If you’re looking for a place where you can shred waist deep snow, eat incredible food, soak in a relaxing onsen, and end the day surrounded by the friendliest people around, then put Japan to the top of your travel wish list ASAP.
Japan hadn’t always been on my travel list, but thanks to pro snowboarders and adventure sport films bringing Japan and its high snowfalls into the spotlight, it quickly jumped to the top of my list. After seeing snowboarders carve through that fluffy, deep snow, and having many friends attest to how incredible it was, I had to experience the magic for myself. Soon enough, I was headed to Japan!
There are endless opportunities for skiing and snowboarding in Japan. With so much terrain and so many different resorts, we didn’t really know where to start. Two popular places kept coming up in my research: Niseko and Hakuba. I reached out a friend who had been to both places to gain some insight. Her opinion? For a quick trip and a good combination of riding and culture, head to Hakuba. Niseko receives more snow, but she compared it to Whistler. As someone living full time in a ski town, I didn’t need to travel across the world for more of the same thing. So, Hakuba it was. Next time I go back to Japan I will check out Niseko and other areas (yes, I can already tell you there will definitely be a next time).
The journey began with a very long flight to Tokyo. It wasn’t my first time doing a long-haul flight, so with enough snacks, my little pillow, compression socks, a good book, and some movies and writing, it was over quickly (ok, maybe not so quickly). I met up with my partner Link at Narita airport and from there we began the next stage of our travels.
From Narita we needed to catch a train to the main Tokyo station. We purchased a Japan Rail East pass, which allowed us to use the trains for 5 days in a 14 day period. This was beneficial as we obviously needed to return and had some time planned in Tokyo. The pass was cheaper than if we bought train tickets there and back, so I definitely recommend this option. With our tickets purchased, we jumped on the Narita Express to Tokyo Station, then from there we got on the Shinkansen, also known as the Bullet Train. The Shinkansen took us from Tokyo to Nagano, reaching speeds of 320km/hr! It was a very fast, yet very smooth ride. Once we arrived in Nagano, we waited to catch the bus to Hakuba. After over 24 hours of travel we were finally on the homestretch! I’ll admit, I was a little anxious about navigating the train stations and figuring out tickets and schedules (I mean, as a Canadian, Japanese isn’t exactly easy for me to read), but overall the experience went smoothly and there were more English translations and signs than I anticipated.
Finally, around 10:00pm, we arrived in Hakuba and caught a taxi to our hostel. We were booked to stay at Cortina Backpackers. By the time we got there we had been traveling for nearly 30 hours, so we hit the pillow and crashed immediately. In the morning, we decided to take the day to orient ourselves and figure out our transport options. This was a great way to not completely waste the day with jet lag. Hakuba has many resorts and little villages, so we grabbed a bus schedule, figured out times and fares, and went into the main area, Happo-One. Here, we grabbed some groceries and wandered around to get our bearings.
If there was one thing besides that snowboarding that I was really looking forward to in Japan, it was the onsens. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring. So, for our first afternoon we headed to the onsen nearest our hostel. A few things to know ahead of time about the onsen:
- You do not wear clothes
- Onsens are separated by gender
- Check if your onsen allows entry with tattoos. Many traditional onsens do not permit bathers to have tattoos. The original reason for this was to keep out the Yakuza and members of other crime gangs who typically had many tattoos. With the rise of tourism, some onsens have become more flexible on this rule. If you have tattoos, ask the staff at the desk when you enter what their policy is. Most of the time I found it was ok where we were. The odd time it was not.
- Once in the change room, remove your clothes and store them and your other belongings in the baskets provided.
- Enter the onsen area and fully wash yourself. Shampoo and body wash are provided. One onsen we visited even had scrubs, razors, lotions, etc. Make sure to fully wash your body and hair before entering the onsen.
- Soak! Enjoy that fresh, hot spring water. It is hot though, so your visit may not last too long. Make sure to cool off from time to time if you stay a while.
Now that we were relaxed from the onsen, we went back to our hostel for a little nap before heading for dinner. I know when you’re traveling you feel like you should be go go go and need to maximize your time, but jet lag is real. If you need to take a nap, its ok!
