Hakuba Ski Resort Japan with Kids
Many friends have holidayed in Niseko, a ski resort which has been popular with Australian families for several years. However we heard Hakuba was culturally a more authentic experience; the clincher was it can be accessed by train direct from Tokyo – no need to hop on yet another flight – a big tick when travelling with kids. Here are our experiences in Hakuba Ski Resort Japan with Kids.
HELLO KITTY – finding the heart of Japanese skiing
Snow is plentiful, the people welcoming, and tradition rich; making Hakuba Ski Resort Japan with Kids, the perfect holiday destination.
It’s early morning in Hakuba, deep in the heart of the Japanese Alps. Despite it being just a few days after New Years we have the slopes to ourselves; weekend crowds have returned to Tokyo and we are left with precision groomed, white-draped mountains.
“Mum look”, I follow the direction of my youngest’s frantic gesturing. “What is that building?”
Through the swirl of powder snow dancing across my line of vision, I can just make out the silhouette of a bright pink structure. It’s like a scene from a Miyazaki movie, although what purpose it serves fails me, as most of the cluster of buildings dotted around the valley are traditional in style and various shades of grey.
“Maybe it’s Hello Kitty’s house” ventures the eldest son – a tween who has discovered the art of the ridiculous.
Although maybe…this is after all Japan, a country where tradition sits comfortably with innovation, where anime meets origami and where the snow is fluffy and plentiful.
Low on Altitude, high on Friendly
Our destination lies within the Nagano prefecture (it might ring a bell as it was the home of the Winter Olympics 1998), an area of 11 ski resorts that pepper the valley. Japan has long been popular with Australian skiers; however most go to the traditionally popular resort of Niseko (on the Northern Island of Hokkaido). Over the past five years Hakuba has been quietly growing in popularity (Australian visitor numbers to Japan up 24% in 2014). It might be easy accessibility from Narita Airport (private transfers or bullet train and bus) or the lure of a more authentic Japanese experience, which gets you committing.
Unlike many ski towns which see surging populations during the ‘season’, Hakuba is still very much home to a local population of 8,900. ‘Nobody locks their door’, Mr Yojiro Fukushima, local father and regional advocate tells me with pride. It is this traditional village atmosphere that is greatly appealing – noodle houses jostling for space alongside farming equipment shops.
In particular families will love this location, because as far as ski holidays go, Hakuba Ski Resort Japan with Kids is a breeze to navigate. The village lies in a valley, each resort an easy transfer from the central transport hub. Yojiro enthusiastically guides me through regional activities and where to eat (plenty of mid-priced options), spots his own kids love.
Snow has fallen constantly since our arrival three days prior. Yet, somehow, we are not feeling the cold – a point well worth noting, because cold wet kids do not a happy holiday make. The region lays in the direct path of the Siberian weather – hence the reputation for quality snow, the renowned relative warmth courtesy of the low altitude, a bonus meaning skiing days aren’t lost due to altitude sickness.
The array of resorts cover varied terrain, over an area of approximately 137 kilometres – in short giving plenty of space – during a seven day stay lift queues are virtually non-existent. For anyone wary of big ticket skiing prices, this holiday is the most affordable of our overseas snow holiday experiences.
Hot tubs, cool drinks
Throughout the region, ski-in, ski-out accommodation options are in short supply. Our selection ‘The Ridge‘ (in Wandano Forest, an upmarket enclave ten minutes’ drive from the village), is a short stroll along a heated road to the closest lift. The picturesque snow laden trees and meandering stream, a pleasant distraction as you make the ten minute – ski gear laden – walk to the base lifts of family friendly Happo One (the most popular mountain for families). Conveniently, across the road, is the ski hire and shuttle bus stop giving easy access to the other resorts.
Pre-trip we are warned that the Japanese ski scene is different – the tendency being to ski hard, return back to accommodation for a soak in an Onsen (male/female segregated hot tubs), dinner and bed. Rather than stay in a Ryokan (tatami mats and lack of pillows are not much relief after a day on the slopes); we elect for an Aspen style lodge which allows us to enjoy some Après with our ski.
