Pow­der and the glory

Head to Hakuba for fluffy snow and silky noo­dles

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination - ADAM H. GRAHAM

I whoosh past a sign with Ja­panese char­ac­ters that may well in­di­cate “dan­ger”, and within sec­onds hit a set of se­ri­ously bumpy moguls, land­ing in a 1.5m-high snow­bank. As with any wipe­out, it takes me by sur­prise. But my crash land­ing is so soft and pow­dery I can’t help but let out a laugh— it is like fall­ing on a fluffy, down-cov­ered bed.

Skiing in Ja­pan is dif­fer­ent from skiing any­where else. For starters, the pow­der is some of the finest and soft­est in the world due to the coun­try’s “ocean-ef­fect snow”. As cold air moves across the Sea of Ja­pan, it rapidly ac­cu­mu­lates mois­ture that gets dumped on land as snow that is rel­a­tively dry and pow­dery, due to its high salt con­tent. The food is dif­fer­ent, too: In­stead of the fon­due that’s a clas­sic in the Alps or the chilli that abounds in the US fields, Ja­panese ski cui­sine tends to­ward mar­bled wagyu beef or clams sim­mered in ra­men broth. And rather than party jacuzzis, you’ll find on­sen, or tra­di­tional hot springs baths.

Per­haps best of all, skiing in Ja­pan can be sur­pris­ingly cheap — a nice al­ter­na­tive to $1300-aday ex­pe­ri­ences in Europe and the top re­sorts in the US — thanks to af­ford­able lodg­ings.

Ja­pan has more than 500 ski re­sorts, si­t­u­ated ev­ery­where from the south­ern­most is­land of Kyushu to the north­ern­most of Hokkaido. Niseko, on Hokkaido, is con­sid­ered to have the best pow­der, though many skiers pre­fer Nagano, host of the 1998 Win­ter Olympics, for its prox­im­ity to Tokyo and nearly-as-good snow. Over­all, Ja­pan sees roughly nine to 18m of snow­fall each win­ter. But I make my way to Hakuba — a vil­lage about 240km west of Tokyo that was one of sev­eral venues for the Win­ter Olympics. The three-hour trip from the cap­i­tal costs about $130, which in­cludes an 80-minute high-speed-rail leg to Nagano and a one-hour bus trip on to Hakuba.

The train ride is grey, pass­ing through the houses that make up sub­ur­ban Saitama pre­fec­ture. But 20 min­utes af­ter the trans­fer in Nagano, I look up from my bento box to find that we are pass­ing snowy vil­lages where cream-topped moun­tains loom over half-tim­bered homes. My friend Ni­cola and I have booked four nights at the cosy two-star Ho­tel Mont Blanc for less than $650. Our room comes with trans­fers, dis­counted ski rentals and lift passes, break­fast and Wi-Fi. There is even a com­pli­men­tary shut­tle to the nearby on­sen, with a post-bath stop at a store to pick up beer, a bot­tle of shochu spirit and snacks.

From the out­side, the 23-room Ho­tel Mont Blanc looks like it be­longs in Eng­land’s Cotswolds. But be­hind its stately row of pine trees and mock-Tu­dor fa­cade lies a busy Ja­panese in­te­rior with blink­ing elec­tric signs and vend­ing ma­chines. In the lobby, we are greeted by the gra­cious, el­derly owner, who in­structs us to re­move our shoes and choose from the rain­bow se­lec­tion of house slip­pers. We pur­chase a dis­counted lift to­ken, which we will ex­change for a pass at the ski area’s ticket of­fice. Af­ter fresh­en­ing up in our small but suit­able room, with com­fort­able twin beds and en­suite, we head out.

I am wor­ried that ski shops won’t have boots to fit my size 11½ feet, but out­fit­ters are well equipped thanks to the abun­dance of Aus­tralian visi­tors.

Hakuba is home to nine ski ar­eas, with a com­bined to­tal of 139 lifts and more than 200 runs, so there’s no short­age of piste. Al­ti­tude tops out at 1800m, with more than 800ha of ski­able ter­rain, as op­posed to France’s 26,000ha Les Trois Val­lées and, in Canada, Bri­tish Columbia’s 3200ha Whistler. But the slopes of­fer plenty of space. We start out at Hakuba Go­ryu, a re­sort with 15 trails and 13 lifts.

The lifts take some get­ting used to, as the seats are low. Most trails are rea­son­ably tame, but there are a few ad­vanced routes and a dou­ble-diamond run so dif­fi­cult that skiers are re­quired to take a les­son on nav­i­gat­ing it.

Hakuba is not as clear-skied and sunny as Switzer­land’s St Moritz and Zer­matt tend to be, but the pow­der is in­fin­itely fluffier. When the clouds clear, a shelf of snow-mar­bled moun­tains, re­sem­bling an up­turned Bundt cake, is re­vealed. Af­ter the first day on the slopes, we take the ho­tel shut­tle to the Shobei no Yu, a geo­ther­mal on­sen, to soak our aching legs in the el­e­gant out­door stone baths and wooden tubs.

One of the best parts of skiing in Ja­pan is the food. Ja­pan Alp In (we think that is its name— there is no sign), a cafe­te­ria on Hakuba Go­ryu’s main slope, is marked with a cor­ri­dor of or­ange flags and ban­ners in Ja­panese that Ni­cola trans­lates as “Curry rice!” and “Free ex­tra big size!” We sit be­side Aus­tralian free­board­ers and feast on crispy katsu — crunchy panko-breaded cut­let of pork doused in curry sauce — and a heap of rice. The meal costs us $10 each.

The next day we visit the more up­scale Fushya, a bit fur­ther down the slope. There, we join a pair of cross-coun­try-skiing Ja­panese grannies warm­ing up near the irori (cast-iron wood stove) and down a few pints of Asahi while re­fu­elling on crunchy panko-breaded oys­ters and steamy ra­men for about $20 a per­son.

In the evening we walk to Canada-Tei, a cosy res­tau­rant in the vil­lage decked with ici­cles and a hang­ing lan­tern. The res­tau­rant’s owner, Shige Ku­ni­moto, serves his de­li­cious wagyu beef sukiyaki udon with egg, bowls of but­tered corn ker­nels and plates of scal­lops swimming in a light, fra­grant broth. The meal comes in un­der $130. You def­i­nitely don’t find sur­prises like that in Gs­taad.

THE WALL STREET JOUR­NAL

• jnto.org.au • hakubago­ryu.com • global.hoshi­nore­sort.com • happo-one.jp

High-fly­ing skier at Hakuba

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