HAKUBA

hakuba

hakuba

HAKUBA

A prosperous post-Olympic resort of fairy lights, cuckoo clocks and scary slopes

Success came suddenly and recently to the fairy-lit village of Hakuba, the most glamorous of the resorts in Nagano.

Until skiing was introduced to Japan around 1900, this town was largely unvisited, apart from monks seeking solitude or the traders on the salt road, bringing their valuable currency inland and over the mountains.

Hakuba received its first ski lift in the 50’s and was visited mostly by hard core Japanese skiers.

The world saw Hakuba sparkling on the international stage of the ‘98 Winter Olympics, hosting the Alpine, Ski Jump, and Cross country events. That changed everything. It stands out for its advanced slopes and the steep, long drops that attract the thrill seekers.

The first morning I went straight to Iwatake, one of Hakuba’s nine resorts.
You really can’t prepare yourself for such a vast expanse of clear blue, to be floating high above all those other mountains, so near the edge.

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As the cliche says, it was so beautiful I really did forget to breathe. There was also the wind. Could I trust it not to carry me away? The drama of what I saw on the opposite peak was not reassuring, with dry snow being whipped about like smoke.

Terrified or not, the only way down is to ski down, and you find that even if you don’t want to, you can.

The hotel I stayed in was the Hakuba Tokyu, one of the top-end hotels of the town.

I was grateful for the lazy comfort of my well-appointed room with deep carpet and elegant furnishings.

Dinner was orthodox, elaborate French, with its silver service, fine China, and no surprises.

The other guests were mostly an older crowd. The ones at the table across from ours talked the whole night about how to enjoy skiing.

The hotel hot springs were vast and bright, lined in gleaming tiles. There was a sign explaining how intruders are forbidden, and threatening random key checks of all bathers.

It seems these Hakuba guys really are new to this hot spring and graciousness thing.

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They should talk to Nozawa. Not that the town is staid. There is a healthy diversity in prices and the nightlife, with little mini-cultures taking hold
here and gathering at different bars. I spotted Reggae skiers and a few of their
murals.

I heard there’s a new breed of vegetarian crystal-loving skiers, and for sure there are plenty of shopping-loving skiers, with something to buy every few steps you take.

The Shakespeare Hotel is one such place. Its architecture is pretend British, with its log-vaulted ceiling and western-style rooms. Its shops are filled with cute, high-quality Japanese souvenirs and ski clothes.

There were even racks of opulently coloured, beautifully designed Goldwin ski gear. The designs have the kind of asymmetries and contrasts you would find in a refined Japanese garden. I won’t find these in Australia.

Having a Goldwin suit is a little bit like owning an Apple Mac, in that it looks expensive, disappears into the background, and takes away all your problems with its hidden pockets which appear when you wish for them.

It turns out that the construction of these jackets is based on ancient armour. Like Ogasaka Ski, Goldwin is one of those samurai-spirited companies with a long history, which has strived for excellence.

On my final morning, I had a chance to get up early and watch the snow jumpers compete. Of course, they are not jumping, they are flying. One of the banners for the event has the slogan, “Never good enough.”

Some people are just born with a desire to be chasing greatness, and I’m realising you find plenty of them here on these snow fields.

Should I feel sad when they still believe, after all that hard work, they are never good enough?

Maybe its the chasing, rather than the arriving, that’s the fun of success.

Hakuba isn’t the first-choice designation of the Japanophile set, but it is one of the most beautiful ski resorts in the world. The presence of all those Europeans, so far from their own snow, is a big vote of love.

Hakuba Goryu

Number of lifts (Incl. gondolas): 13
Number of runs: 16
Longest run: 5000m
Maximum elevation: 1676m
Steepest slope: 35 degrees
Terrain: Beginner 35%, Intermediate 40%, Advanced 25%
Night skiing: Yes, until 21:30
Season: Late November until early May
Other: Park facilities include rails, boxes, walls and a quarter pipe.

Hakuba 47

Number of lifts (Incl. gondolas): 6
Number of runs: 8
Longest run: 6400m
Maximum elevation: 1610m
Steepest slope: 32 degrees
Terrain: Beginner 30%, Intermediate 40%, Advanced 30%
Night Skiing: Yes, until 22:00
Season: Early December until early May
Other: Park facilities include kickers, rails, boxes, walls and cross country terrain.

