Driving through Hakuba valley we were swept up in the magic of a sky dusting every treetop, rooftop and mountain top in the legendary white powder snow. It’s this feather-soft cover that draws so many to Hakuba, Japan year on year. Pulling in to Happo Village, the first of many warm smiles and thick Australian accents welcomed us to a destination that had long been at the top of our overcrowded travel bucket list. It was hard to believe we had waited so long to plan our first Hakuba Japan skiing holiday.
What to Do in Hakuba
Hakuba village sits in the Japanese Alps, about an hour west of Nagano, made famous by the 1998 winter Olympics. The Hakuba ski resort area includes nine resorts; home to more than 200 runs. There’s a feeling of community closeness here, common in ski resorts we’ve visited around the world, like Whistler. From the moment you step off the bus at Hakuba Base Camp and the first bite of that cutting winter chill hits, there’s a sense of ease that follows as you are immediately whisked up by the hotel shuttle.
Related: Whistler Winter Activities
Tokyo to Hakuba
Unfortunately, there aren’t any direct flights from Tokyo to Hakuba and it’s a little tricky to get from Narita to Hakuba. There are several options, ranging in travel time and complexity:
- The fastest way to get from Narita to Hakuba is to take the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo station to Nagano Station and the bus from Nagano to Hakuba. This will take about three hours. If you are flying into Tokyo and out to Hakuba the same day, you will need to allow 1.5 hours (giving you some wriggle room) to get from Narita to Tokyo Station.
- There is also a direct train from Shinjuku Station (platform 10) to Hakuba Station that leaves first thing in the morning, at 7:30am and takes about four hours. If you arriving into Tokyo late at night, it might be best to book a hotel near Shinjuku station to eliminate the morning commute from Narita to Shinjuku (about an hour and requires one station change).
- We chose the Hakuba Shuttle bus from Narita to Hakuba, the Nagano Snow Shuttle. We stayed at an airport hotel overnight (which had its own shuttle back and forth to the terminal) and then caught the shuttle in the morning from Terminal 2. This Hakuba Shuttle bus is slightly more expensive than the train or train/bus combination ands takes longer (about six hours from Narita to Hakuba Base Camp including two comfort stops).
- If comfort is more of a priority than a budget, private taxi transfers are available through Alpico and Chuo. Be prepared to pay anywhere about 144,000 JPY ($AUD1840) for a van.
- Car hire is the last option. If you are planning to drive a lot while in Hakuba, this might be the best option. Keep in mind, they drive on the left hand side in Japan and you will need to book chains too.
- If you plan on travelling from Narita to Tokyo, the train is absolutely the most economical option. If you are considering Uber, it could cost around $AUD300+ for a one-way trip.
Related: How to Spend Four Days in Tokyo
Getting around Hakuba
- Uber doesn’t operate in Hakuba. Taxis start at about 700 JPY ($AUD8.90). They also aren’t readily available, so you could be waiting for ten to 30 minutes to be collected. Ask your hotel to pre-book you a taxi (if they can’t take you in their own shuttle). Remember this too if you are on the mountain and you want to get back to your hotel quickly; it’s best to prebook your taxi then wait in the shuttle line.
- If you want to do a Hakuba day trip, ski several of the Hakuba Valley ski resort runs, you are short on time or you are travelling to Hakuba as a group, hiring a car for your stay, may be a good option. Like accommodation in Hakuba car hire is in high demand so you are best to pre-book your car before arriving in Hakuba (don’t forget to book winter tyres/chains).
- There is an efficient network of shuttle buses and public buses that service Hakuba Village and Hakuba Valley ski resorts. Some shuttles are free and others costs anywhere from about 500 JPY, each way.
Related: Hakuba Restaurants: Where to Eat in Hakuba, Japan
Where to Stay in Hakuba
Choosing the best place to stay in Hakuba will depend of the type of holiday you hope to have. There are Hakuba ski in ski out hotels, those conveniently located right in heart of Happo Village and other beautiful self-contained Hakuba accommodation in the woods, a car ride from the gondola and the village. There is one common theme when it comes to Hakuba ski resort accommodation; it is expensive. As soon as you book flights to Tokyo, book your Hakuba accommodation as it fills up well in advance of the season and prices. Search all Hakuba Hotels here.
