While Tokyo, Kanagawa and a few other densely populated cities in Japan have declared a state of emergency until the 7th of March, life goes on as usual in all the other prefectures. And so, on a long weekend in February, we decided to track out to one of Japan’s most famous ski resort towns: Hakuba in Nagano. This ski resort is probably well-known amongst foreign residents in Japan, thanks to its huge variety of slopes, but also its large population of Australians and other expats who are drawn to Nagano’s mountains.
First impressions on Hakuba & its locals
Seeking comfort and warmth in Hakuba, we booked a room in a lodge in the woods within walking distance of Hakuba’s town center. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that Hakuba’s buildings are well insulated, have double glazing, proper heating and fireplaces! Having air con as our sole form of winter heating in Yokohama, it felt good to experience proper indoor heating again, similar to what we grew up with in Europe.
We were also surprised that wherever we went, we were greeted by mostly Australians and also other Western expats who live in Hakuba. Lots of them actually told us that they spend half the year in Japan to make the most of the snow season, and half the year in Australia to spend time on the beach surfing. We really loved the locals’ laidback attitudes and friendliness. As we had a Western style lunch and fancy cocktails in a speakeasy, it reminded us of our life in Shanghai, where most restaurants and bars catered to expats and offered an authentic experience food, design and service wise.
Snowboarding in Hakuba
Should we take up skiing or snowboarding? This question was in our heads for a good week, before we were able to make up our minds. As J. has skiied before as a teenager, we were both new to snowboarding and most of our friends were into it; we decided to go with the latter. I’ve been fascinated by skateboarding for as long as I could think, but never got a chance to try it out, so I couldn’t wait to try out snowboarding. After a bit of research and our friends’ recommendations, we decided to go with ‘Hakuba Snow Sports School‘ situated at Iimori Goryu ski resort. Even though Happo One is the biggest and probably most famous ski resort in Hakuba, it’s not as beginner’s friendly as Iimori Goryu which is also just a 15 minute bus ride away. Upon the snow school’s recommendation, we rented all our snowboarding gear from Rhythm rentals and then hopped on the free shuttle bus to Goryu. Rhythm just blew my mind in terms of efficiency, friendliness and again being served by Australians and Japanese who were fluent in English and extremely open minded. The only thing you need to watch out for if it’s your first time skiing or snowboarding and you are looking at renting all your gear, is that most places don’t rent goggles and insulated gloves, so make sure you buy them beforehand, as otherwise it’s getting pricey!
We were extremely lucky that not only our shuttle bus was completely empty, but we were also the only ones in the beginners snowboarding lesson that we’ve booked. Our instructor was super friendly and first showed us the basics and then took us on the beginner’s slopes. While J. figured out quickly how to use the lift, I’m glad that the instructor always sat next to me on the lift, as getting on and off with a snowboard strapped to one of your feet is kind of challenging!
On our first day of trying snowboarding, we had a full day lesson which was intense and tiring as we fell on our bums around 100 times. On the second day, we pushed through with another half day morning lesson (full day is too intense!) and then tried to practise a bit in the afternoon, with the result of our whole bodies aching. The day after, we took a rest day, which was more than needed! The morning before heading back to Yokohama, we decided to book our instructor one final time to practise the different techniques we’d learned… and to our intial horror, the beginner’s slope’s lift was closed and we took several lifts all the way up to the top to try out the easy slopes there covered in thick powder snow. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of our lives! Snowboarding in the thick powder snow, while it was actually snowing and low visibility was incredible. As you can’t see the view down the slope (which can be scary for beginners) and know that the snow is super soft, it gives you a lot of confidence and riding down just feels amazing.
Getting to and from Hakuba
We scrambled down to Hakuba after work on Friday first travelling from Yokohama to Tokyo, then taking a shinkansen to Nagano station. From Nagano, we caught the express bus directly to Hakuba Happo. The bus was theoretically very convenient as it takes you directly to the resorts and they are used to stowing skiis and snowboards in the luggage compartments of the coach; however, there was a huge queue for the bus, so it took a long time to get everybody on board and additionally a few people didn’t make it on board as the bus was full. I would advise you to go straight to the bus stop if you are planning on using this connection; though someone told us that they usually send a second bus if the first one fills up. You should also be aware, that the bus was late because it was busy and you may have to walk a short, but probably icey and snowy path to your hotel or lodge.
On the way back, our lodge offered to take us to Hakuba station, where we enjoyed an Aussie burger before getting on the express train bound for Hachioji, past Matsumoto with great views of Fujisan! From Hachioji, we were able to get on the local train directly to downtown Yokohama, which was very convenient though a little bit less comfortable than the first train. In general, we preferred the route back, but bouth ways were the right ones for the time we did it.
Nagano is a truly magical place to explore in winter, whether you want to enjoy snow sports or just relax in nature and take in the magnificent mountainscape.