Since I watched the 1998 Nagano Olympics I had wanted to ski in Japan. I was still too young in 1994 for the Lillehammer games to have much effect on me. The ’96 summer games in Atlanta and the ’98 winter games had a lasting effect on me and my fondness for sport. Recently, the dream of skiing (although transmorgrified to snowboarding) in Nagano, Japan came true with my trip Hakuba. I spent three days shredding some of the best snow in Japan and my favorite of those days were at Happo-one. Hint: you can look less like a bumbling tourist if you remember to pronounce it Happo Ouneh, not Happo “1.” It wasn’t a revelation that Happo would be a great place to board, as it is considered one of the top five places in all of Japan to engage in winter activities. Anyway you slide down the hill, Happo-one is world class.
Despite the aforementioned propensity of Japanese resorts for large mogul fields, the crew at Happo divided many of the more difficult runs in to half and half. Nearly all of the runs are wide enough to accommodate a regular groomed run and a mogul area which, as a snowboarder I found to be a great benefit. There is also tremendous amount of variety at Happo, from super long intermediate runs that link the whole mountain together to a Riesen Grat course with a stunning view and some out of bounds boarding that goes right back to the lift. Depending on what is open, there are 24 total lifts at Happo, some runs that were decently steep but a majority of the runs are easy going and most boarders should be able to handle them without too much trouble. Click here for the Happo-one trail map.
My first day there was pretty limited due to weather. Happo is known for being a tad temperamental weather wise. The top half of the mountain was closed in the morning and in the afternoon when they opened the lifts, the visibility was still so low that it was impossible to see more than fifteen meters downhill. I stayed below the cloud cover for most of that day and enjoyed right hand side of the mountain until I tried to make a final run from the peak down to the main gondola. The visibility was still so bad at about 3:30PM that I ended up on the exact opposite side of the mountain from where I had wanted to go. Whoops.
The next day on the other hand was mostly pure “blue bird” after some heavy snowfall over night. I was so absolutely stoked to get to the hill first thing in the morning that I walked to the lift from Hakuba station instead of waiting for the bus. I got there at 7:20AM for the first gondola up and I managed to get six nearly untouched runs in before people started to invade the privacy of my own private snowboarding fantasy. I got to the top lift without ever waiting and managed to slice some freshies into the off-piste area before it got really tracked up later in the afternoon.
Off the Riesen Grat course at the top is a small out of bounds area that was also the sight of a most spectacular fail-turned-awesome. I was going at full clip when my front toe edge caught in a deep pile, causing me to cartwheel head over lead foot. As I came through the second rotation of the tumble, the back of my board stuck into the powder like a shovel. It stuck in so deep that it suspended me standing up, perpendicular, my board angling out at nearly 90° to the slope. I was so impressed with my accidental landing that I had to laugh and take a deep breath before I could keep going down the run.
This is also where I have to register a minor complaint with Happo-one. The exit to the top most lift has some of the best views of the area at around 6,000 ft. and on a really nice day it can be crowded with skiers and boarders who don’t know it at the time, but are going to have a rough go of it to get down. There are only three ways to get off the top: out of bounds, olympic caliber mogul field, or chair lift. Needless to say, the top of the run was riddled with people just standing around trying to figure out what to do with their current predicament or collecting stuff from their most recent “yard sale.” It says on their website that this is an intermediate course, but then has a double black diamond next to it… soooooo, yeeeeeahh.
The food on the mountain was excellent, I stopped and had ramen around 10:30AM, hoping to beat the lunch rush and then be on the mountain when everyone was taking a break. There is also a cafe just outside the top of the Alpine quad with decent coffee and cheap muffins. No ski resort’s food or drink is ever reasonably priced but despite being a world famous destination, Happo was relatively inexpensive in the beer and food department. 500¥ for a big beer is a pretty good price, all things considered.
I didn’t stay near the base of Happo, but I can tell you that area around the base seemed to have the most going on. If you can afford to stay in the hotels and ryokan in the Happo or Echoland area of Hakuba, I would recommend it. If you stay outside of that area, there is a free shuttle for skiers and snowboarders only that picks up at various locations throughout the city. Three different lifts at the base of Happo-one offer walking access from most of of the close hotels, but as I said earlier I walked from Hakuba station without too much effort.
As I was affixing my new 白馬八歩尾根 sticker to my snowboard, I made mental note of just how cool I felt having boarded there. Snowboarding is not a cheap hobby or an easy one, but I’m glad I made the most of this opportunity. For all of the difficulties in getting to around Hakuba without a car, and for that matter getting there from Sendai, it was totally worth it.
Now, if I could just talk Shana into believing that falling down a lot, being cold, and getting wet is really fun…