Mountain High

Who could forget the moment when Australia’s first Winter Olympics gold medal was won?

At Salt Lake City in 2002, Sydney-born Steven Bradbury was a rank outsider in the short-track speed skating final. His tactic of staying out of the way had helped him through the quarterfinals but it paid off most handsomely in the 90-second final, when a pile-up among the leading four skaters left Bradbury - as the last man standing - to glide across the finish line and claim gold.

I’m reminded of this upon seeing Bradbury’s winning skate mounted on a wall of the lounge at the Aqua Alpine hotel in Goryu, in Japan’s Hakuba Valley, located about three hours north-west of Tokyo. Bradbury owns the hotel with fellow Australian, Josh Norris, who’s also director of a travel business called Japan Powder. Aqua Alpine is Goryu’s most Western-style hotel, a little Aussie outpost in an otherwise Japanese-dominated ski resort.

I’ve arrived at the hotel on foot, having walked from my own Japanese-style chalet through a forest strung with twinkling festive lights. The snow falls thickly, covering my tracks. Hakuba gets 10 to 13 metres of snow per season. It’s dry snow - the best sort - and it never seems to run out, which is one of the region’s principal attractions.

I’m visiting friends for a make-your-own sushi night at the hotel’s restaurant. Under the direction of a very patient sashimi chef we are taught the art of rolling our own, choosing from a plentiful supply of seafood and other traditional fillings to make as much as we can eat. As soon as a platter of fresh tuna or salmon is emptied, it is refilled, magic pudding-like.

Despite the Bradbury connection, the Hakuba Valley is less well known among Australian skiers than the popular resorts of Niseko, Furano and Sahoro, on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido and about a 90-minute flight from Tokyo. Much of Niseko is owned and developed by Australians, which is not the case in the Hakuba Valley. It continues to offer a more traditional Japanese experience.

Still, Hakuba is hardly a secret, having hosted events during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, and it’s well established in terms of infrastructure, accommodation and access. Hakuba is on the main Japanese island of Honshu; Tokyo and Nagano are so close that Norris says it’s possible to depart Queensland’s Gold Coast Airport at 10.30am and be in bed in Hakuba by 1am to ski the next day.

The quickest and easiest way to get there is to take a three-hour bullet train from Tokyo (or Osaka, via Kanazawa) to Nagano City. From there you can catch the Alpico Express bus service, which runs morning to evening, stopping at Goryu, Hakuba Station, Happo, Tsugaike and Norikura. There’s also the Nagano Snow Shuttle or the Nagano VIP Shuttle, which can be booked to meet your flight and will take you directly to your resort.

Australians choose Hakuba for their Japanese ski holiday for several reasons. One, its proximity to Tokyo means that there is no need for connecting flights; two, the greater variety of ski terrain, and steeper areas, than elsewhere in Japan; three, the wide range of sightseeing activities the region offers other than skiing. And finally, for the authenticity — a taste of genuine Japanese culture.

Hakuba is a popular weekend ski destination among Nagano and Tokyo locals who swell the crowd numbers (which is not saying much, as lift lines in January are virtually non-existent).

You may share the slopes with groups dressed as anime characters - just for the fun of it, presumably - and when a skier loses a ski, many stop to help, even on a powder day. The Hokkaido resorts might experience more constant snowfall, but it comes at the cost of lower visibility and generally lower temperatures. In Hakuba, the big dumps are generally followed by several crisp, blue-sky days.

HAKUBA HOTSPOTS
There are 10 resorts across the Hakuba Valley, offering more than 200 runs and 41,800 metres of terrain, accessed via 139 lifts and five gondolas. Here’s how to navigate it all.
Planning to ski in a few resorts? Pick up an all-mountain Hakuba Valley lift pass at a cost of about $55 per day for a five-day pass (the pass is valid for use at up to two resorts per day). It includes regular free shuttle services so visitors can easily move around the valley without the need of a car.

