With deep snow and a long season, Japan’s slopes attract keen boarders and skiers, but the monkeys prefer the hot springs
Japan is fascinating, a small and densely populated collection of islands which has developed an exhilarating prowess in all things technological while preserving a culture renowned for its courtesy and orderliness. Throw in some of the world’s best skiing conditions – snow that’s light, dry and very often chest deep, and a season that lasts from December to May – and you can see why it’s been grabbing the attention of dedicated powder skiers and snowboarders for a number of years.
We land at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, a convenient 20-minute taxi ride from the centre, where we arrive at Hoshinoya Tokyo, a traditional Japanese ryokan (inn) perched like a nest among the city’s concrete towers. There the unhurried, meditative pace of spiritual traditions and practices dates back thousands of years and shoes are removed before entering. Incorporating traditional and contemporary Japanese architectural elements such as shoji paper sliding doors, wood and bamboo, and tatami matting, it is a soothing, luxurious and relaxing resting space.
Next day we board a train and head north-east, passing small industrial towns, low-lying agricultural areas and on to Nagano Prefecture and the mountains of Hakuba. To travel on one of the Shinkansen bullet trains, which criss-cross the country at up to 320kph, is to feel as if one is hurtling into the future itself.
By train, it takes under two hours to get from Tokyo to Nagano City, then a taxi or bus to Hakuba makes a trip to the mountains from Tokyo simple.
In summer, Hakuba is a hotbed of hikers and mountain climbers, and in winter, a magnet for skiers and snowboarders. Despite the vast amount of snow it gets, it’s not too cold at between –7 and –2C at the bottom of the slopes and –14 and –7C at the top.
March is a great time to visit; it brings something special with sunny blue days, great snow and quiet resort conditions. It’s when heli-skiing kicks off and the back-country opens up, making easy access to some amazing terrain. April is good for snow touring and, although there is usually a lot of snow on the mountains, most of Japan’s resorts close in May.
We check into the recently renovated KAI Alps in Omachi and are escorted to a traditional sunken hearth, where warm sake is served around a rustic fireplace. This beautiful, traditional inn has 48 rooms across two buildings and it’s a place to experience the luxurious hot springs of the Shinshu countryside. The food here is delightful, creative, delicate and, at times, mysterious. Exotic meals can consist of 10 courses, including salted codfish, owan (deep-fried tofu with crab in a clay pot), sushi topped with king crab, and grilled oyster Japanese leek, all served with precision and perfection.
Traditional chalet-style houses and small hotels line Hakuba’s streets. It’s a quiet place, almost suburban-looking and not commercial. There are plenty of inexpensive B&Bs, such as Black Pine Lodge, which is located close to the main gondola, and the Hakuba High Mount Hotel, situated just outside the town centre.
If you have your own boots and skis, you should consider bringing them with you. Otherwise, during busy season, it is advisable to book your rental gear online well in advance of arrival in Japan. Before hitting the slopes, we make a quick pit stop at Spicy Ski Hire, where they have a good selection of skis.
Hakuba town is surrounded by ski resorts, with Happo One (pronounced Happo Oh-nay) being its flagship ski area. It is the largest, highest (1,831m) and most versatile area, and known as the “steep and deep” resort with the most lifts, the most runs and the best access to back-country skiing.
Happo One has an average annual snowfall of 12 metres and does not open until they have a two-metre base from top to bottom.
Next door to Happo One are the linked resorts of Hakuba 47 (1,614m) and Hakuba Goryu (1,676m). Because of their north-westerly facing direction, the two resorts receive an abundance of high-quality, dry powder snow – the upper Alps Daira is wide and ungroomed and a lot of fun for higher intermediate and expert skiers.
En route to our next resort, we stop to visit Jigokudani Yaen-Koen – an onsen (hot spring) known globally for its 200 or more resident Japanese Macaque monkeys (also known as Snow Monkeys). Although wild, they are fed, and they come down from their forest home to warm their bodies in the hot spring. If you don’t mind a few furry companions, you can relax in the hot water with them.
A four-hour drive from Hakuba brings us to the snowfields of Naeba in Niigata Prefecture where we stay at Naeba Prince Hotel, a sprawling complex that looms over the base of the mountain. On a good day, Naeba offers great conditions for beginner to expert skiers, with 20km of slopes and 44 trails; there are plenty of groomed runs, as well as back-country skiing and some extreme powder conditions.
Naeba and nearby Kagura make one of Japan’s largest ski areas. The resort is big and busy; what it lacks in character, it makes up for in ski-in, ski-out access to the snow, and generally great snow conditions.
It’s worth hiring a guide who can take you off-piste to powder places you would not discover alone; it’s not unusual for Naeba to have knee to waist-deep powder.
Nearby Kagura ski resort offers the chance of a night in a secluded mountain hut, via Japan’s longest gondola lift – the 5.5km Dragondola.
The hut sits at an altitude of 1,380 metres, and from here you start your journey over the slopes to the Prince Hotel Wadagoya mountain hut, where you’ll find hostel-style accommodation and dining. Staying here gives you the chance to cut fresh morning tracks on crowd-free slopes down to Kagura.
Tired from what the mountain has thrown at us, we head to town and the Takaragawa Onsen – one of Japan’s most picturesque outdoor hot springs (no monkeys!).
My last few days are spent back in fabulous Tokyo, a three-hour drive away. At the Park Hotel, which incorporates art and design into its rooms and décor, we stay on the Artists Floor in the “Lucky Cat” room, with huge white cats painted all over the walls. All of the rooms are painted by an artist who stays in the room working directly on the walls until it is complete.
Our snowy adventures don’t stop as Tokyo is hit by the biggest snow storm in 10 years, turning the concrete jungle into a winter wonderland. For once, this normally buzzing city would have been easier to navigate on skis.
Tourist office JNTO: www.seejapan.co.uk
Yotel London Airports: www.yotel.com for accommodation at Heathrow and Gatwick
Skiing in Hakuba: Hoshino Resorts KAI Alps from £156 per person with 2 meals per night, www.kai-ryokan.jp/en/alps/
Also visit www.blackpinelodge.com, www.highmount.com; spicy.co.jp
Skiing in Naeba: Seven-night stay in Naeba Prince Hotel costs £1,395 based on two people sharing. Lift passes cost £33 per day for adults, and children’s passes are free. One night in Wadagoya Mountain Hut costs £55 for adults and £44 for children, includes two meals and first access to the slopes, www.princehotels.com.
Tokyo: Park Hotel Tokyo, Artist Rooms from £185 per night, www.parkhoteltokyo.com; Hoshinoya Tokyo Hotel, rooms (with no meals ) from £490 per night, hoshinoyatokyo.com