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Story by Daniel Ronnback
11 Meters of yearly snow fall, nine ski resorts and only 3.5 hours from Tokyo
Once a stop along the the Salt Road, an ancient route used to bring salt and marine products from the coast to Japan’s inland cities, today the Hakuba Valley is home to nine different ski resorts.
This area was once a part of Shinano Province, a region controlled by the Matsumoto Domain during Japan’s feudal era. Now a part of Nagano Prefecture, the valley is lined to the west by the Hida Mountains, part of the sprawling mountain ranges collectively known as the Japan Alps.
The modern town of Hakuba was established in 1956 by the merger of the villages of Hokujo and Kamishiro. Thanks to lake-effect weather patterns from the Sea of Japan, the area is known for its ample snowfall, with an annual average of over 11 meters.
On the northern edge of the Hakuba Valley lies one of Japan’s hidden treasures. Easily mistaken with the Italian resort that shares the same name, Hakuba Cortina ski resort is among the valley’s top spots for deep powder skiing.
After arriving to Tokyo, our plan was to take the Hokuriku Shinkansen, a bullet train that makes the journey from Tokyo to Nagano in just two hours. From there, we’d rent a car and drive the last part to Hakuba. Our goal was to be mobile, following the storms and catching the deepest powder that Japan's main island of Honshu had to offer. We didn’t book any hotels in advance to be able to change plans quickly.
“No Hotel and no car: an open road to powder paradise”
Since the offices in Sweden were closed during Christmas holidays, I didn’t have time to pick up an international driver’s license before the trip. Luckily, Tof Henry told me that he already had an international license, so we would be good to go to rent a car in Japan.
With the car rental agreement ready to sign, Tof handed over his international license to the Japanese rental agent, who in the same second shook his head and politely informed us, “Sorry sorry, Mister. Old license stop working 2015.”
And that was it. We never got our car, our plans foiled by a small piece of paper confirming in multiple languages that your driver’s license is valid, which only costs around $40 back in your home country. We were forced to change plans from playing chase the storm, to just holing up at one location instead.
“If you’re renting a car in Japan, always make sure someone in the group has a valid international driver’s license. They won’t give you a car without one!”
Our only remaining option was to take the bus from Nagano to Hakuba and find a place to stay. Hopefully we could get ourselves somewhere where the snow would keep falling for the next days, where we could get what we came for: classic, deep Japanese powder.
From my experience traveling to new places all over the world and seven trips to Japan already, I knew that having the best experience meant getting some tips from the locals. Before we got on the bus, I quickly sent a message to my Japanese friend and Hakuba local, Tatsuya Tayagaki.
The year before Tatsuya had visited me and Tof in Chamonix, and we showed him around and gave him a real Cham experience. This time it was Tatsuya’s turn to deliver local knowledge. He told us to head to Hakuba Cortina Ski Resort, and ended his message with these words: “wery wery deep pow.” Tatsuya has started a new Japanese-language app called SKIDAY that covers all the ski runs in Hakuba. He’s got a POV shot of every run, including some where you can follow Tanner Hall down the slopes.
Searching a booking site on my phone with the WiFi on the bus, we were able to lock down a place to stay: the Green Plaza Hotel, a hotel complex at the foot of Cortina that looked straight out of a fairy tale. Our original plan to travel around the main island and follow the snow was now revised to just a single spot. But what we thought was a mistake soon led some of the best and deepest ski days we’ve ever had in Japan.
“Wery Wery DEEP POW! KATAPOW!”
We left the the city of Nagano (a piece of Olympic history) behind on a relaxing 75-minute bus ride through the foothills of the Japan Alps. Arriving at the Hakuba Happo bus station, we changed buses for a final 20-minute ride to the Green Plaza Hotel at Cortina.
An Instagram-worthy building all by itself, the Green Plaza’s fanciful, larger-than-life architecture whisks you away from reality into a surreal fairytale experience. Our massive two-story hotel room offered plenty of space to spread out all our ski gear to dry after a day of skiing. The big advantage of staying here comes early in the morning, when you're able to get access to the first runs of the day. After breakfast dressed in our traditional yukatas that came with the room, we grabbed our skis from the lockers and walked out in our slippers to put them first in the lift line. We walked back to the hotel room, got dressed, had a second coffee, and ten minutes before the lift opened, walked down to our skis that were now first in a 100-meter line. The trick is to get your skis in line before the buses arrive from other resorts around the valley.
Depending on the day and how many people showed up in the morning, we made our decision on where to take the first run. If less people were around, we took a run straight under the top lift. On big crowded days, we took a left off the lift and ducked the rope for some of the best tree skiing that Hakuba has to offer. A sidecountry run off the back of the resort takes you down to a creek leading around to the neighboring ski resort of Norikura, where you can jump on another lift to get back where you started.
Most days, a 15-minute break to grab some rice triangles and hot canned coffee was all the time we had to spare between constant laps. We had to get back out and enjoy the ridiculous amount of snow that fell during the day, sometimes covering up our tracks in an hour.
If you ever get the chance to stay at one of the bigger hotels at a Japanese ski resort, then you’re in for a culinary treat. Food is a major part of Japanese culture and the breakfast and dinner buffets are something you’ll never forget, from all you-can-eat sushi to curries, fried food, a chocolate fountain and a dessert bar. If you're really missing European food, the pizza place on the first floor offers a nice change of pace.
A year later, another ticket is already booked for another go at this gold mine of deep powder skiing. I guess that’s a good indication of the impression that our first time to Hakuba made on us.