Right at the top of my bucket list, was to ski the famous powder in japan. And i'm glad i didn't wait too long to do this. Everyone in the skiing world has heard about the amount of snow that Japan gets every year, but those of you who are relatively new to the winter holidays may be surprised to find that they're places better to ski than the Alps.
When i planned my trip to Japan i wanted to include Tokyo and Kyoto, both of these are in the south island. The most famous ski resort in Japan is Niseko, but this is in the north island. I searched for the best ski resorts in the south island, and found Hakuba valley. Hakuba Valley is made up of 9 ski zones, all connected by shuttle busses and trains that are only £2 to the furthest zone.
We stayed in the village of Goryu, the largest village with the busiest nightlife is Happo-one, But Hakuba Valley is a bit more chilled than in Europe when it comes to Apres-Ski. Generally you get back to your hotel after a long day skiing, chill and soak in the onsens, and then head out for a few chilled drinks and food. The powder is too good to waste being too hungover!!
To get from Tokyo to Hakuba, we had a few options, either take the Bullet train, and then 3 more connecting trains and busses, or get a normal train which was direct and the same overall duration time, and half the price. The train was a good way to see the countryside between Tokyo and the Japanese Alps. Mount Fuji was visible for the first few hours of the journey, towering over the countryside, only disappearing when we started passing through the start of the mountains.
Get around the valley was a doddle, regular buses ran to all the zones so this was no issue, and the hotel provided us with any random lifts we needed.
Ski Hire and Lift Pass
In the Japanese ski resorts, they know people are here for the powder, they also know that japan is very far away for most countries and realise people may not want to drag around their equipment. So they provide high performance ski hire, mainly fat powder skis so you wannabe free riders, who don't have the skis to make the most out of the fluffy white stuff can hire and not worry about the quality
The lift passes can be split up in different ways, you can buy a full Hakuba Valley pass, or you can buy individual passes for the individual zones. Our hotel provided discounted individual passes for all the zones, so we simply told the hotel reception the night before, which zone we was going to explore the next day. We ended up paying £150 for 8 days skiing, which is much cheaper than the lift passes in the French Alps
We stayed in Hotel Mont Blanc, in Hakuba Goryu. Located just a short walk up hill to the gondola to Hakuba 47 ski zone. The hotel was run by a guy called Souza, and he provided some of the best customer service I've ever experienced. Every night we would tell Souza which ski zone we was going to ski at, so he could sort out our discounted lift passes. In the mornings Souza would be saving the breakfast ( which was very different to a full english). The food was of good quality, but Souza also advised us to the best places to go and eat and drink.
We had a large room with 6 futon mattresses to sleep on, we chose this for a more Japanese experience, Not sure my back appreciated it though. Just out side our room was the ski lockers and back exit so getting sorted in the morning to go ski was super easy.
In Japan it is tradition to have an onsen after a hard day on the slopes, the onsen is basically a large hot bath to relax in. We made full use of the onsets in the hotel After initially being told of by a local for wearing swim shorts. You have to be naked to be in the onsen.
Food and drink
Some nights we ate in the hotel, and it was nice, other nights we ended up having a few happy hour beers, and bites to eat in the pub/bars. We tried a couple of restaurants that were nice, the food varies from traditional Japanese noodles and rice dishes, wagyu steak dishes, and some western style food, such as burgers and chips etc.
On the slopes, the restaurants are much cheaper than in Europe, generally it was traditional Japanese dishes, all of which i loved, but they also do some western food, such as pizzas, so those picky eaters can eat as well.
The night life in Hakuba Goryu was super relaxed. Have a few beers, in a couple of bars then go to bed seemed to be the done thing, ready to be up early to make the most out of the powder. The village of Happy-One is the more lively of all the villages, couple of bars with music and are open later, but you'll find these much busier when the powder is not calling.
Things to do
A beautiful short 1 hour drive from Hakuba, is the famous snow monkeys. Jikokudani monkey park is an absolute must! watch monkeys groom each other, play, eat, and chill out in the natural hot springs. If you get a tour from Hakuba it works out quite expensive. but you can get the train to Nagano and then a bus to the monkey park for very little. The entrance is only a few pounds, and requires a bit of a uphill walk, so bring some grippy shoes.
Cortina is one of the zones in Hakuba Valley, and bar far the prettiest. Cortina is literally one big building at the bottom of the mountain, with all the slopes and back country routes leading back to it. Perfectly laid out, purpose built ski area. The building itself is a massive hotel, with restaurants, shops, swimming pools etc, and it really is spectacular.
Included in the Cortina lift ticket, was free entrance into the huge onsen, and 1000 yen discount off lunch. Cortina is a open all areas ski resort, most will have cordoned off areas. Cortina is a true powder playground, you can ski back country and wind up back at the main building, stick to the groomed slopes, or cut through the trees, no where is off limits(at your own risk)
Skiing in Japan has been the most fun I've ever had, so much powder, so much tree skiing. Just be aware you are risking having your lift pass being confiscated if you ski or board in some of the closed areas (although it is worth it)
Due to being so many villages, you probably won't have time to ski them all so make sure you visit, Tsugaike Kogen, Cortina, for the powder and those snow days, and for the bigger areas and groomers head to Hakuba 47 and Happy-one. All the areas do have back country parts, just make sure you know how to get back.
Japan has the best snow, the best food, and it is much cheaper than the usual European resorts, ill definitely be coming back.