Japan in Winter – oh yeah, the skiing’s pretty good too.

Iwatake-me with view-of-Hakuba-village

So here’s part three of my Japan in Winter series – an element of the Japanese winter that I’m sure most Aussies have heard of. The skiing. Well, that is, I’m sure you’ve all heard of Niseko and the North Island’s wonders. But have you considered Hakuba or Shiga Kogen?

Both just a 90-minute bullet train ride from Tokyo (so you can add on a fun little Tokyo stopover along the way) and both nearby to other Nagano delights such as the Snow Monkey Park in Jigokudani.

Snow monkey park Jigokudani

The village of Hakuba is surrounded by a total of five ski areas and on my recent visit I managed to explore four: Iwatake, Goryu, Hakuba47 and Happo-one.

Each has a great range of green, red and black runs, so suitable for skiers of all levels of fitness and ability, but some have more black runs than others, so it’s a good idea to check out the trail maps before choosing you mountain – equally so if you’re a beginner or an advanced skier.

Iwatake-view across mountain range, Hakuba

The mountain range here is extensive, and the ski resorts are not all connected by runs and lifts (or even tickets) so once you’ve picked your mountain, that’s yours for the day.

View of Hakuba village from top of Iwatake

My favourite mountain was the first one I tried, Iwatake. A great variety of runs and a couple of fun parks – Love Snow Park and Wood Park (my kids would love these). 50 per cent of runs are intermediate, so just about the right mix for me.

First gondala at the base of Hakuba 47

Hakuba47 and Goryu are connected over the mountaintop via gondola and between the two of them offer great variety, with mogul slopes, snowboarding parks, jumps and a half pipe at Hakuba47. They’re also both open early in the morning and are lit up for night skiing.

A ride on a snowmobile is an option at Hakuba 47

At Hakuba 47 you can take a spin on one of these – no experience or bike license required if you’re game, and if you’re not, an experiences driver will take you as a pillion passenger.

Hakuba Happo 1 view from Olympic ski jump

Happo-one is the largest ski area with an 8,000-metre long slope and an altitude differential of 1,017 metres. The view from the top, of Happo Village far below and the mountain range beyond, is quite spectacular.

Happo 1 view of Olympic ski jump, Hakuba

While at Happo-one it’s worth checking out the Hakuba Ski Jumping Site, built for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Grab a chairlift then elevator to the top and try and fathom how anyone with their wits about them could possibly think it was safe to hurtle down that track before becoming airborne for about 100 metres.

Happo 1 Nagano Winter Olympics museum, Hakuba

Inside the building you’ll also find a small Nagano Olympics museum, with an interesting collection of medals, team uniforms and of course; the torch!

Another non-skiing activity to try out is snow-shoeing. Snow shoes can be hired at most ski rental outlets and you have the option of joining a guided tour or just going it alone (be sure to check in first with the ranger at the top of the mountain).

Snow shoeing at Iwatake Ski Resort

It’s incredibly peaceful walking through the trees, and if you’re lucky, you may even spot some wildlife – we managed to spot the rather odd-looking deer that frequent this area, that look almost like a cross between a deer and a pig or a small bear (true).

Iwatake snow shoe hike through the trees

The village below is lively in the evening, with a great range of pubs and restaurants selling everything from hamburgers and crepes to sashimi and pizza. It’s worth sampling the soba noodles while you’re here – the local specialty.

Sashimi at restaurant in Hakuba

When we visited it was heaving with Australians celebrating Australia Day, but we found a quiet corner in a Japanese Tapas restaurant and enjoyed a pretty unique blend of flavours, from a soba-based pizza to sushi, sashimi and agedashi tofu.

Heading into Sun-Valley-Shiga-Kogen

Shiga Kogen ski resort is about two hours drive away from here, not far from the Snow Monkey Park. It’s a great choice for families, with a total of 19 ski resorts, most with a green, red and black route down the mountain, and most (except for Mt Yokoteyama) interconnected by lifts and runs as well as free shuttle buses.

I snuck in a visit here while the others were photographing monkeys. I have fond memories of my last winter trip to Japan which was spent here at the Villa Alpen, a family-run hotel in Sun Valley, the closest mountain resort to Yudanaka Station. Here’s me with Ken Okazawa – Ken and his dad (known to most people as The Captain) run Villa Alpen.

Selfie with Villa Alpen's Ken Ozakawa in Sun Valley, Shiga Kogen

Whilst I didn’t have time this year to sample Asia’s highest Starbucks, I was able to have some fun on Giant, Mammoth, Hasuike and Maruike before returning to Sun Valley for the last run of the day. Even managed to fit in a spicy ramen and a local craft beer halfway down Mammoth.

Oh, and a special note to my fellow SKIERS. There are Skiers-only areas at Mt Okushigakogen on the far left, and Mt Kumanoyu on the far right.

Another special note for craft beer lovers, it’s worth visiting Shiga Kogen mid-March for their annual Snow Monkey Beer Life Festival, with live music and a great range of local breweries showcasing their range.

Shiga Kogen Craft Beer

Where to Stay

We stayed at the Hakuba Highland Hotel, in a western-style bedroom with panoramic views of the mountains. There is a wonderful indoor/outdoor onsen that I soaked my ski-weary bones in every evening before tucking into their rather magnificent buffet dinner.

Interested in Japan? Read more about Winter in Japan here:

The writer was a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organisation

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