Kashimayari is the valley’s southernmost resort and looks nondescript until you catch the quad lift to the base station. Eight lifts give access to plenty of powder turns and tree runs, plus there are 40 beginner runs, a terrain park and night skiing. North from Kashimayari is Sanosaka, a small resort with five lifts, pretty lake views but no accommodation to speak of. Norris says the moguls are fantastic, so it’s worth making a day trip from your base at Goryu or Happo-One.

Goryu is next along the valley and the first resort you encounter after exiting the tunnel on the road from Nagano. Goryu is also known as Goryu-47 because it’s linked at the top and base to the Iimori and Hakuba47 resorts to the north by a gondola. This means there’s three base stations, two gondolas, 18 lifts, 820 metres of vertical drop and a good mix of beginner to advanced skiing. Hakuba Snow Sports School, one of three international ski trainers in the valley, is based at Goryu-47.

Further along is Happo-One, which has the highest vertical drop, at 1071 metres. Mount Happo has one gondola and 31 lifts provide a variety of skiing and mountain access from different directions. Four base areas service Happo-One and it has the most accommodation in the valley, including five-star hotels such as La Neige Higashi-kan. The Happo-One Ski & Snowboard School and Evergreen Outdoor Centre are here, too.

Iwatake is the next resort, offering open and tree-lined skiing right around the mountain with spectacular valley views. Iwatake is great for intermediate and beginner skiers, but a bowl at the back also offers excellent drop-offs for advanced skiers. There’s no village as such, just a couple of B&B guesthouses, and some good restaurants. Norris’s pick is Sky Arc at the top of the gondola for a brilliant Japanese curry.

Tsugaike Kogen has a very flat base for beginners and a lot of intermediate runs, with good powder and options to ski through the trees at the top, which is accessed by a gondola with a mid-station stop. Tsugaike is within the Alps national park, and is particularly unspoilt. From March the resort will offer heli-skiing, opening up access to a different part of the valley. Also from March, when the snow is more stable, a ropeway (a giant gondola that holds 30 people standing) above the Tsugaike gondola opens, taking skiers higher up the mountain.

Norikura is the valley’s second-most northern resort before Cortina, afterwhich the valley heads down to the Sea of Japan. These two resorts tend to get the first dumps of snow when storms move in; an average of 500 centimetres more snow at the base and one metre more at the top in a season. Norikura has nine lifts and the ski-in, ski-out Hakuba Alps Hotel.

Crowds are a little thinner at Norikura, largely due to its location towards the end of the valley. It has a terrain park, 80 per cent intermediate and beginner runs and 20 per cent advanced, plus off-piste.

The resort of Cortina consists of one enormous ski-in, ski-out hotel, the Green Plaza, with a choice of Japanese or Western-style rooms, which include family maisonettes over two storeys. For dining options other than what’s in the hotel, a shuttle bus service will take you to the town of Otari, 20 minutes away.

Cortina gets a lot of powder snow, has good tree skiing and no ski patrol so you ski anywhere you want to at your own risk. It’s a place that avid skiers talk about in whispers. “Cortina attracts people who are after that extra little bit of adventure,” says Norris. “The resort is famous for its powder and massive bowl. On the second or third day after a big dump, when the snow is more stable, you can ski off the front face of the bowl back to the resort or off the back of it and into Norikura and transfer by shuttle across to Cortina.”

OFF-PISTE OUTINGS
It’s easy to organise an afternoon of activities through English-speaking tour companies and booking agents such as Japan Powder, which can customise activities such as soba-making with a chef and map out sites around Goryu for non-skiers to explore. Hakuba Sanroku Tours offers half-day tuition in origami-making, kimono-dressing and a tea ceremony. Alternatively, you could try snowshoe evening tours with Evergreen Outdoor Centre, snowmobiling with Hakuba Lion Adventure, or snow rafting on an inflatable raft through Hakuba47.

