Hakuba, in Nagano, most well-known for being the first ski resort in Japan to host the Winter Olympic Games in 1998. A lot of friends ask me, why Hakuba as compared to Niseko – a popular ski destination for many tourists from SE Asia and China? I have summarised in a few points below:
- It’s at the heart of the beautiful scenic Japanese Alps, which means the alpine views that one gets here is not just of one mountain but many, which you notice very well when you are on the slopes and even when driving to the different slopes and town areas. In Niseko as one skis down the slopes, you tend to just see one Mount Yotei.
- Close proximity to Tokyo. I am not kidding you when I say you can be in the ski slopes in 3 hours from Tokyo. It takes around 3 hours in total (train + car) to get to Hakuba, which makes this place pretty appealing. I always take the train from Tokyo Station to Nagano, and we rent a car from Nissan Rent a Car and drive to Hakuba. You may see more information on getting to Hakuba here.
- Less expensive hotel rates (for now) compared to Niseko. In a way, Hakuba is like Niseko about 10 years ago, perhaps, less developed but so much potential.
Given it’s geographic location, naturally, the season here is shorter compared to resorts in Hokkaido, looking at the recent 2016-2017 conditions. The best time to go is mid January to early February, which has the best powder snow, and also one can avoid the busy Japanese school holidays, given this location is very popular with the locals too! Going in end February or early December can be risky as snow can be bit soft or not enough. The snow conditions during the period of our stay here was not so great – it was more icy and not many slopes were open then.
The view from one of the viewing decks at Goryu.
Slopes at Hakuba Goryu.
WHERE TO SKI
Slopes access: In Hakuba, unlike other resorts like Niseko, there is hardly any ski-in ski-out lodging. It will be best to take the shuttle bus service which some selected service apartments and chalets offer, or you drive. The only thing for drivers is it’s a pain to find parking if you reach the slopes anytime after 8.30 am during peak season, so it is best to go early.
The good thing about Hakuba is if you go at the right time of the season (ie. powder snow conditions), you are spoilt for choice in terms of the variety of slopes. The most popular is Goryu and Happo One – Happo One has the ski jump where the Winter Olympics was held, but based on what many people tell me, Goryu is better than Happo One, which explains the crazy queues at Goryu when we were there. Wait time on the gondola was close to 30 minutes, yes yes it’s a reminder not to go during the Xmas to New Year period. There’s also Hakuba 47 which is slightly smaller, and wasn’t open when we were there.
For warming up on first day, you can start off at the Ilmori slope, located next to Goryu. It is much quieter and gentle gradient, and you can ski across to Goryu once you are nicely warmed up. This area also has parking so it might be a better choice as well.
One of my favourites is Tsukaige, which our ski instructor – James brought us to on our last day of skiing. It has super wide slopes, and really pleasant, located around a 15 minutes drive from Goryu.
Caution: I have to stress to everyone, from my observation, many of the snowboarders in Hakuba do not keep a safe distance from other skiiers and snowboarders, so it can be quite dangerous as many of them can be beginner snowboarders. So, don’t take for granted and always check your surroundings 360 degrees whether you are skiing or snowboarding. It’s even more dangerous for skiiers, given how we face the front of the slopes more, and we can’t really see what is behind us.
It’s nice to be carried while someone else does the skiing!
Gorgeous sunny day on the slopes at Goryu.
Slopes at Tsukaige.
Y and R’s shadows in the snow. How lovely!
WHERE TO STAY
Unlike other resorts like Niseko and in Europe where there’s a distinct developed village, in Hakuba, they aren’t as developed yet, and shops and restaurants tend to be bit more scattered with higher concentration in the Happo One and Wadano Area. Hence, naturally there will be more options for lodging in these areas. I personally won’t recommend staying in Hakuba town, as it is slightly further from the popular slopes like Goryu and Happo One.
