Skiing in Hakuba
Sarah Mulholland describes the delights of skiing in Hakuba, Nagano.
Boarding the shinkansen (bullet train) bound for Nagano, it’s not long before Tokyo’s tangle of wires, salarymen, skyscrapers and neon lights fade out to reveal the ubiquitous layered and seemingly endless mountainous landscape which makes up the vast majority of Japan.
Dotted throughout this landscape are literally hundreds of ski resorts. Like many things in Japan, these ski resorts are smaller than their European and North American counterparts. However, what they lack in size, they more than make up for in almost incomprehensible quantities of snow falling on a regular basis during the winter months. It’s not unusual to wake up to 1m+ of fresh snow on your doorstep.
Dwarfed by the jagged peaks of the Japanese Northern Alps lies a quaint village made of powder snow. The perfectly flat valley in which Hakuba sits, is in stark contrast to the surrounding mountain ranges which soar almost 3000m into the sky. This is Japan’s largest and arguably most magnificent mountain range.
Each winter Hakuba, located in the Nagano region and famous for playing host to the 1998 Winter Olympics, sees enough snow falling to literally bury the entire village and it’s patchwork of rice fields which line the long valley. At the foot of these huge mountains is a collection of ski resorts which are home to endless powder, pillows of snow and some of the best skiing terrain to be found in Japan.
Tucked away at the northern end of the Hakuba valley lies a real gem in Japanese skiing. A resort with only six lifts, but snowfalls that are something of legend. The aforementioned lifts regularly get completely buried under snow in single overnight falls. Skiing through the sparkly silver birch tree forests of Cortina is nothing less than a completely magical and a quintessentially Japanese experience. Bottomless snow, a playground of powder, perfectly spaced trees and if you are lucky enough, you might spot a kamoshika – a native Japanese serow, which looks like a cross between a deer and a goat. Immersed in raw nature and the silent world of deep snow, as your tracks fill in each lap, the rest of the world just seems to drift away… a far cry from the relentless streets of Tokyo.
Skiing in Japan is an ever so civilised affair. The polite etiquette of this unique society runs deep and taking a chairlift to the top of Cortina’s powder heaven is no exception. The lift operators (mostly elderly farmers) will greet you with a bow, a smile and some courteous words without fail. That is, after they clear the freshly falling snow off the seat for you.
This distinctively Japanese skiing experience doesn’t end there however. A day spent deep in snow wouldn’t be complete without a relaxing soak in a natural thermal hot spring and Cortina has just the ticket. Located inside the resort’s enormous Austrian style hotel at it’s base, is a array of six different baths, including jacuzzi style hot tubs with powerful jets, steam room, sauna, medicinal healing water and an outdoor bath overlooking the slopes complete with tumbling waterfalls streaming from the ceiling. As darkness descends, relax in the hot mineral waters while gazing out to the mountain as big snowflakes fall hard and fast covering up every single trace of the day’s magical fun!