The 16th century Matsumoto Castle, Japan’s oldest, is located 60 kilometres east from Hakuba in Nagano and is easily accessible by train from Hakuba station. Also in Nagano is the 7th century Zenkoji Temple - one of Japan’s most revered. While there, explore the surrounding streets, which are lined with shops, restaurants and galleries or the Daisekkei Brewery, which makes one of the most popular sakes in Nagano (the city is famous for its sakes owing to the quality of the water and the rice). There’s also a tour of the 240-year-old Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery. The area’s biggest drawcard, of course, is the troop of snow monkeys that wallow in the natural hot springs of Jigokudani Monkey Park - the only place you can see Japanese macaques in the wild.

OTHER SKI RESORTS
Got the Japanese skiing bug? Here are some other places close to Tokyo and Nagano that will keep you blissfully living on the (mountain) edge.

Myoko Kogen ski area, in Niigata prefecture, has nine resorts. Accommodation is in the town of Akakura at the base of Mount Myoko. Myoko Kogen gets even more snow than Hakuba, although it’s at a lower altitude so it’s not quite as dry.

Nozawa Onsen is only about 50 kilometres from Nagano train station, has excellent skiing with a 1085-metre vertical drop serviced by two gondolas and 22 lifts, and a very traditional village, which has 13 natural onsens that are free to use and a coming-of-age fire festival for local men every January.

Shiga Kogen is the highest ski resort in Japan and gets powder snow that rivals Niseko and Furano for dryness. It’s only an hour’s drive from Nagano station in the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park. It consists of 21 ski areas and most hotels are ski-in ski-out.

WHY JAPAN’S PRACTICALLY PERFECT
The Australian dollar hasn’t dropped against the Japanese yen like it has against the US dollar in the past 12 months.

Jet lag is not an issue. During ski season the time difference is one hour from Queensland and two hours from the southern states (NSW, Victoria, Tasmania) and ACT, which are on daylight saving time.

Japan is a cash society and the ATMs at 7-Eleven convenience stores and post offices accept foreign cards.

Tipping is not customary.

Don’t worry about altitude sickness as the highest lifted peak in the valley, at Happo-One, is 1831 metres.

Australia’s highest lifted point, at Thredbo, is 2037 metres.

ONSENS
After a day’s skiing, there’s nothing better than relaxing in an onsen - natural hot mineral springs. There are 10 in Hakuba Valley, and many hotels have their own, but there are public ones, too, such as Mimizuku No Yu, which has large, separate indoor baths for men and women and a smaller outdoor bath with spectacular alpine views. It’s open until 9.30pm daily and costs 500 yen. Onsen etiquette is important; there are rituals around preparation and behaviour. Onsens are usually segregated and swimwear should not be worn.

NIGHT-LIFE
Happo-One’s The Beach Bar is great for live music.
At Echoland, a village between Goryu and Happo-One, the nightclubs include MasterBraster and Studio 902 . Goryu’s Bike Bar and Tracks Bar both have regular live music and DJs. Also try Darts Bar, a traditional pub.

DINING
What to do when you’re not on the slopes.
Japan’s ski resorts are renowned for amazing food and Hakuba is no exception. “What’s good about being in a rural area such as Hakuba is that the cuisine is authentic and the seafood comes from the Sea of Japan, which is only about 50 kilometres away, so it’s always very fresh,” says Norris. Vending machines sell hot and cold drinks, beer and soup; bistros offer delicious bowls of rice and noodles with all sorts of meats, tofu and vegetables, plus gyoza, tempura and tonkatsu. In Goryu, a favourite lunch and après-ski restaurant and lounge is the eccentric Fushya, located on the side of the base slope with stunning views.

It was built by a father and son whose collection of American muscle cars are just visible beneath piles of snow. Little Alaskan & Small Cabin, also in Goryu, makes huge, delicious burgers to order in a tiny, brightly painted shack across the road from the base station. Pizzakaya , is small and cosy, offering a twist on pizza. Yuki Maru is popular with locals. Canada-Tei is a vibrant teppanyaki restaurant and bar.
Its host, Shigei, is pure entertainment.

Words by Pip Coates - Published in Voyeur Published in Voyeur December 2015
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