We stayed at Koharu Resort located in the Wadano village, booked through Japan Ski Experience, who was pretty efficient in recommending places to stay. Given it was just R and Y plus me, we booked the studio- which cost us 205,000 yen for 6 nights during the peak season from 26 December to 2 January. It’s quite a simple service apartment, but had decent concierge service, was comfortable, and packed in all the requirements that we needed for the stay, such as washing machine, small kitchenette for cooking. The location was also within close driving distance to many of the places we planned for skiing and eating.
Other places that I would recommend for bigger groups like 2 to 3 bedrooms:
Gakuto Villas – Phoenix Chalets
And if you would like to splurge, you may check out Phoenix One and One Happo under the One Chalets group, probably the most ‘luxurious’ in terms of fit out for lodging in Hakuba.
Koharu Hotel exterior.
All settled into our cosy studio apartment.
SKI & SNOWBOARD RENTAL
There’s probably a few options depending on where you stay, but in Wadano area, the most convenient place will be Rhythm, located across the road from Mominoki Hotel. The coffee to go here is decent if you need a perk me up while renting your ski or snowboard gear. Boot Solutions – a very reliable store offering customised ski boots and snowboot shoes, is housed in the Rhythm store too. If you book your appointment for a custom measurement in the morning, they can possibly get you your brand new custom shoes by end of day or early next day morning for collection. Be sure to book early ahead of time online.
SKI AND SNOWBOARD LESSONS
Hakuba Snowsports – they have a good team of instructors, main base is in Escal Plaza at Goryu, and plus point is they can come pick up people for lessons – you can read more on their website. You can contact Daniel, the owner of Hakuba Snowsports at email@example.com for bookings.
Plenty to rent at Rhythm.
Boot solutions store in Rhythm.
YIPPEE! Jumping in the snowy forest is my favourite activity!
WHERE TO EAT AND SHOP BY AREA
Windy Kobeya (〒399-9301 Nagano Prefecture, 北安曇郡白馬村 北城和田野4836−5, Tel: +81 261-72-5382)
Hands down, my favourite place to dine at in Hakuba! The restaurant is located in Windy Kobeya Lodge, and was just next door to where we stayed at Koharu. Serving up very good quality beef selections from Shinshu, Black Wagyu and Kobe, you can have them yakiniku style, shabu, or sukiyaki style. We really enjoyed our Yakiniku here. This is a super hard to book place, so be sure to make bookings really early.
This is one of my favourite areas to drive out to for these few places I am gonna share below with you. It’s also home to the larger supermarkets like Jusco, if you wanna stock up on food supplies. Hakuba Station is located in this area, and you can buy advance tickets for train rides leaving from other stations here. Honestly, there’s not as much high quality gourmet food in Hakuba, food here is more casual, and it may be harder to find as good quality coffee as my favourite Mountain Kiosk Coffee in Niseko, but still there’s still some decent food haunts to share with you.
Gravity Worx (Nagano Prefecture, Kitaazumi District, Hakuba, Hokujo, ６３０５, Tel: +81 261-72-5434, Reservations preferred)
This is a great place for lunch or dinner, we enjoyed it so much we came here twice. Run by a Japanese lady, this place serves Italian pastas and pizzas. They take great pride in sourcing their produce and make a lot of things from scratch such as their signature sun-dried tomatoes, chilli oil and house salad dressing. I think it is one of the better places for sure for a Western meal in Hakuba. Just be respectful and ask for permission from the owner if you wish to take pictures of the restaurant interiors.
Outside Gravity Worx.
For coffee and cake break, in Hakuba Town, 2 places to visit are:
Senjeu Coffee (〒399-9301 Nagano Prefecture, Kitaazumi District, Hakuba, Hokujo, ５８４８−１５, Tel: +81 261-72-5005)
The environment here is pretty zen, with a very modern Japanese interiors, counter seating facing the barista as well as some smaller table seating. The coffee here is more drip coffee style which I find a little bit light as I like my coffee more robust, but they have pretty nice homemade cheesecake, and they make their own sourdough breads, which was sold out by the afternoon when I went, so be sure to go early if you wanna try their homemade breads.