Once we were feeling slightly more awake, we went into Happo-One to check out a dinner recommendation a friend gave us for a restaurant called Yamagami. If you find yourself in Hakuba, I cannot recommend this spot enough! They specialize in party platters of gyoza. 30 gyoza for 1800 Yen ($20 CAD). This is a great option for travellers on a budget as you can share the meal and cost with friends. We waited a while for a table but it was completely worth it. We ended up eating here three times during our trip #gyozaobsessed.
With a belly full of gyoza, we were soon off to sleep to rest up for our first day at the resort. For our first snowboard day, we went to Cortina seeing as that was closest to our hostel. For resort lift tickets you have two options: purchasing day by day or purchasing a Hakuba Valley pass. The Hakuba Valley Pass is a little more money but includes the shuttles, whereas going day to day is a little cheaper but you pay for shuttles. The choice is yours.
We spent the day exploring Cortina and the neighbouring resort, Norikura. We mainly stuck to groomers as they were in a bit of a dry spell snow wise for our first few days. We soaked in the gorgeous valley views and simply enjoyed being back on our boards.
After a full day, we went back to the hostel to cook dinner. We wanted to stay in a hostel so that we would be able to cook our own meals and save some money by not eating out all the time. This is a great option to save money if you are traveling on a budget.
For our second day, we headed down the road to Tsugaike. This resort is much bigger and the views are incredible. If you want to ride the trees at Tsugaike (and many other resorts), you need to do a 15 min presentation and obtain a special pass. If you are found in the trees without this pass, you will be stripped of your lift ticket. I personally loved this resort. The terrain is varied and the runs are nice and long. There is even a foot onsen at the bottom of the gondola. The perfect place to warm up your toes while you wait for the bus.
After snowboarding, we headed back into Happo-One to catch a bus to Nozawa Onsen to see the fire festival! We were lucky to be here for this special event. The Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival is an annual even where two teams of men (one of the ages of 42 and one of 25), battle to set fire to a wooden structure. The older men defend it, while the younger men attempt to set fire to it. These ages are considered unlucky. The festival is fascinating, there is lots of Sake to be enjoyed, and all in all its a great experience of Japanese culture. We booked our tickets and bus with Liquid Snow Tours and I highly recommend checking this out if you are in Hakuba at that time of year.
Our fourth day in Hakuba was a much anticipated powder day! We went back to Cortina, seeing as we could walk right out our door and get fresh tracks. To say it was amazing would be an understatement. We enjoyed endless face shots, fresh tracks all day, and laughed until our cheeks and cores hurt. We lapped the trees all day and managed to find fresh snow each time. I was on cloud nine! Once our legs were too tired to ride any more, we headed to the onsen to soak our sore legs and warm up. Ah, snowboard and an onsen. Does it get much better?
The next day, we decided to have a rest day and go check out the famous snow monkeys. If you haven’t heard of them, the Japanese Macaque get their name, snow monkeys, because they are the most northern living, non-human primate. They spend their winter days soaking in the onsen. It really is an incredible sight to see.
We did not book a tour for this as going independently was better for our budget. To do this, we took the bus from the main Happo-One station to Nagano. From Nagano, we caught the bus to the snow monkey park. It was easy to figure out and the bus times lined up well. After the bus drops you off, its about a 2km walk to see the monkeys. There is a fee to enter the park. The monkeys are comfortable with humans and often come very close. You can see them soaking in the onsen, keeping their babies warm, and sometimes playing and fighting. It’s a beautiful experience to see their tribe.
We took the bus back to Nagano and since we were making a day of it, we headed to visit the Zenkoji Temple. From Nagano station you jump on the city bus that takes you right to the temple. Zenkoji is a very important temple in Japan. This temple is home to the very first Buddhist statue ever to be brought into Japan when Buddhism was first introduced. The original statue is hidden and never to be seen, while a copy of it is available for the public to see every six years for merely a few weeks.
We paid our entrance to check out the main hall. No photos are allowed to be taken. It contains large, beautiful, Buddhist statues, and the energy in there is so peaceful. We also went through the underground passage which you walk through in the complete dark. With your hand on the wall to guide you, the ultimate goal is finding the “key to paradise” The key is attached to the wall along your way and is believed to grant you salvation if you find it. I was quite nervous walking through dark, but sure enough we did find the key. What a unique experience!
