Maybe you are the proud owner of an Epic Pass, or Hakuba has just been on your list for a while now. Either way, you’re excited to meet face to face with the breathtakingly beautiful Northern Japanese Alps and eat Japow for breakfast and traditional foods at night.
Surely, Hakuba stands out as one of Japan’s top winter resort areas, offering some of the best winter sports action in Japan. The host of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics consists of 9 ski resorts stretched across a broad valley, and provides more terrain, vertical rise and advanced ski and snowboard slopes than anywhere in the country. Abundant snow falls and excellent powder conditions make Hakuba a continuous top choice of skiers and snowboarders from around the world.
I recently got back from an amazing snowboarding trip to the Japanese Alps, and wanted to share with you my top things to do in Hakuba for the most epic winter trip.
1. Book a Ryokan
Ryokan are Japanese style inns found throughout the country, especially in hot spring resorts. Renting a ryokan is an amazing opportunity to experience the traditional Japanese lifestyle and hospitality. A typical ryokan has a relatively large entrance hall, with couches and chairs where guests can sit and talk. Shoes are removed at the entrance, and if slippers are provided, they must be taken off on tatami floors. The rooms offer elements such as tatami floors, sliding paper doors and windows, futon beds, Japanese style baths, a low table and floor chairs, sliding doors and some supplies for making tea.
Most ryokans feature common bathing area, usually segregated by gender, using the water from an onsen (hot spring) if any are nearby. High-end ryokan may provide private bathing facilities as well.
Renting a ryokan is a special and relaxing experience that everyone should take the opportunity to try.
2. Soak in an Onsen (Japanese Hot Springs)
The hot springs of Nagano are treasured throughout Japan as some of the best. Among the most famous, the Hakuba Valley’s hot springs are renowned for their strong alkaline waters which leave the skin soft and smooth. The mineral water of the onsens is also famous for its healing properties, perfect for soothing sore muscles after a day in the mountains. Onsens in Japan have been used as a cure for physical ailments, as well for their beautifying properties. Soaking in an open-air bath under the backdrop of the Northern Alps after a day on the slopes is one of the highlights of a Hakuba winter vacation.
If your accommodation doesn’t have an onsen, click here for a list of local hot springs. And don’t forget to bathe your tootsies in Tsugaike Kogen in the foot onsen after a big day on the slopes (located near the base of the gondola).
3. Pack Up at the Convenience Store
While we enjoyed eating on lunch on the mountain and going out for dinner, we decided to pack up at the store for quick-to-eat, cheap and yummy breakfast goodies.
Onigiri is the staple of comfort food in Japan, and a very popular dish for breakfast. These rice balls have so many flavours like salmon, umeboshi, Japanese pickled plum, bonito flakes, different kinds of fish roes and so on. One onigiri in the morning and a cup of green tea kept me full for a whole morning on the slopes. Quick, healthy and delicious!
Also, nothing is greater than to start the day with a nice and warm cup of soup (your accommodation will most likely have hot water available at all time).
We loaded our bags with Ramen noodles, onigiris, egg salad sandwiches (incredibly yummy) and fruits (try the Nagano apples they are sublime). And of course sake, local beers and plum wine.
4. Ride the TsugaPow DBD Trees
Located north end of Hakuba Valley, the resort of Tsugaike Kogan offers one of the best powder ski areas in Hakuba. For intermediate and advanced powder and trees seekers, the TsugaPow DBD (Double Black Diamond) area offers some of the best lift accessible powder runs in the valley. A 15-min safety course highlighting dangers, risks, avalanches, wildlife and rules is required to pass the gates.
5. Hire a Backcountry Guide
The Japanese Alps receive an average of 12+ meters of beautiful powder snow each year, and no other mountain range in Japan has comparable terrain with amazing powder. If you wish to get off-piste, access epic terrain and ride the fantastic backcountry Hakuba has to offer, there are many companies in the valley that offer group tours of all levels, as well as tailored tours.
6. Eat and Drink in Echoland
Rather than a single hub, Hakuba is a vast area with multiple villages. Known as the heart of Hakuba, centrally located between Hakuba 47 and Happo ski areas and surrounded on all sides by the Misorano area of smaller hotels, pensions, residences and holiday homes, Echoland has the highest concentration in town of bars, restaurants and shops in one small area, mostly all located on one street. There are some great little Japanese eateries and izakayas where no or barely any English is spoken, and you really feel like you’re in Japan.
Note that most restaurants on Echoland are extremely busy. It is extremely recommended to make booking wherever possible. Some restaurants won’t accept reservation, so arriving before 6pm help.
7. Experience a Japanese Izakaya
An izakaya is a typical Japanese gastropub where people enjoy coming for a drink and a bite to eat. Known for their bustling atmosphere, tapas and local sake to enjoy in a comfortable, relaxing environment, going to an izakaya with colleagues after work is a cultural habit in Japan. While the Japanese are generally very reserved, in an izakaya the atmosphere is very lively (literally a gathering to drink). It is a popular place for employees to meet after the day’s work to relieve stress and have a good time together.
8. Follow Hakuba on Social Media to Stay in Loop of What’s Happening in the Valley
After a fantastic day on the slopes, be sure to check out Hakuba’s diverse nightlife, which offers something for everyone. Whether you are in the mood for a quiet pub, live music performance or high-energy dance club, Hakuba’s après ski scene has it all. To stay in the loop of what’s happening in the valley, follow the official account Hakuba on social media.
9. Do visit the Snow Monkeys Park
It wouldn’t be a total epic winter vacation in Hakuba without a visit to see the monkeys of Jigokudani. Located near the base of the Joshinestu Kogen National Park, the Jigokudani Yaen Koen (otherwise known as the Snow Monkey Park) is home to a very special troop of monkeys. Those are the only wild monkeys in the world known to bathe in hot springs, making them truly unique. Whether you rent a car or go as part of a tour, the snow monkeys definitely need to be added to your list!
10. Have the Best Time
Sometimes we don’t realize how happy and carefree we really were until we no longer feel it. It’s important to recognize those moments and appreciate them. Take pictures and videos, and share them with your friends online, but remember to turn your devices off once in a while. Enjoy yourself, take in some culture, try traditional foods, chat with locals and embrace and respect customs and traditions. Some of you might surely come back, and others just know that they want to keep on going and discovering new and exciting places. Whatever you choose to do, cherish every moments and have the best time! You might just look back at this trip one day and realize how lucky you were to have fully experienced it.