Coffee Baisen (〒399-9301 Nagano Prefecture, Kitaazumi District, Hakuba, Hokujo, ３３３５−, Tel: +81 261-85-0191)
This is another quaint little coffee place, located in a wood looking hut. They have a good selection of different coffee beans which they roast in house, and compared to Senjeu the coffee here is more robust. You gotta try their tiramisu in a cup if you are a tiramisu lover like me, it’s pretty good for Hakuba standards!
Coffee Senjeu exterior.
Delicious cheesecake and drip coffee at Senjeu.
Great selection of coffee beans at Baisen.
Can’t wait to dig into the tiramisu at Baisen.
If you are craving sushi, honestly, I find the standards of sushi in Hakuba is not that great, I am puzzled if it’s due to the geographic location? The best place in Hakuba is at Sushi Kikyoya in Hakuba Town. It’s really a lot more casual, and not as refined as sushi places that I have tried in many other places. The uni here didn’t taste that great, it’s safer to go with the typical raw fish and roe. It gets really popular, so be sure to make reservations ahead of time! (〒399-9301 Nagano-ken, Kitaazumi-gun, Hakuba-mura, Hokujō, １９０９−１ ききょう屋, Tel: +81 261-72-3633)
The front facade of Sushi Kikyoya.
Having my uni roll, sashimi and apple juice.
One of the must visits when in Hakuba Town is the North Face Gravity store ( Japan, 〒399-9301 Nagano Prefecture, Kitaazumi District, Hakuba, 大字北城5930−1, Tel: +81 261-85-2855).
This is probably the nicest and coolest North Face store by far in Japan, even better then it’s store in Niseko which is much smaller. Be prepared to spend money here, as they have a fantastic selection of North Face for Japan clothing for ladies’, men’s and kids. This was one of our favourite haunts when killing time in Hakuba. Not the cheapest but probably more stylish than some of the other outdoor brands. We were lucky to catch their sale which starts in late December.
North Face Gravity – my favourite store in Hakuba.
Echoland’s town seems to have more pubs, and I hear from Y’s ski instructor that his colleagues like to go to Mockingbird for drinks, which I didn’t manage to check out. There’s also some smaller ski shops here, if you want to take a walk and see what’s around this town area. We visited Izakaya Hie (〒399-9301 Nagano Prefecture, Kitaazumi District, Hakuba, Hokujo, ３０２０−８６８, Tel: +81 261-72-8035) next to Mockingbird for dinner, which serves up pretty decent yakitori, and local Japanese izakaya food (See the slideshow below). It’s definitely better than Izakaya Kaz (in Mominoki Hotel) which I tried as well. We had good fun enjoying the night snowfall just after dinner at Izakaya Hie.
Enjoying the night snowfall after having dinner at Izakaya Hie.
Other notable eats in Echoland (which I will share in my Google Maps) are:
Little Alaskan – apparently I have heard this is the best burger in Hakuba, located in a small burger truck. They have recently opened another second location opposite Escal Plaza at Goryu.
Soba Zen – located a few doors down from Little Alaskan, it serves up the best soba noodles in Hakuba, according to some insiders. I wasn’t feeling like soba so didn’t manage to try this.
Jing Hua – this is a famous Shanghainese restaurant from Singapore known for their steamed dumplings and Shanghai la-mian (noodles). I haven’t tried this branch yet, so not sure how the quality holds up in comparison to the Singapore branch. But it’s a nice option if you are feeling like some Chinese food.
Posing outside Hotel Traumerei – very Tudor-style architecture.
The Misorano area is just next to Echoland, this small area has 2 interesting places I found.
Niku Masu (836-125 Hokujo, Kitaazumi-gun, Hakuba-mura 399-9301, Nagano Prefecture, Tel: +81 261-85-2920. Reservations a must.)
