The year was 1991. My girlfriend was marketing manager for an AM radio station on the Sunshine Coast (4SS for those who were playing along at the time).
Let’s call my girlfriend Trish (because that’s her real name). Trish convinced me, another single girlfriend and a single male friend of ours also in media to snap up a seat on the 4SS Snowbus tour to Thredbo.
Yes, kids, we didn’t fly. No, we sat on a bus for a VERY long time to spend five days skiing all day and five nights drinking all night. I’m not going to spill any secrets (what happens on tour, stays on tour 🙂 ) … except for two: my girlfriend met her husband on this trip and I had more than one unfortunate chairlift dismount incident. The rest is best left in the sealed vault of my early 20s.
Fast-forward 27 years, I’m back skiing again, hanging off a chairlift, with my leg and butt cheek somehow wedged in the arm rest as it starts to make its downhill turn, up and away from the slope. My quick-thinking instructor (hi Matt Alcock) literally yanks me down to the ground, preventing me from heading back down the mountain like clothes pegged to a washing line. I’m “watching” it all unfold like a bad Hollywood comedy while my girlfriend and her 12-year-old son look on in horror – horror that quickly becomes laughter as they realise I’m not that injured. A giant bruise revealed itself on my inside leg a few days later but apart from that, I had my ski legs back … on the learner burner slopes of Iimori in Hakuba, Japan.
Not bad for a 51-year-old who first skied in New Zealand in 1987 and 1989. I had no idea I’d be able to pick it up again so quickly but I did and, more importantly, LOVED it.
(As a side note, I’m sending a huge shout-out to the exercise physiologists at Body Smart for getting my legs ski-ready. I wasn’t sore the whole trip thanks to the training put in beforehand.)
This ski/snowboard trip was many years in the dreaming and about 12 months in the making and planning. After two nights in Tokyo, Hakuba was our first stop. If you’re an Aussie with even the slightest inkling to take a skiing holiday in Japan, you’ll have heard of Hakuba. Hakuba was the centre of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Now, about 150,000 visitors flock to the region for the 60 days of each snow season, many of them Australians.
With the Aussie influx has come western restaurants, bars and accommodation options and a solid party reputation to match quality skiing and snowboarding on Japan’s famous powder.
Hakuba was on my radar thanks to an old friend from my hometown Maryborough, William Beresford, who arrived in the town 27 years ago and has made a family and business life in Hakuba ever since.
Will owns and operates The Boarding Co, Hakuba Car Rentals and the Fish Republik – all businesses I’ve mentioned below. In the summer he renovates and builds houses and accommodation in the area. He steered us in the right direction for our ski and snowboard lessons and helped us with restaurant bookings. He put up with my many emails sent with question after question throughout the year leading up to our trip. He was also the friendly face who greeted us as we stepped off the bullet train in Nagano from Tokyo, transporting 18 of us to our accommodation.
If Hakuba is on your must-do list, then my nine tips for skiing or snowboarding in Hakuba might help with your pre-planning and your fun on the ground and/or slopes.
9 tips for skiing or snowboarding in Hakuba
How to get there
We flew Singapore Airlines from Brisbane via Singapore into Tokyo, before spending two nights in the capital.
We then opted to catch the bullet train (Shinkansen) from Tokyo Station to Nagano. It’s fast, efficient (1.5 hours to Nagano) and you can book online a reserved seat on your desired train 30 days before travel, picking those tickets up at the airport on our arrival into Narita Airport. Book HERE.
If you’re not heading to Tokyo and just want the ease of going from the airport to the slopes direct, then check out the Nagano Snow Shuttle. It will be a longer journey but it might be less stress if travelling in a large group.
From Nagano, a private transfer will work best for a larger group of people; smaller groups can catch the Alpico bus to Happo Bus Terminal. It’s about an hour from Nagano to Hakuba. Your accommodation might offer a pick-up from here or you could catch a taxi or the local Hakuba bus shuttle.
Where to stay
Hakuba Valley is made up of a number of different accommodation areas, many offering ski-in/ski-out options. We stayed at Gondola Apartments in Happo-One, a great central location near the main Happo Adam gondola. Unfortunately my ski skills were not up to the runs accessed straight out our door but we were able to use the free resort shuttle service to easily get to other “green friendly” runs in the district. The location was, however, perfect for walking out to dinner.
Friends stayed in an apartment at the Hotel Villa Hakuba, also in Happo One but 100m from Happo’s Sakka lift, which has great green runs for families and beginners that link further up the mountain with other runs that are for intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders.
Having spent quite a bit of time skiing at Tsugaike Kogan ski resort, if you’re not needing the nightlife, then this peaceful village would be a great place to source ski-in; ski-out accommodation options.
