Hakuba, Japan – A pricey winter getaway.

Hakuba has earned it status as an ideal winter getaway in Japan partly due to its Olympic history, its regular snowfall and its atmosphere. Mostly popular with Australians, you’re more likely to hear “G’day,” than, “Konnichiwa,” walking around Hakuba city. Like many resort towns, there are numerous money pits with which to throw your hard earned money into, outside of snowboarding or skiing being terribly expensive hobbies.

Hakuba at just before sunrise

Hakuba at just before sunrise

Getting to and from Hakuba is best done by bus, as there are no direct trains. The price of the shinkansen ticket to Nagano city will be astronomical on top of 3 hours of regular train fare to arrive in Hakuba. From Narita, Haneda and Shinjuku, Tokyo there are multiple bus services that offer 10,000円 round trip tickets to Hakuba. You can read more about Keio Dentetsu bus service here, which is what I used.

Probably the biggest money drain in Hakuba are taxis. If you recall from our summer vacation posts, taxis in Japan are expensive. A trip from Hakuba station to your hotel could run you between 2,000円 and 3,000円 on the low end. Not to mention there aren’t really enough cabs in peak season for everyone staying Hakuba, so there is usually a wait. In the ice and snow the cabs are constantly slipping and spinning their wheels which we surmised also increased the cab fare, but have no idea by how much. The expensive cab fare compounds with the fact that regardless of the time of day, convenient public transportation is nearly non-existent.

hakuba BnBThere is a train line that has 3 major stops in Hakuba: Iimori station, Hakuba station and Shinanomoriue station. However one glance at the time table for the Oito line and you will defer to other methods of transport. Moreover, the train line in Hakuba isn’t really anywhere near most of the resorts. We stayed just West of Iimori station and it wasn’t a bad walk to the Bn’B, but it was impossible to get to Iimori station by train between 12:30PM and 3:00PM without taking the train 3 stops North to go one stop South.

As far as buses go, there are a couple different “options.” If you are staying within the center of Hakuba, near either Happo town or Echoland, there is a free shuttle, IF and only if, you have skiing or snowboard gear. The free shuttles work in a loop and spoke system through the center of town focusing on hotels and the Happo town information center and stop running around 5PM. There is only one shuttle in the morning from Hakuba station (8:05AM) and it is not really at the station, it picks up across the street from a travel agency here. Some of the nicer hotels will run their own shuttles but be prepared to be confined to the area you stay in unless you are heading to the mountain itself or the Happo-town information center, the only two places with regular bus stops at regular intervals throughout the day, if you are skier or boarder.

The second bus is called the Genki Go bus, it is 300円 per person, one way and has the most stops of any bus in Hakuba, even going all the way down to Iimori area for a couple pick up spots. However, it only comes 3 times an evening at the further out spots and stops running between 9PM and 10PM. So if you want to stay out late and enjoy the night life of Happo or Echoland, you’re taking a taxi back to the hotel or walking.

Since we stayed in Iimori, we were subject to some of the worst of the transportation difficulties that would have been alleviated by staying in a more central location. Our room and board was quite cheap as far as resort towns go (3,500円 per night) but the cafe where we stayed had maybe the most expensive beer in all of Japan. 500円 for a small Asahi was a little steep but since Iimori is at the far south end of town there wasn’t really anywhere else to sit around the fire and have a beer. Not that our hostel had a fire anyway.

It’s become an expectation, particularly in the US and Australia that food and drink ON the mountain is going to be costly. They got you by the short hairs, who wants to leave the mountain and carry their gear around when they could eat right here by the lift? One of the most pleasant surprises in Japan is that food on the mountain in Hakuba was actually cheaper than food in the town. For about 1300円 I got a massive plate of curry and a beer at 47 & Goryu, although we can argue the intelligence of getting a curry while snowboarding, you can’t argue with the price. It’s not cheap but its not insane like the $12 to $15 you pay at a place like Northstar at Tahoe for an awful hamburger. At Happo-one it was even less expensive. For 1000円 I got a massive bowl of ramen and a side of rice, later I bought a 500mL beer for 500円. Where am I going with this? Oh yeah, food off the mountain: Dig deep, it’s pricey. Everywhere we went, particularly drink prices were in the 600円 to 1000円 range and even small plates were hard to come by for less than           600円.