This quaint little place that specialises in hamburg steak and beef steak is located just across from the iconic Traumerei Hotel. Located in a cute wooden cladded house, it has a totally festive feel when we walked in here for lunch. We noted they have special larger cuts of steak that can be pre-ordered for bigger groups, but decided to go for the hamburg steak. I won’t say it’s the best compared to others I have tried in Tokyo, but decent enough for a post-ski lunch. My only complain is they cooked our hamburg steak well-done which ended up being a little dry, so one advice is to tell them your preferred done-ness if you dine here.
After lunch, we had good fun, taking some nice photos outside Hotel Traumerei across the road.
The exterior of Niku Masu and digging into my Hamburg Steak.
Mon Pigeon (〒399-9301 Nagano Prefecture, Kitaazumi District, 白馬村北城８２８−３３３, Tel: +81 261-72-3535)
Super cute bakery in the Misorano area, which sells lots of cute knick knacks along with their cakes and pastries. I enjoyed the apple pie as compared to the strawberry shortcake. Look out for their cute golden retrievers, who are really friendly. Anyway, when in Hakuba, you can’t go wrong with anything apple given Nagano is well known for their apple produce. So I would say 9 out of 10 times, any place that serves up apple pie – that is usually pretty decent.
Posing with all the cute knick-knacks in Mon Pigeon.
Near the Slopes – Ilmori
Ilmori Crepe Truck
I have no idea exactly the name of this crepe truck, but it’s located just across from the Ilmori slopes near the parking area in an orange truck. It’s definitely a nice dessert break after all that skiing!
Crepe truck at Ilmori.
Waiting for my yummy banana crepe.
On the Slopes – Goryu
Japan in general doesn’t have much apre-ski on the slopes, but thanks to James our instructor, this was the closest to dining on the slopes – at Fushya Restaurant in Goryu. It is located on ur left if you are facing the slopes. Best way to get here is take the first chairlift on left and get off and ski down and go towards the right. It’s famous for its vintage cars – I am always curious how the cars got up there.. hmmm. It serves up simple katsu curry, other rice sets and my favourite Japanese oden.
Gorgeous sunny day in Goryu!
If you have time to spare, it’s worth taking a short day trip to Obuse – lovely little town known for their chestnut produce – there’s tons of shops selling chestnut centric products from paste, jams to soft ice cream and more. Considering Y and I don’t like chestnut, I have to say it’s worth a trip to have some of their soft ice cream and walk around the little town. The more famous and scenic spot is the Jigokudani Monkey Park (around 1 hr 45 mins drive away from Hakuba), which is really worth a visit to see these friendly monkeys chill out in the hot springs. You could choose to do a day trip, or move to this area and stay in one of the nearby ryokans like I did. Read my blog post from 2015 on this!
Love the Japanese alps behind me!
If you are tired from all that snow activity, you can rest assured of hot spring choices in Hakuba! In the Wadano area, I tried the one at Mominoki Hotel and Hifumi Hotel (Reserved only for their restaurant and hotel guests). But I think Mominoki is better also in terms of views, as theirs is outdoor. Other areas I have been recommended include: Azekura, located in the upper part of Wadano and it’s usually JPY 3000 for 50 minutes for private booking. This place is located in the very upper part of Wadano and just about 8 minutes walk from Koharu Resort. There are also lots of public onsens in Hakuba. I heard it’s worth making the trip to Highland Hotel (Tenjin-noyu), which has an outdoor onsen with fantastic views over the village, ski resorts and Japanese Alps!
I hope you have enjoyed reading my blog on Hakuba, for a quick summary feel free to download my Google Map of Hakuba (see below)! It’s chock full of my recommendations above plus some other places I didn’t manage to try but highly recommended by fellow Hakuba insiders.
Behind the scenes of my winter fashion shoot.
And that’s it ta ta for now, till the next ski trip post!