We stayed at Hakuba Springs Hotel. We were hesitant at booking this hotel as it is a 3-star hotel and we generally only stay in luxury hotels. But, we had left booking much too late and we initially chose Hakuba Springs for its close proximity to the village and Happo One. We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived. It is a lovely, modest hotel with generously sized rooms; the hotel offered us a free upgrade to a suite which meant we had plenty of room to spread out and could have fit additional people in the room with us if we had been travelling as a group. The hotel is let down slightly by the capsule-style internal bathrooms and the very basic breakfast buffet. The enviable location and friendly staff who welcomed us like family which made it a lovely place to stay, particularly as a family. It also has a wonderful restaurant that is worth dining at even if you aren’t staying at the hotel.
A number of friends recommended The Ridge when we called on recommendations for Hakuba hotels. Having left booking so late, we sadly couldn’t get an apartment there. However, we visited friends who stayed at the Ridge and it was a lovely place. We sat and enjoyed drinks by the fire at the lobby bar. A four-star hotel and self-contained apartments, The Ridge is about 5 minutes from town and very close to Happo-One resort. The apartments offer the convenience of a kitchen, with staff able to drive guests to the supermarket to stock up on groceries or around the village for other trips, as needed.
Another option that came up multiple times when asking for Hakuba hotel recommendations was The Phoenix. This collection of accommodation includes everything from high-end luxury chalets, to apartments and The Phoenix Hotel itself. It also boasts a well known restaurant that diners rave about, Mimi’s.
Hakuba Japan Skiing
Hakuba Japan skiing is known as some of the best in the world. There is something to suit first time skiiers to the more advanced skiiers and snowboarders across the Hakuba mountain resorts offering. However, Happo One and Cortina have more intermediate and advanced runs, while Hakuba 47, Iimori, Goryu, Iwatake, Tsugaike, Norikura have a greater selection of beginner to intermediate runs. You can find a Hakuba ski resort map here.
Buying a Hakuba Lift Pass
Buying a Hakuba Lift pass is simple. Pick up one in person as soon as you get in from the gondola window. Once you have your RFID lift card you can then simply top it up online. Just allow time for the extra days to register on the lift pass before jumping on the shuttle or going to the gate (about 30 minutes). Buy a Hakuba lift pass or top up here.
Ski Hire in Hakuba
There are several ski hire stores in Hakuba (Spicy, Rhythm, Central Snowsports). They all offer discounts for pre-booking your gear before arriving in Hakuba (up to about 30% off, depending how far out you book). I got fitted at Spicy Rentals in Happo village as they are just across the road from Hakuba Springs and they will also drop off or pick up gear which is really convenient. I am not a professional skiier, but the gear I hired seemed to be good quality.
Make sure you opt for insurance as it is likely not covered under your travel insurance policy and you don’t want to have to pay for the gear if someone walks off with it on the mountain.
Related: What to do in Chiang Rai, Thailand
Hakuba Ski Lessons
Our hotel booked our ski lessons in Hakuba before we arrived. We took our lessons at Iimori Ski Resort, grabbing a shuttle outside of our hotel lobby. Group lessons at Goryu cost about 7000 JPY ($AUD90) and private lessons are about 20000 JPY ($AUD250). As a beginner skiier opted for the one-hour private lesson and it was well worth the money for me. My wonderful Spanish instructor, Jofre started me off nice and slow and was able to adapt to my personal progress, which meant I was as a first timer and progressed to being comfortable doing turns at about level 3, within the hour. I was extremely nervous before the lesson too and by the end was really enjoying taking on the the intermediate runs without any concerns.
Evergreen Ski School at Happo-One also offers private and group lessons for all levels from 16,500 JPY ($AUD209) for an 80-minute lesson, upwards.
For those who have a lot of experience on the mountain or want to develop their skills over different terrain there are specialist first tracks, full day or off piste lessons offered at the different mountains too.
Hakuba Onsens and Massage
While we weren’t able to fit in a massage or time at an onsen while in Happo, our hotel recommended some Hakuba onsens that are worth trying and told us where to get a massage to ease those ski-weary muscles.
- Hakuba Highland Onsen – This onsen is located in a hill top hotel. So, while it is still, it is generally pretty quiet and offers a great views down over the valley.
- Obinata Onsen – Widely considered the best outdoor onsen in town albeit quite a bit more expensive. It is about 20,000 JPY per person ($AUD250) (up to 5 people or less for more), inclusive of hotel transfers. There are two session times per day; 5.30pm and 7.30pm.