Happo-One

JS1312_SKIN_L38Number of lifts (Incl. gondolas): 24
Number of runs: 14
Longest run: 8000m
Maximum elevation: 1831m
Steepest slope: 35 degrees
Terrain: Beginner 30%, Intermediate 50%, Advanced 20%
Night skiing: Yes, until 21:00
Season: Early December until early May
Other: Park facilities include quarter pipe.

Tsugaike Kogen

Number of lifts (Incl. gondolas): 19
Number of runs: 37
Longest run: 3500m
Maximum elevation: 994m
Steepest slope: 40 degrees
Terrain: Beginner 30%, Intermediate 40%, Advanced 30%
Night skiing: Yes, until 21:00
Season: Late November until early May
Other: Park facilities include quarter pipe and tables.

Hakuba Iwatake

Number of lifts (Incl. gondolas): 16
Number of runs: 15
Longest run: 3800m
Maximum elevation: 1289m
Steepest slope: 35 degrees
Terrain: Beginner 30%, Intermediate 50%, Advanced 20%
Night skiing: No
Season: Mid December until early April
Other: Park facilities include the slopestyle kickers, rails and waves.

YUDANAKA, SHIBU ONSEN

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YUDANAKA, SHIBU ONSEN

Cobblestone streets and riverside inns:
treasure towns of traditional Japan

manhole design

Manhole design

The historical hot spring towns have been refining the art of making visitors happy for over 1,000 years.

Shibu is essentially one long cobbled street, with over 50 traditional hot spring inns, or Ryokan.

If you have seen the dazzling Studio Ghibli animated film, Spirited Away, you’ve already glimpsed Shibu, with its 400-year-old bathhouses faithfully waiting for the gods to come and bathe.

These twin towns put effort into providing Japanese cultural experiences for their international guests. It was decided that I would first experience the joys of origami.

origami

origami

Surrounded by town officials, I succeeded in making a possibly very useful paper crane.

Back outside, people dressed in cotton bathrobes shuffle by, their faces glowing a soft pink. Some collect stamps at the public bath entrances to prove they had been victorious in visiting all nine, and collect their reward of health and happiness.

I bet they are the same kind of people who enjoy origami.

I stayed at Biyu no Yado one of many large and impeccably-run traditional inns in Yudanaka. In my tatami-scented room, I found teacups, tea and hot water were positioned so that everything was close to hand. The guests don’t know why life suddenly seems so light and manageable, but it’s all carefully engineered. The evening’s entertainment was dinner, an endless succession of tantalising little dishes. The most memorable experience was when I had to pick my own shiitake mushrooms from the log which they grew in. Actually, it was a clever paper-pulp log that they packed for me to take home, along with a thoughtful stash of useful
origami cranes.

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Elaborate meals at Biyu no Yado Inn

The owner of Biyu no Yado inn was telling me about an unusual guest from England. This fellow was an award-winning nature photographer who booked in for 22 days. “He left every morning at ten, spent the day photographing the snow monkeys and came back at four. We worked hard to make him happy, as he is a vegetarian!” The hot spring bathing monkeys are a great tourist drawcard for Nagano. Just watching their expressions as they take refuge from the snow, worried little faces taking pleasure in the hot water, fascinates us. You have to earn your time with the monkeys. It takes a 30 minute walk up a mountain path that can be treacherously icy. An old Japanese lady who saw me sliding around gave me two walking sticks she had just finished with.

There is talk of constructing a road so busloads of tourists can see the monkeys without wasting time. The refined people of Yudanaka do not like this idea. The long walk is beautiful and prepares your heart to see the monkeys. You forget about the built world and you become a forest-dweller.

monkey

Signboards explain the monkey visiting etiquette: Don’t talk to the monkeys. They don’t understand your language. What sounds friendly to you may be a taunt to them.

Don’t look into their eyes, as that’s an aggressive act, and you might get attacked.

Don’t eat in front of them. They do not yet associate humans with food and that’s the way it needs to be.

The Japanese macaque is the northernmost dweller of all primates, except for us
humans.

The monkey park is a 10 minute ride from Yudanaka and 20 minutes from Shiga Kogen.

yudanaka-set

SHIGA KOGEN

Shiga Kogen

Shiga Kogen

Number of lifts (Incl. gondolas): 62
Number of runs: 84
Longest run: 4000m
Maximum elevation: 2307m
Steepest slope: 39 degrees
Terrain: Beginner 46%, Intermediate 40%, Advanced 14%
Night skiing: Yes, until 21:00
Season: Mid November until early May
Other: Park facilities include kickers, rails, boxes, and waves.