Where to hire your ski/snowboard gear
Your accommodation might have an arrangement with a hire outlet. We chose to rent through my friend Will’s The Boarding Co and highly recommend their service. They picked us up to take us as family groups for our fittings and dropped us back with our gear. At the end of the stay, they collected our gear from our accommodation’s drying room. It was all too easy and Will’s team was super efficient, offering a “Japanese level of service with a Western insight”.
Where to ski
Hakuba Valley includes 11 ski resorts, offering a range of runs for all abilities. The Hakuba Valley Lift Pass allows holders access to nine of the mountains. A seven-day adult pass costs about $480; a child pass $270. The passes are electronic and scan automatically at each lift/gondola if they’re in the sleeve pocket on your jacket.
Iimori was where we had our ski and snowboard lessons on Day 1 and Day 2 through Hakuba Snow Sports.There are great slopes for beginners and intermediates and Iimori/Goryu links at the top to Hakuba 47. The views up there on the bluebird day we got later in the week were incredible.
Tsugaike was our collective happy place. The long, wide green runs were super forgiving for the beginners; and our intermediate and advanced skiers/boarders had challenging runs too. I loved the gondola trip to the top and with a chilled “cat track” ski down through the trees to the bottom. I also loved the onsen foot spa and mulled wine offering at the Tsuga Base bar nearest our bus stop back.
Happo-One is the largest of the ski resorts in the Hakuba Valley, with runs that operate and connect from four lift/gondola starting points: Nakiyama, Gondola Shirakaba (where we stayed), Kokusai and Sakka. Of these, Sakka would offer the most ski-in/out options for beginner skiers.
All but one in our group did ski or snowboard lessons for the first two days. It’s a great idea, no matter what your level as it helps you to more quickly find your ski/board legs. Because we had the group, we were able to configure and pre-book our own private lessons. We highly recommend Hakuba Snow Sports for lessons while in Hakuba. All our instructors were fantastic and we were picked up from our accommodation and driven to where the ski school is located at Iimori. If you’d like lessons near where you are staying, you can pay for for them to come to you. If travelling in peak times, book in advance as spots are tight.
How to get around
Free shuttle busses run to each of the ski resorts in Hakuba Valley. The bus to Tsugaike was just outside our door and we only had to walk about 50m to catch the bus to Goryu and Hakuba 47. Photograph the bus times as they generally run on the hour in the morning; then return on the hour from about 2pm in the afternoon.
There is a paid Hakuba bus service that also runs between resorts in the valley. Expect to pay about $7 per trip.
Taxis are available but in busy times you might struggle to get one when you need.
If staying in self-contained apartments or chalets, some accommodation managers will offer transport to and from the large supermarket to allow you to stock up. We did this on our arrival day (best fun ever!) and then again mid-week.
We also walked out a lot in Happo – for dinners, for convenience store or bottle shop top ups.
Where to eat and drink
We self-catered breakfasts at home and had a stash of snacks on hand for the afternoon when coming off the slopes. At night time, we headed out a couple of times as the big group (can be tricky and definitely something you need to sort in advance); as our own family group or just the adults. For small groups, pop your head in a night or two before you want to dine to make a booking at restaurants that appeal.
Below is a list of places we ate out at or ordered from. It’s by no means exhaustive – there are lots of dining out options in Hakuba – but it will get you started.
Fish Republik – a takeaway (and delivery) option for tasty fish and chips, hot chickens, salads and roast veggies. We ordered in for our large group for New Year’s Eve. Was the best option and so good! (Also owned by my mate Will!)
Gravity Worx – fabulous Italian food cooked fresh using a lot of ingredients grown in the spring/summer months on the premises. This was one of the few places I could eat gluten free. So tasty! (Will’s wife manages the restaurant and cooks up a storm).
Hakuba Brew Pub – this was one of the venues where we could all dine out together, with a pick-up and drop-off service available. The menu includes a mix of western pub staples – from burgers, to parmies, fish and chips, tacos and bangers and mash. Drink prices are competitive. We paid $65 for a bottle of Moet.
Blizzard – this new kid on the Hakuba dining block opened the week we were in Hakuba. It’s a beautifully designed building with a ski installation on the two-storey wall – the skis were found in the basement of what was an old lodge. The speciality is wood-fired pizzas but I tucked in to an amazing pumpkin and mackerel soup the night we dined here. It’s open from breakfast (and All Press espresso coffee) but it’s geared for those hitting Hakuba to party. On many nights you’ll find live musicians and/or a DJ. Client Liaison played the week after we left.
Unjaune – saddle up for fancy, tasty burgers in a very cool timber-rich setting. The staff are all young Aussies and super friendly and the cocktail list is a whole lot of fun too.