We got back to Hakuba just in time for dinner to meet some friends who had arrived in town. If you’re looking for a great happy hour special, check out the Refuel bar and try a Chu-hi. They are delicious and sweet.
Friday, our second last day in Hakuba, was another powder day and I am happy to report it was the most snow I had ever snowboarded on the resort in my life. Make sure to pack your snorkels boys and girls, as we were truly swimming in powder. The day was filled with endless tree laps and the biggest smiles and loudest laughs. I can’t count how many times I got lost amidst all the snow. As with our other powder day, we went straight to the onsen at the end to soak our tired muscles.
For our last day in Hakuba, we rode at Happo-One. This is the resort that hosted the 1998 Olympic games. The conditions were not the greatest, but with long runs and gorgeous scenery, it was a perfect way to the end the trip. I was feeling pretty tired after a solid week of being on the board and the deep snow from the day before, so ripping the groomers was bliss to me.
Sadly, the day came that it was time to leave Hakuba. Of course as we left it was puking snow, which made it all that more difficult to leave. We jumped back on the bus to Nagano then took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo station. We planned to spend the next day exploring Tokyo before our time in Japan came to an end. We booked another hostel, Hostel Ginza, located very close to the main Tokyo station. I highly recommend this hostel. It’s incredibly clean, modern, and feels like an upscale hotel. The beds are little pod-style bunks and the shower facilities are great. From here, it was easy for us to take the train everywhere as well.
After checking into our hostel, we headed out for dinner in Shinjuku. We heard about the incredible places to eat so we took to the train down, wandered into an alley, then found ourselves in a small 10-seat restaurant waiting for who knows what kind of food to be cooked for us. From asparagus to chicken kidneys, the food was interesting and for the most part really good. It’s an experience in its own. With full bellies we wandered around to walk off the food baby and take in the night scene that is Tokyo. Tall buildings, mobs of people, bright lights and bright colours, it was exactly what I pictured Tokyo to be.
For our full day in Tokyo, we made a plan to head to Shibuya and Harajuku. Right as we got off at the Shibuya station, we found ourselves in the swarms of people at the famous Shibuya crossing (the busiest intersection in the world). We also went to see the statue of Hatchiko, a famous dog who waited for his owner everyday at the Shibuya station, even years after his owners passing.
We walked towards Harajuku with a stop at Meiji Shrine. Its serene, peaceful, and really worth the stop. It’s an incredible, green, beautiful space in the midst of such a busy city. After the shrine we walked to Harjuku to find some sushi. The rest of our day consisted of wandering the alleys taking in the unique Harajuku fashion stores, having coffee at a hedgehog cafe (yes, you can drink coffee and play with a hedgehog), and getting animal shaped ice cream cones. It was busy, unique, bizarre, and perfect. Tokyo is such an interesting city to wander around and I was amazed by how clean the city was. There is honestly zero garbage. Considering the quantity of people living and visiting there, it really stood out to me as impressive and inspiring.
Our day in Tokyo was full and tiring so once we couldn’t walk any more, we decided to head back to our hostel and pack up our gear. In the morning, we would take the Narita express back to the airport to begin the next part of our travels.
If you are planning a trip to Hakuba, here are a few tips and things to think about!
- A lot of places are cash only and ATM’s are not always the easiest to find.
- Garbage cans are not common. Throw a little bag inside your purse or backpack to keep garbage in until you come across one.
- If you are staying towards Cortina, the bus schedule to get into Happo-One (the main area) isn’t the greatest. It does not run often and does not run after 9:55pm. If I went back, I would stay closer to town.
- Tree skiing is often restricted. Some places don’t mind, other places have rules. If you like the trees, look into the policies at the resort you plan to go to.
Japan is an absolutely phenomenal country. With its deep snow, incredible mountains, delicious food and beautiful people, its no surprise that its quickly becoming a popular destination for many from all over the world. In the short and sweet time I was there, it sure did capture my heart and I can say with great confidence that I will definitely be back one day for more.