- Azekura Onsen – Our friends booked this onsen and it looked magical. Located in the woods it is a private onsen that you can book for up to four people. There aren’t any changing facilities or showers here, so it’s more of a strip-and-dip scenario. It is about 3000 JPY ($AUD39) per person.
- Hakuba Massage – For those in need of a sports massage or treatment by a qualified physiotherapist or massage therapist.
Snow Monkey Tour
Day trips from Hakuba are easily organised through your accommodation or directly through the tour company’s website. The most popular day trip from Hakuba would have to be the Snow Monkey Tour which includes a visit to the Zenkoji temple. This tour takes a full day and it can get very cold and icy walking through the famed Jigokudani Monkey Park. We chose not to do the snow monkey tour for this reason as we were travelling with a toddler. However, our friends were travelling with school-aged children and they all loved it.
For those considering what to do in Hakuba aside from skiing, there are also traditional tea ceremonies, cooking classes and temples tours on offer and easily booked once you arrive at your Hakuba hotel.
Shopping in Hakuba
Happo Village isn’t exactly oozing the luxury boutiques of Whistler Village or Val d’isere. But, you will find what you need when it comes to groceries, alcohol, a pharmacy and a few extra souvenirs or pieces of clothing to keep you warm, during your stay.
- A-Coop is a big supermarket chain, perfect for buying groceries if you are staying in self-contained accommodation in Hakuba. It is a few minutes drive from the main village, so you will need to take a taxi or ask your accommodation to shuttle you there and back.
- The North Face Gravity store is just around the corner from A-Coop so it is the perfect excuse to check out the North Face gear, grab a coffee at their cafe and enjoy one of the best views in the valley from their viewing window.
- Shops like Rhythm Snowsports, Spicy or Central Snowsports have a small collection of clothing and accessories and souvenirs should you need an extra layer or you want some Hakuba memorabilia.
- Soiru Hakuba is a cute gift store in the Hakuba Tokyo Hotel which has some lovely souvenirs and it’s on the way down from Happo One to the village, so a very convenient place to stop.
Hakuba with Kids
Hakuba isn’t the easiest destination to travel with a baby or a toddler. We found it to be very cold for a baby (overwhelmingly so at times), with little of the same infrastructure you would find at one of the huge family-oriented ski villages in the US or Canada; restaurants are small and there aren’t any footpaths around the village to safely push a stroller. However, we were able to adapt quite easily and our daughter had a wonderful trip, seeing and playing in snow for the first time. So, while it may take a little more planning that other ski destinations around the world, please don’t rule it out. We had a lovely family holiday nonetheless. Here are a few tips of travelling to Hakuba with kids;
- There are plenty of childcare options on offer for your stay in Hakuba. We drew some interested looks as we chose instead to take turns watching our daughter in the cafeteria of whichever mountain we were skiing on that day, while the other went out to ski or snowboard.
- There is a daycare facility on each mountain for children from 18 months and older. The cost varies at each but is about ¥1000/per hour ($AUD13).
- Private babysitting costs about $AUD17 per child, per hour and can be booked through your hotel or services such as Hakuba Babysitting.
- If you are taking your kids to one of the cafes on the mountains, take note of where the smoking room is on entering as you will want to sit on the opposite side of the room.
- Sakka ski slope is a fun place to take beginner skiiers and little children as they have a great magic carpet area and a kids play area on the other side of the carpet. A shuttle takes you around to Sakka from opposite the Happo One gondola.
- Hakuba 47 also have a children’s slope and an indoor play area.
Related: What to Pack for Travel with a Baby
Skye is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Fit Traveller. She is a journalist, writer, photographer, intrepid traveller and a former personal trainer with a passion for helping others reach optimal health. As a TV journalist and producer, Skye has worked for household names such as 60 Minutes, Sunrise, TODAY and Nine News. She has also written for Women’s Health, Fodor’s Travel and Yahoo7 Travel, among many others.
Skye created The Fit Traveller as a beautiful online space and community where people feel inspired to escape the desk to move and explore more.
Equally comfortable in a 5-star resort or hiking a far-off mountain, Skye loves the unexpected and enriching life experiences that each trip brings and can often be found in a backstreet chatting to locals with her camera in hand.
Skye is based in Sydney, working to master the balance between motherhood and her insatiable appetite for adventure.