Hakuba, an underated must-do in Japan
Why Hakuba should on your list of destinations in Japan
Nestled in the picturesque Japanese Alps, about four hours bus ride from the bustling capital of Tokyo, Hakuba is quickly forging itself as a must-do destination in Japan.
Unlike it's well-known brother Niseko in the North, Hakuba is very much still establishing itself in the international snow sports scene, with the introduction of a direct rail line to the district in the past five years.
Despite playing host to the Winter Olympics in 1998, Hakuba's pristine slopes don't see anywhere near the traffic that the likes of the European or even Canadiann ski fields experience and it's only experienced moderate growth post winter Olympics.
Whether your into snow sports and outdoor activities, beautiful landscapes, delicious food or cultural immersion, or if these all sounds like you, this is the absolute place for you. From world class downhill skiing resorts and back country to the divine outdoor hot springs ('onsen') and saunas, where you can relax in the wilderness with snow falling gently on your face, Hakuba truly has something for everyone.
It's accessible, but not ruined by tourism!
Because Hakuba isn't a fly-in fly-out destination, or quite as accessible as the northern alternate in Niseko, crowds tend to be smaller, particularly through the working week.
This mean it's a go to spot for the more serious boarders and skiers who want to maximize their time on the slopes with minimal crowds. That's not to say it doesn't get packed out on weekends when the city crowd filter down from Tokyo, but it's certainly a sight less!
Depending on your arrival point in Japan, you will either need to take the JR East Rail or a bus to Hakuba. During the winter months, the train tracks can at time be snow affected so a bus, whilst it might seem a longer journey could indeed get you there quicker.
From Osaka expect the journey to take around six to seven hours, quickest by train. From Tokyo the point to point bus system is the best option with the journey taking around four hours to downtown Tokyo - a major plus of the train or bus journey is getting to take in the magnificent Japanese Alps, especially during winter, it's literally a wonderland!
Amazing landscapes and authentic culture
Hakuba is part of the wider Nagano Prefecture which comes alive as a winter wonderland during the cold months of the year. The country side is dotted with tiny thatched roof houses, family Nagano apple farms, monkeys galore and a less chaotic yet easily immersive Japanese culture.
Japan is generally speaking one of the friendliest countries I've ever visited. Despite the somewhat intricate public transport system, you'll never be short of a friendly face and helping hand to find your way both in the cities and country.
The journey to Hakuba itself takes in some of Japan's most glorious country side, if you're travelling from Osaka you'll see Nara and the famed Kyoto, from Tokyo you'll get glimpses of Matsumoto an array of beautiful farmland throughout your journey.
Hakuba itself is a sight to behold, the sheer size of Happo-One dwarfs the township and never ceases to remind you of the prowess of nature. The tiny wooden cottages and cabins dotted throughout the hillside make you feel as though you were a million miles away from the hustle of the cities. Steaming onsens and hot ramen bowls served in restaurants the size of a cupboard remind you that you're still in Japan.
The Nagano Prefecture is home to Zenko-ji Temple, one of the oldest operating Buddhist temples in Japan, dating back to the 7th century when the movement first made it's way to Japan from India. Nestled in a quiet suburb in Nagano City, thousands still make the pilgrimage from far and wide to visit the stunning compound and practice their beliefs.
The Nagono mountians is also home to the famed snow monkeys, who spend their days frolicking in the hot springs deep in the mountains. Accessible by car, bus with a short walk through the mountain side, these adorable creatures are an absolute must see when heading to Hakuba. Seemingly unaffected by human interaction, the snow monkeys are more than happy to be photographed and interacted with, just don't look them in the eye!
Snow Monkey Tour inclusive of Zenko-ji Temple and delicious lunch is the most worthwhile day trip you will do in Hakuba.
Bring a camera and spend some quality time taking in the countryside and snapping memories.
Quality lodgings, even on a budget
Whether you plan to spend your time lapping it up in luxurious hotels and private wooden cabins, or you just want the cheapest accommodation to get you close to the action, Hakuba has a lodging to suit every budget.
Backpackers and season workers tend to go for Echoland, which boasts most of Hakuba's bar and 'club' scene and sits at the foot of the largest mountain Happo-One (which stands for eight ridged peak, by the way!). The newly opened Hakuba Brewery on Iwatake ski field also offers some awesome lodging and is the only ski-in ski-out Brewery in Japan.
For those wanting a luxurious and relaxing all inclusive experience without budget constraints, the Wadano region offers fantastic authentic Japanese accommodation and western style rooms, a few have private onsens, and the Happo-One major ski lifts are all within close distance.
Hakuba Eagle Lodge for quality budget accommodation and a great vibe
Mominoki Hotel fantastic location with authentic outdoor onsen
Winterstorm Apartments for stunning boutique architecture and tranquil experience in the Wadano forrest
Multiple slopes in minutes
Hakuba's famed mountain, Happo-One (pronounced happ-o-on-ee) literally stands for eight ridged mountain. Not only does Happo-One boast numerous runs ranging from beginners ramps through to black runs and back country, being a previous destination of the Winter Olympics means it even has world class ski jumps!
Within a short (complimentary) bus ride from Happo-One is Goryu, Hakuba 47 and Iwatake, all such slopes offering fantastic runs with varying degree of difficulty. Japan doesn't offer quite the Apres scene famed in Europe, but there are plenty of great watering holes and restaurants within short distance from the slopes.
Happo-one ski lift pass which gives you access to all eight ridges
The nightlife in Hakuba is epic, but it's a different kind of epic. It's got that down to earth vibe where you know the backpackers and boarders are authentic, and although they love to party, they're also there to get the most out of the lifestyle and amazing winter.
If you're there for an extended period you'll fall into the 'scene' of long staying backpackers and seasonal worker who are, quite frankly, pretty awesome. Even those on a shorter term stay will love the welcoming and inclusive vibe in Hakuba.
You'll find a lot of foreigners from the likes of Australia, Canada and the States, with a mix of locals and those down from the cities for the season giving it a distinct travellers flare. The bars are mostly small, quintessential to Japan and offer everything from Sake (Japanese rice wine) through to your western beers and spirits.
The parties are fun, the music is loud, and there's often events and specials happening around town on different nights of the week.
The Beach Bar in Wadono is a fun little shack with great drink and eat prices
Master Braster reggae bar in Echoland has a great vibe and dancefloor
Mockingbird Bar has a great cocktail range, funky fitout and good food
Hakuba Brew Pub offers a free courtesy bus to Iwatake, pub style meals and tasty local beer
Delicious eats for all tastebuds
Japanese cuisine has got to be one of the most distinct and delicious cuisines in the world, in my humble opinion. From the delicious miso soups and tasty bowls of ramen through to the quirky deserts and expertly grown giant fruit, there isn't much they won't try in Japan.
Hakuba has a fantastic array of both authentic Japanese eateries and restaurants, as well as everything from Korean BBQ, kebab shops and good old western burger joints. Most hotels also offer great restaurants with cuisines from all over the world available.
Samurai Kebab a Echoland hotspot complete with great food, table tennis, cheap drinks and killer atmosphere.
Happo Bijin delicious authentic ramen in the heart of Hakuba.
Marukame is the Korean BBQ specialists of the region, cook your own meal after ordering the cuts of meat you want.