 Dec 2012
Heading up to the slopes for some organic cocaine in Hakuba
Had enough of dealing with the summer heat, we got to thinking “wouldn’t it be nice to go snowboarding for Christmas?” We decided Japan was the destination for us. Given that was where we always want to go. So two days before Christmas 2012, Stephen and I went to Japan.
Normally I organised our own travel, but since this is our first snowboard trip, and I wasn’t familiar with the package deal, we went to a travel agent and very kindly let him do all the work. The package included flights, transfers, accommodation, snowboard + boots hire, lift pass for six days, JR East Pass (4 flexible days) and JR Rail Pass (7 consecutive days) was sorted. And we organised the rest of our itinerary.
Getting to Hakuba
We flew into Tokyo. After arriving at Narita Airport, we cleared customs and immigration before boarding the Narita Express to Tokyo (approximately 1 hour). And departed for Nagano by Shinkansen (approximately 1h 50min) both are covered by JR Pass. From Nagano station East exit to Hakuba-Happo by Alpico bus (approximately 1 hour). Fare fee 1,800 yen/person.
We were dropped at the Happo bus stop in Hakuba town and 15 mins later, the shuttle bus from our hotel arrived. After dropping our bags off, and despite the fact we hadn’t slept for a really long time, we headed straight out to the “Spicy” snowboard rental shop and got all our gear sorted. By the next day, we were ready to hit the slopes.
The Hakuba Valley is a huge expanse of resorts offering an incredible variety of terrain for skiers and snowboarders alike.
Situated in the heart of the Japanese Alps, the alpine scenery is truly spectacular with huge rugged peaks towering above the town below. Consistent powder snow on many challenging runs at Hakuba makes this region a high priority destination for serious ski travelers in Japan. The distinct small village atmosphere of this resort town is another major draw card.
Hakuba boasts the steepest runs of Japan’s 600 ski resorts. From one end of the valley to the other, there are 11 resorts accessing over 200 runs offering all types of different terrain. Our pass gave us access to all mountains, but unlike some other resorts, they aren’t all interconnected by slopes or lifts, so you have to get on a free shuttle bus to get from one to the other.
Since we hadn’t snowboarded before, we decided to get a private lesson (provided by Evergreen Outdoor Tours) on the first day. It took us the whole first day to do anything that even resembled snowboarding, and without the lesson, we would probably be still been on the bunny slopes by the end of the day.
By day three, we got a powder day and Stephen was more than ready for it (didn’t realize he actually had broken ribs from day one). Great effort! There’s nothing in the whole world like carving down a mountain with snow coming down, spilling over the sides of your board like fluffy white cotton wool.
There was so much to love about boarding in Hakuba. Despite the fact it was peak time, and most days the runs were crowded, in general there were very few times we had to line up in order to use the ski lifts. Because the ski resort was so huge, there were many slopes to choose from, and we just picked routes where we were less likely to encounter the largest crowds. And we always went to Happo One (pronounced “happo oh-neh”). The nearest slopes are only three minutes’ walk from the hotel.
We stayed at the four-star Mominoki hotel, located in Wadano area, next to Happo-One lift. We could not have loved it more. The staff were absolutely helpful and welcoming, spoke good English, and we able to communicate pretty well. The staff at the front desk knew absolutely everything about the town of Happo. Mominoki is one of Hakuba finest hotels, noted for its luxuriousness, location and one of the best onsen’s in Hakuba.
Our room was a good size by Japanese standards, had a comfortable bed and best of all, a toilet with a heated seat. Breakfast was included in our stay with both Western style and Japanese style buffet, we have to say it was delicious.
The hotel has a beautiful lobby with open fire place and lounge area to relax in and take in the mountains. Guest facilities include a coffee shop, three restaurants, internet access and a lounge bar.
The lounge bar offers delicious coffee and English tea in the daytime, and wines and Japanese sake, as well as cocktails, at night (happy hour 4pm-6pm). There was plenty of time for us to relax and have a few drinks before for dinner.
The hotel also had its own natural indoor and outdoor traditional onsens spa (public baths), one for males and females. If you’re going to Japan, make sure you read up on onsen etiquette, but the main tip is that clothes of any sort are definitely not allowed. After a day of snowboarding, lying in a warm onsen, looking up the sky while snowing was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
There are over a hundred restaurants in the Hakuba valley with a huge variety of cuisine from all over Japan and the world. Here is a selection of our favorites.
On the left-hand side just after you get out of the Mominoki parking lot, Hakuba 70 is a quaint and cosy place run by friendly owners. The menu consists of simple and tasty local dishes. It’s also open in the day time, and is a great pick for lunch. We had the fresh homemade soba noodles soup and udon noodles soup. Both were delightful.
A new and stylish izakaya adjacent to the pub. Izakaya Kaz is a stylish Japanese Tapas dining bar conveniently located in the same building as The Pub and Ogino’s Steak House. They have a wide range of traditional Izakaya and teppanyaki menu, hot pot menu, sushi and sashimi selections as well as local Sake and Beer.
The Northern European style restaurant is elegant, and the buffet style service is very popular for both Japanese and international guests. Great service and tasty food.
Run in a cosy authentic log cabin with great service by what I assume is family owned business, we were always well greeted. This cosy restaurant seats about six tables. Real home cooked delicious and traditional food, and the home-made plum wine goes down a treat. Highly recommended after a long day in the snow. It’s open for dinner only.
We selected the gyoza and chicken yakitori for our entrees, both well prepared and tasty and opted for the sukiyaki hot pot for our main. The hot pot provided for plenty of food for the pair of us. It was cooked with the assistance of staff on our table.
We also had the stir-fried noodles (Yakisoba) which was warm & hearty, and the prawns tempura with soba noodle in miso soup. Serve it up with some chilli powder for that added spice if that’s your preference. (We ate here five consecutive nights in our one-week snowboard trip). On departure, we received handmade origami which provided for that added final touch to a great night.
With all the muscle stiffness from snowboarding and falling over many times, we took two days off the slopes. We went on to Hakuba station by foot. Its about 3 km from the hotel, and it takes approximately 35 minutes’ walk or 7 minutes’ drive.
With the views of the Alps we took our time to walk, and soaked up the Japanese Alps Nagano had to offer. We spent about two hours in town visiting the shops and had lunch at one of the many noodle shops near the station, before we walked back to the hotel.
The next day, without the snowboard gear, we went on for a ride on gondola up to the top of the mountain. It was an absolutely spectacular alpine view from the top. Sitting in the snow, sipping our hot chocolate, watching the silent, blanketed world below was a surprisingly peaceful experience.
Sadly, we didn’t have a chance to visit 1400 years old Zenko-ji temple, but we heard the fascinating history of this national treasure, as well as Japanese Buddhism and Shintoism. Definitely on our list to be visit on our next snowboard trip.
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