You know you’re in the company of serious mountains not when they look big, but when you feel small.
At 1850m just below the peak of Happo One (pronounced oh-nay), looking north to the towering, craggy, almost-3km-high peaks of Shiroumadake, Shakushidake and Hakuba Yarigatake, you’re standing among giants. It is spine-tingling, and not in a throwaway, cliched sense of the phrase… I literally got chills as I scooted off the top lift and out into the scene. Sliding over to a steep drop off to take a photo triggered a rush of adrenaline… in fact, with an irrational sense that I may lose control and fly off the edge, I got down on my hands and knees and crawled through the crusty powder the final metre or two before the dropoff.
These photos don’t do the experience justice. The only way to truly understand the depth of what I’m describing is to do it yourself.
I’d long heard and seen pictures and maps about the vast Hakuba Valley and its 10 alpine resorts, but visiting a place for the first time always brings full colour to the scenes you had imagined. One of the main aims of my first week-long trip to Hakuba was to get a feel for the area and understand the lay of the land. And that too, meant rolling up the sleeves and getting out onto the ski slopes themselves… someone had to do it ;)
Thanks to Hakuba’s new electronic all-mountain pass – the Hakuba Valley Ticket – you can ski every one of the area’s resorts for the length of the ticket’s validity. This is super convenient for first timers who aren’t sure which resort they’re going to want to spend their valuable time at, or for powder junkies who want to chase the snowfalls to where the best powder might have accumulated.
As I always advise others, for your first day at the very least, hire a guide to give you a good introduction to the area and point you in the right direction. Guaranteed, they will get you into the best snow based on the local conditions and point you towards other areas they think you’ll like to hit up later in your trip. When you’re paying so much for a short ski holiday, you’ve got to agree that spending just little bit extra split between your group to hire a guide makes a lot of sense!
Our chalet host recommended long-time local guide Jerry Williams, the owner of GoodGuides in Hakuba and a heli-ski guide in his home country New Zealand in the northern summers. Jerry has lived here for over 10 years and has degree in Japanese language, so he speaks the local lingo fluently and has a great knowledge and respect for the country, culture and people. You know you’re in good hands with his mountain guiding qualifications and experience, but he can also give you an excellent insight into local stories, history and culture – as well as introduce you to some of his secret eat and drinkeries (on that note for lunch he took me to a restaurant called Emu, which served one of the best value and highest quality meals I’ve had in a long time – ¥800 for a huge chicken katsu cutlet, salad, rice and a small bowl of ramen noodles. Unbelievable!).
There had been a centimetre or two of snow overnight where I was staying in Happo, and Jerry figured our best bet would be to head to Cortina (pictured below) – the resort closest to the Sea of Japan and therefore first in line to receive the snowfall coming in from the north. Sure enough there had been a few more centimetres here and we dropped into a few solid, widely spaced tree runs before taking a backcountry run down to the smaller neigbouring resort of Norikura.
We then jumped back into the GoodGuides Delica and drove past the resort of Iwatake to Tsugaike – a resort that doesn’t appear to be one of the main players in the area but offers an impressive array of options for beginners to advanced skiers. The 4km gondola takes you deep into mountainside, from where you can catch another lift up and get some solid tree runs. It also offers heli-skiing from March, although it’s more of a novelty of the flight than a way to access hard-to-reach terrain.
After Tsugaike it was time to mix it with the big boys – first, the linked Goryu and Hakuba 47. Parking at Goryu and heading straight to the top by a series of gondolas and lifts, this was the first time the full majesty of the Hakuba mountains struck me (pictured above). From here you get the full view of the northern Alps at relatively close quarters. During any gaps in conversation on the lifts I noticed Jerry gazing out over the terrain, probably planning trekking routes and mind-skiing all the lines down. I asked him if he ever got sick of looking at these mountains… “Never”.
From the top of Goryu we switched over to do a run down Hakuba 47. This resort gets a lot of snow that stays dry and cold thanks to its northerly aspect. It’s only a small resort with eight main runs and not much off-piste. As the March sun had well and truly cooked the new snowfall by this stage of the day anyway, we stuck to the steep groomed runs and enjoyed the beautiful vistas. The resort also has a great terrain park if that’s your thing.
Back over to Goyru (and a sneaky cerveza at the Corona bar pictured above) and we shot down the groomed runs here as well, again enjoying a view to the east back over the villages in the valley and across the neighbouring ranges towards Myoko and Shiga Kogen, an hour or two’s drive away. Goyru has some long, steep runs and a large base area for beginners which actually forms another “resort within the resort”, Iimori – which we’ll call its own resort for the purpose of our blog title ;)
With après commitments we had time for one more resort in the mid-afternoon – Happo One. And what a climax it was. As the host of the 1998 Winter Olympics alpine events, Happo has a series of long steep groomed runs all overlooking a huge valley up to the main Hakuba peaks above. The view from the top of the gondola is impressive, but it keeps getting better with each lift you take up to the 1850m peak. With some old Olympic signage and paraphernalia around the resort, and its Euro-Japanese village at its base, Happo One definitely has a lot of character and I guess that’s one of the reasons it’s unofficially the main resort and village in the area.
All in all, I’ve been thoroughly impressed with Hakuba’s scenery and old-world Japanese charm, not to mention the great skiing on offer. With only one day available for skiing this trip I’ll definitely be back to cross the others off the list and explore all of the resorts and skiing opportunities in the area.
Hakuba Resorts from east to west:
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