Powder and the glory
Head to Hakuba for fluffy snow and silky noodles
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