The Rabbit Hole – a pick-up and drop-off service is available for this party destination, which has a bar, pool tables and live music. Burgers are the speciality here too.
Corona Escape Terrace – when a bluebird morning on the slopes makes way to a bluebird afternoon, leave the ski boots at home and jump in the main gondola at Happo to catch the last of the sun on the mountain over a bucket of Corona beers.
Umetami – this small Japanese-style tavern was only a short stroll from our apartment and offered up great yakatori, gyoza, edamame and karaage chicken.
Yamagami – we dined out here on our last night and loved it all. Bookings are only available for 5 or 6pm (it’s dark at 4.30pm so this feels like dinner time anyway!). Must orders are the gyoza party plates and meat platters to cook on your own barbecue inset in the table.
For espresso coffee, we had All Press coffee available across the road from our apartment at Woody’s and the best I had in Hakuba was at Zou (near the station).
What to do (when not skiing)
We had a ski pass for each of the days we were in Hakuba so didn’t venture far from the slopes or restaurants. What we did do three or four times was partake in the Japanese tradition of visiting an onsen in lieu of our post-skiing shower.
We found a great private onsen, about 15 minutes walk from our apartment near the Hakuba Springs Hotel. It cost about about $8 each to go in – if we bought our own towels from home.
Men and women onsen separately – and yes it’s a “leave your body issues at the door” situation. Once stripped off, you head into the onsen room and sit to wash yourself before sitting in the mineral hot spring bath. I loved seeing three generations of women from little girls through to grandmas come to the onsen together each day. I was the only Western woman each time I went and it felt like a privilege to be able to access this part of the Japanese culture.
It’s the perfect anecdote for “worked” legs and sore muscles. I also felt energised after each onsen.
What if you get injured
Our son was injured on day two of our two week trip in an incident during a lesson on the slopes. It wasn’t what was in the holiday plan but I have to congratulate both him for his positive attitude and the medical support we were able to quickly and easily access. All payments are made up front but we had taken out a snow pack as extra on our travel insurance, so we have made a claim for those expenses.
We were directed to the Shintani Clinic straight from the ski school (they phoned ahead with all our son’s details) and within minutes of our arrival, his arm was x-rayed and we had been seen by the doctor. It wasn’t a break so we sought out physio treatment and received expert care by Australian physios at Hakuba Physio (and then the following week at Nozawa Physio).
So, tell me, have you visited Hakuba? What tips can you add to this post?
Why travel insurance is as important as your passport
For me, I don’t book a holiday without first taking out travel insurance. Often the time of booking flights and accommodation can be long before the time of travel and you can never be certain of what might happen between then and showing your passport at customs.
I then want to take off knowing that if someone in my family needs it, I’m backed up with help from my travel insurance company. For my last four international trips – to Europe, Hawaii, Bali and now Japan – I’ve chosen and paid for Allianz travel insurance. I also take out Allianz travel insurance for any domestic travel like a girls’ weekend away or road trips we do.
Obtaining Allianz travel insurance is a simple and easy process. I select and purchase my cover online. I’ve found that the insurance cover is competitive in price for the inclusions I select.
For me, it’s about having peace of mind when we travel. I want to know that if anything goes wrong that my family is backed up through medical help or simply help with extra accommodation or replacement belongings should something be stolen.
When our son was sick six years ago while in New York, we weren’t concerned by the potential expense should we need hospital treatment. And when I book holidays in advance, I do so with the knowledge that if unexpected cancellations occur, I’m covered.^
In short, I don’t leave home – or book a holiday – without it.
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Allianz Travel Insurance is issued and managed by AWP Australia Pty Ltd ABN 52 097 227 177 AFS Licence No. 245631, trading as Allianz Global Assistance, on behalf of the insurer Allianz Australia Insurance Limited ABN 15 000 122 850 AFS Licence No. 234708. Any information or advice here does not take into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. You should consider the Product Disclosure Statement available at allianz.com.au before buying this product.
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My 10-step packing guide for any destination
For me, the holiday planning is all part of the excitement and anticipation of being on that escape. I love nothing more than going down the rabbit hole that is the internet looking for inspiration and ideas for what to do at the chosen destination but also for the types of clothes and accessories that will best suit that destination at the time that I’m travelling.
The formula I use for packing is one that can be adapted and applied to every destination and type of holiday. It’s not complicated. If you follow all the steps it’s quite liberating. I can’t ever imagine returning to my bad old days of throwing everything into a suitcase, sitting on said suitcase to get it closed, and hoping that I’d packed what I needed.
Want to get that formula? It’s all in my e-book.