Tips for Skiing in the Hakuba Valley Japan
Skiing in Japan is usually very high on the bucket list for ski and snowboard enthusiasts. Famous for its legendary dry and deep powder, combined with an incredible cultural experience, Japan has a lot to offer as a ski holiday destination.
Located just a couple of hours from Tokyo, the Hakuba Valley is a mecca for both local Japanese and international visitors alike. Playing host to various events during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, Hakuba boasts 10 ski resorts and offers terrain for every level of skier and snowboarder, from complete beginner to backcountry expert.
Recent years have given rise to a lot of development and investment in the Hakuba Valley, with new accommodations, flagship retail stores, and restaurants popping up. The resort infrastructure has become very English-friendly, making Hakuba a fantastic destination for international travellers looking for a magical winter holiday experience.
Here are my top tips for organizing and enjoying a ski holiday in the heart of the Japanese Alps.
When to go
The winter season in Japan usually runs from early December to early May, but the peak period for powder and the best snow conditions in late December through to late February. Those hungry for waste-deep powder will want to focus on January and February, though with the holiday period falling during those months (school holidays, New Year, and Chinese New Year), prices can be a little more expensive than what you will find in the shoulder seasons.
March is an excellent off-peak time to visit outside of the busy and popular holiday periods. In March you’ll find quiet slopes, a deep snow base, and cheaper accommodation prices, so definitely worth considering if you aren’t restricted by dates.
How to get there
Hakuba is conveniently located just a few hours from Tokyo. The resort is easy to reach and there are a few different options for getting there:
- The fastest way to reach Hakuba is to take the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Nagano city, followed by a local bus. This is a popular choice since it’s quick, convenient, and involves the quintessential experience of riding the bullet train – a must on any visit to Japan!
- If you want hassle-free and reasonably priced transport direct from the airport, then Nagano Snow Shuttle offers round-trip service from both Tokyo airports (Haneda and Narita). Pre-booking is essential.
- If you are spending a night or two in Tokyo before venturing out to the mountains, you might consider taking the Super Azusa Express train which departs once per day from Shinjuku (very early in the morning) bound for Hakuba. No changes are required and all the spectacular views of Mount Fuji and the Japanese Alps you can handle are guaranteed.
- If you are travelling on a budget, the Shinjuku to Hakuba Happo highway bus is a great option. It takes twice the amount of time (compared to travelling by train) but is half the price, and offers very enjoyable scenic views of the Japan Alps as you travel up through the Azumino valley to reach Hakuba.
Choosing your Hakuba accommodation
There is a fantastic selection of accommodation options to choose from in Hakuba, everything from traditional Japanese inns and western-style hotels to modern and luxury apartments and chalets.
The Hakuba Valley and its 10 ski resorts are very spread out and there’s no true centre to the village. Popular areas to stay in include Happo village, Echoland, Wadano, Goryu, and Tsugaike. They all have their own unique advantages and features.
With the wide range of options (budget, style, location) comes the daunting process of having to choose. There are some tour operators like Japan Ski Experience who are specialists in the area and can help to narrow down your search and recommend the most suitable accommodation for your group, as well as provide all services required such as airport transfers, lift passes, ski rental, lessons, and day trips.
Where to ski
With so many resorts to choose from in Hakuba, where do you start? Here are my recommendations for the best spots.
Beginners: Head for the 1.5km wide lower mountain beginner slopes of Tsugaike mountain resort. This is the largest beginner area in Japan and tends to be nice and quiet. Ideal for kids and beginners looking to learn and build their confidence on the snow.
Intermediates: Iwatake mountain resort has lots of fun and cruisy slopes, perfect for intermediate skiers and snowboarders. The alpine views are sensational and don’t miss stopping by the amazing Mountain Harbor bakery and viewing platform.
Advanced: Expert skiers and snowboarders will love Hakuba’s largest resort, Happo One. Home to the Olympic downhill skiing courses, the slopes at Happo One are steep and challenging.
Powder hounds: Hakuba Cortina resort is famed for its steep and deep off-piste and tree skiing terrain. Its location at the northern end of the Hakuba Valley (near to the Japan Sea) means that Cortina typically receives more fresh snowfall than all the other resorts. This resort is the stuff of legend and a must-visit for powder lovers.
Experience bathing in Japan’s famous onsen hot-springs
No Hakuba ski holiday would be complete without soaking and relaxing in one of the resort’s many beautiful natural onsen hot springs. You’ll find public onsens dotted all over the village, plus some inside hotels which non-guests can pay to use.
These are my top 3 unmissable Hakuba onsens which you simply must experience on your Hakuba ski holiday.
- Tenjin no yu at Hakuba Highland Hotel: This beautiful onsen offers breathtaking views of the Japanese Alps and Hakuba Valley ski resorts from the outdoor bath. The perfect choice on a bluebird day.
- Happo Onsen: This public bathhouse is conveniently located in central Happo village, just opposite the Happo bus terminal. Open daily from morning until evening, the indoor and outdoor baths are the perfect places to relax and unwind after a big day on the slopes.
- Shobei no yu at Hakuba Mominoki Hotel: The perfect spot to rejuvenate tired muscles, while watching snowflakes fluttering down. The outdoor bath here is simply magical, while the indoor bath and sauna complete this tranquil and soothing experience.
Rent a vehicle: explore and go sightseeing!
There is no denying it. The Hakuba Valley is huge! There are 10 very different ski resorts to explore and while there are shuttle buses, it’s certainly a great idea to rent a car and enjoy discovering everything Hakuba has to offer at your own pace. Not only can you check out all the different resorts on the Hakuba Valley lift pass, but you can also explore further afield and go sightseeing on days off skiing.
The Nagano region has some impressive cultural sights to discover. My top 3 recommendations for day trips from Hakuba include:
- The famous Jigokudani snow monkey onsen (about 1.5 hours by car)
- Zenkoji temple in Nagano city (1 hour by car)
- Matsumoto Castle in Matsumoto city (about 1 hour by car)