Find your groove on the slopes

find the right slope for your skills

Find the right slope for your skills

The word “Kogen” in Japanese translates in “high lands”. With a peak of over 2,300
meters, the resorts of Shiga are celebrated for their fine dry snows, and on clear days the dazzling view to the next prefecture.

Shiga Kogen is the largest ski area in Japan, with an interlinked collection of 22 resorts and over 120 interconnected lifts and gondolas. Imagine zig-zagging across the mountains all day, gazing across the peaks you’ve just conquered. I didn’t have the chance to do so because I got dazzled by the vastness at the first peak, but maybe you will. Lucky I had a capable instructor to coax me down or I’d be there still. I took to Ken right away. His English had that no-worries Californian accent, while his heavy-duty suit and lean face gave him a manga hero look. “You look like a fire-fighter,” I told him. “That’s because I am, as well as an instructor, snow shoveler, and other things.” Life is like that in the mountains. We skied all the way down a slope which ended right on the doorstep of a small hotel. “Come in, boots and all,” a sign said, so that’s what we did, with lunch on our minds. It was a hotel that looked like it had been in the family a long time, full of mother’s pot plants, framed embroidery, and children’s books on the 60‘s style tables. When little girls appeared and started tumbling over my instructor, that’s when I realised what some of Ken’s other jobs were. Namely, this was his family hotel. I was scared to go out after lunch, but this is Shiga, with every kind of run to choose from. We drove to Okushiga, one of the more isolated areas. They found me an beginner’s heaven that was snowboarder-free, wide and flat, with no distractingly magnificent view to ruin my focus. I didn’t have my Ken, but Mr. Sato who runs one of the large hotels, Villa Ichinose, volunteered to come down to be my companion. We worked out that if he was behind me, acting as an invisible guiding voice, I could forget about the outside world and relax. My body and brain started communicating again, and a gliding rhythm appeared.

field and lifts

My instructor and hero, Ken

I’m now convinced you can’t think your way to success. You just need to prepare the right surroundings, including great teachers, so it all just clicks. With all the large Japanese group tours that come to Shiga, the focus is on the slopes, not the food or nightlife. Most visitors choose a meals-included package and do their eating and socialising with their companions, mainly due to the lack of local restaurants or a real town centre.

The town of Ichinose, where I stayed, could be seen as the de facto main town of Shiga, and the best place to find a meal.

With the help of Facebook, my friends gathered their old friends and local gogetters for a BYO nightlife. We spend a lively evening at the Okinawa-themed pub, The Olympic at our hotel. As soon as the first dish appeared, a crispy chewy savory pancake, with unusual Okinawan beer, I knew the owner was passionate about the food he creates and that it would be delicious. The islands of Okinawa have a distinctly different culture and cuisine to the rest of Japan, so even for domestic visitors, this might be the most exotic food to be had in Shiga. For Nagano’s 1998 Winter Olympics, Shiga hosted downhill ski and snowboard events. In part due to this, overseas visitors to the area have been increasing every year. It’s usual for the staff to speak some English. Shiga Sugiyama ski school is a large, capable institution with international teachers who provide lessons in English and other languages, and anything else you might need to make life on the slopes brilliant.

With its high altitude, the Shiga Kogen ski season runs from early December to May. The ski area is part of a Japanese national park, which in the summertime becomes a place for hikers to enjoy the lakes, forests and wildlife unlike anywhere else in Japan.

Back in 1980, UNESCO designated the majority of Shiga Kogen as a Man and the Biosphere Reserve, one of over 600 in the world. These are places where researchers are looking for innovative, whole-system ways for humans and the rest of the natural world to coexist with each other.

From the ski lift we saw strange footprints.

“Kamoshika” said my companion. I know Kamoshika, a Japanese goat-antelope, from the Studio Ghibli animated film Princess Mononoke. Imaginative, I thought. This peaceful animal, with its wolf-like fur and mouse-like face, is said to be a protector of forests. It is only at this moment that I find out that this mythical beast actually exists. My companions weren’t teasing me when they said that Shiga Kogen is an otherworldly place.

Another special animal of Shiga is the Okojyo, a little mink-like creature. The Okojyo puts on a white coat for the winter, just to keep out of your sight and keep you thinking she too is mythical. If I ever find myself back at Shiga Kogen, it would be for hiking in mythical forests and I would bring a delicious lunch box of my own.

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