It was in March 2016 that I set out to visit three skiing areas in Nagano Prefecture. From Tokyo, I headed out by bullet train for an hour and a half to Nagano Station before changing over to bus for just under another hour again. My destination - Hakuba.
The village of Hakuba is located in the northernmost reaches of the Japanese Alps, the collective name for three ranges in the middle of mainland Japan with breathtaking views and natural scenery that have earned the village the title of the best in the country.
In the early hours of the morning, I headed out to Tsugaike Kogen and hopped on board one of the gondolas. Arriving at the other end, a part of the skiing fields had been turned into a heliport, and soon enough, the sound of rotors could be heard on the winds. Before I knew it, a dark spot in the sky gradually grew into the shape of a helicopter as it drew close, the force of the winds stirred up by the props almost palpable. I put my ski gear in the helicopter, and got on board.
We were up and off the ground in an instant, gliding through the skies above the snow peaks with an uninhibited view of 360 degrees out over the alps. After a flight time of some five minutes, the helicopter began to wheel through the sky, the g-force pushing my into my seat as I gazed out over the mountains spread in front of me before coming to land at the 2,200m mark. This experience itself was well worth my visit.
The name Hakuba itself comes from the characters for ‘white’ and ‘horse’ in Japanese, and stories surrounding its origins abound. Some say it comes from the beautiful white line of peaks that looks like a white horse, while others say it comes from the patterns of the rocks and snow instead. Whatever the origin, you have but to lay your eyes upon the beautiful white lines of the mountains to get a sense for just how hauntingly befitting a title it is.
Hakuba is actually the collective title for a multitude of skiing areas in the region. While advanced courses are in abundance here, the largest being the Hakuba Happoone Winter Resort that draws advanced skiers from across Japan, there are also many unique skiing areas such as the Hakuba Goryu Ski Resort and Hakuba47 that offer tree run courses, non-compacted snow courses and parks, and the Iwatake Snow Field where you can enjoy a full 360 degree view out over the northern alps and the basin between the peaks of Hakuba itself.
My destination, however, was the Hakuba Tsugaike Kogen skiing area, which is home to more beginner-friendly courses and a hit with families. What drew me here this time was the start of helicopter skiing. The unstable weather of winter puts a halt to all flights out of consideration for safety, making this one treat you cannot enjoy in the winter. Helicopter skiing here usually starts around 10 March each year, and is a popular service limited to only 400 people a day.
While you can ski more than 14km from the landing site down to the foothills, today I chose to hike on up to make the peak of Mt. Norikura my starting destination. Fixing a protecting climbing skin to the soles of my skis, I made my ascent up the wide, open snow plains, arriving at the top in an hour and a half despite running into some challenging spots along the way.
There at the peak, everything was still, everything was quiet. The view out to the Sea of Japan made for a breathtaking sight, as there I stood on top of the world in my secluded wonderland. And now, the time had come to make my descent along the skiing fields in a spray of snow, a sensation made all the more precious for the long journey that had brought me to the top. Along the way, the snow began to give way to the start of the treeline, turning my descent into a tree run.
Even though it was springtime, the snow was still very light. Skiing over corn snow with its featherlight coating of ice is an unusual experience that can only be enjoyed at this time of year. Nearing the bottom of the slopes, the buildings of the skiing area came into sight, and I arrived out of the forest to the base of the lifts at the top of the skiing area. Continuing on down from there to the base brings the course down from the peak to a total of 17km!
When you get back from the slopes, why not settle down under the warm sun of the terrace for a beer, another pleasure of the warm spring weather.
For those who have only enjoyed Hakuba in the winter, this is one place to mark out for a visit in the spring.
Many new and interesting stores have opened up in the Hakuba area in the past few years. Close to the bus terminal that serves as the main hub of the village when you come to visit via bus, stores dedicated to snow-related brands such as Patagonia and The North Face have been opening up one after the other, and are causing quite the stir. The North Face also comes complete with a cafe space that is popular among the many Aussies who visit in the afternoons.
The Australian skiing shop Rhythm Snow Sports can also be found here, and is also home to the company Evergreen that holds backcountry skiing tours, and you can find the equipment required for this type of adventure on rental. Come take a look!
Another hot spot is the recently opened brewery in the Hakuba Iwatake area that is a bustle with patrons in the evenings. My personal recommendation is the original Hakuba beer. From the skiing to the township at its foothills, Hakuba continues to grow and evolve, and will no doubt continue to draw acclaim as a popular skiing destination from here on as well.