Luckily we met some friends to help us find a decently priced izakaya but still managed to spend a boatload because, well, we ate too much. DUCK YAKITORI. I REPEAT, DUCK YAKITORI. Anyways, food is expensive, particularly in Happo-town and at the base of the mountain. Places like Uncle Steven’s were jam packed, with an hour plus wait to sit, relatively small portions  and a bill that will run you at least 3,000円 a person. Most places were really busy but that’s peak season in a resort town anywhere in the world.izakaya in Hakuba

onsen hakuba

Juuronoyu

There are many onsens in the Hakuba area and I tried to enjoy the local onsen in Iimori called Juuronoyu (十郎の湯). Thankfully we had a coupon to use that brought the price down but as onsens go Juuronoyu was a little pricey (although the beer was cheaper there than it was the bed and breakfast we stayed at). On an unrelated but equally annoying note to exorbitant costs, my nice towel was stolen at the onsen. Theft, particularly petty theft, is highly uncommon in Japan, especially outside of the major cities. The fact that my wallet, hotel key, clothes and wedding ring were all left unmolested but my towel vanished made me think someone just forgot their towel and thought mine would do. Never mind that onsens are nude public baths and there aren’t spare towels just lying around. Luckily I had walked down there with a linguist from Reno who was fluent in Japanese, and he was able to get me two small towels as gifts from the onsen. To this day, I can’t get over having my towel stolen from the locker room of trust that is an onsen. I even stuck around the onsen a while to see if anyone was stupid enough to toss their ill gotten gain over their shoulders on their way out. Sadly, my revenge will have to wait.

My opinion of Hakuba is like a gemini horoscope, two sided. It may be stupid to expect anything else other than highway robbery when staying in a resort town. That’s fair, I understand. It doesn’t mean I have to like it or think its cool. The snowboarding was fantastic. Some of the best I have had. Still not on par with Snowbird, Mt. Bachelor or Kirkwood but it was certainly better than most. If you head to Hakuba, be prepared to be milked for all your worth, and for that matter make sure you really enjoy the snow because you’ll be paying for it.

Two days at Happo-one Winter Resort – Hakuba, Japan

Hakuba Panorama

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.

white out happoMy 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.

Happo screen grabThis 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.

local brew

local brew

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…

Hakuba 47 and Hakuba Goryu Ski Resort

West, between the Iimori and Kamishiro stops on the JR Oito line sits Hakuba 47 and Hakuba Goryu. The mountain Jizonoatama is divided between the resorts and they are connected by a couple major lifts and a double diamond “Adventure Course” (Read: 6ft moguls). Recently I stayed at a bed and breakfast that was walking distance from one of the lifts at Goryu and I spent the whole day on the mountain.Hakuba 47 Panorama

A single ticket works for both sides of the mountain despite the fact that they are treated like separate ski resorts. There is a total of 19 lifts between the two sides and the single ticket will set you back 4800¥. That price is a little steep compared to Happo-one which is also 4800¥ but is nearly double the size. If you are used to the large sprawling resorts of Utah, Colorado and California, Goryu and 47 are more like 1 ski resort divided in half for marketing purposes. When the two sides of the mountain are put together they make a pretty decent resort. If you plan on staying for 2 to 5 days in the Hakuba area, there are 2,3, and 5 day passes that allow access to all mountains and are very economical.

Getting to 47 or Goryu isn’t particularly hard if you are skiing or snowboarding since there are free shuttles from around 8AM that operate from the Happo information center and some from the travel agency across from Hakuba station. If you want first runs and you didn’t stay right at the foot of the mountain then you will have to take taxi or catch the early, early train from Hakuba Stn to Iimori station and walk about 15 min to the chair lift.

Hakuba 47 selfieThe mountain itself isn’t particularly fast or steep but on the 47 side of the mountain there were several decent intermediate and one black diamond that was fast. I liked the black diamond because everyone, their mother, their mother’s cousin and their mother’s cousin’s friend were sticking to the intermediate runs. Also off the black diamond on the 47 side was an “off piste” area with some great tree runs if you are into that sort of thing. I’m not but who am I to board against the grain? For reasons that are unbeknownst to me, Japanese ski resorts really like to place mogul fields in places that they shouldn’t be. While not terribly difficult, a mogul course on an intermediate run is pretty obnoxious for a snowboarder.

The 47 side also has the snowboard park and it looked like the crazy people who enjoy falling on stuff from great heights were having a blast. Although the half pipe did not look well maintained.

The Goryu side was much more crowded than 47 side which is likely due to it being easier to get to the Goryu lifts. Getting to 47 takes about 30 minutes between boarding and chairlifts. Both sides did offer a way to get to the top and have a look out from the summit but I felt the best view was from about half way up on the 47 side where Happo-one was visible across the valley.View of Happo-one from Hakuba 47

Overall I would say that any intermediate boarder or skier would have a great day at Goryu and 47 but a more experienced one would likely be a little “board” with what the mountain has to offer. I found my self going down the same black diamond run a lot because it was empty and the other terrain that was more difficult was covered with moguls or filled with trees.view south from Hakuba Goryu