The Ridge offers cosy fireside lounges and bar, continental breakfasts and the bonus of a games room – a spot the boys hang out with new ski school buddies. Accommodation choices include huge interconnecting rooms, overlooking the fairy-tale winter scape of the forest – our kitchenette doesn’t get much work, although it’s handy for morning coffees and snack breaks. The highlight for the boys is the Japanese toilet, complete with the option of classical music and heated seats. We don’t have an Onsen onsite, yet we can pay for access to the facilities across the road at Mominoki Hotel.
Ski hard, soft play
Regardless of how great your sleep was, a good ski school can make or break a skiing holiday. We love spending time with the kids (yes, really) – however differing levels of ability often makes this impractical. I am directed to Evergreen Ski School. Located at the base of the main lifts, English instructors keep the kids busy on the mountain so the adults can get down to the business of skiing. We find fantastic ski hire (and a full shop of clothing, gear and great takeaway coffees) at Rhythm Ski Hire – located next to Mominoki Hotel – we store our skis there overnight.
Even ski lovers need a day off; relief can be found with plenty of regional options. For those that like a bit of adrenalin, there is an exhilarating afternoon spent traversing a winter wonderland of trails and rivers on a ski mobile with Hakuba Lion Adventure – as snowflakes fall on our helmets, glistening in the late afternoon we agree it’s a highlight. Given that a successful visit to watch Snow Monkeys bathing in the wild is a full day and a big trip (8.00am-5.30pm); we elect to save history (temples and ancient towns) for our time in Kyoto. We still manage to save a little energy for night time Snowshoeing – complete with a Fondue dessert this activity gets a big thumbs up.
Also great off the slopes are adventures of the culinary kind. Our concierge makes short work of a long list of recommendations. One evening we sit on the floor to dine at Zen; a reimagined original farmhouse, relocated close to the main village – the soba is sublime and throughout our stay in Japan we are hard pressed to find better. Another night we leave the kids at ‘home’ in the care of a babysitter (the youngest falls in love with her), while the husband and I fall in love with Mimi’s; a popular spot featuring local Shinshu produce (they welcome kids too, if you must).
Then there are the supermarkets – the contents of our grocery cart a veritable lottery, yielding many surprises upon unpacking.
Which brings us back to the beginning, and the nature of the pink building. Well would you believe me if I told you it was the Pink Pancake Parlor – and it certainly looks like a Hello Kitty House.
WHERE TO STAY IN HAKUBA
The Ridge – 5-10 minutes walk to lifts
Tokyu Hotel – 10-15 minutes walk to lifts (or take their regular shuttle bus)
Mominoki Hotel – 5-10 minutes walk to lifts
Phoenix Hotel – (5 minute shuttle bus)
Ski Hire in Hakuba
Ski School – Happo One, Hakuba
WHERE TO EAT IN HAKUBA
On the Mountain
ROOTS Cafe – bottom of Happo One lifts, fantastic vegetarian muffins, meals, coffee and hot chocolates – gets busy, worth the wait.
Indian Summer Cafe – we love the warm bowls of rice and other daily specials – get there early (or late), limited seating.
Around the Village
Mimi’s – Modern European – book, it is very popular
The Pub – adjacent to Mominoki Hotel, great burgers, cosy spot for the whole family.
Antlers – in The Ridge Hotel, Aspen style fireside bar and restaurant.
Maeda – tiny soba noodle place, you will know you are in the right spot by the queue out the door. Try and seek it out, fabulous.
Zen – make a reservation upon arrival in Hakuba. You will not be disappointed, traditional seating on the floor. Make sure you order the Soba Pizza, I am still dreaming about it…
Lawsons – several of these 7 Eleven style outlets, try the sushi and fresh bakery items – actually very good quality
Max Value – this super shop has food, clothing and a 100 yen outlet (like Australian $2 shops) – a cultural experience in itself.
HOW TO GET TO HAKUBA
Chuo Taxi – for ease we transferred to Hakuba from Narita International Airport via a private taxi service. The trip took about six hours (one hour longer than usual due to the blizzard that heralded our arrival). For our return journey to Kyoto, we took a one hour bus shuttle from Hakuba Village to Nagano Train Station (where the Shinkasen – Bullet Train departs), magnificent views along the journey. Both are good options. Make sure you take time to stop off in Tokyo and Kyoto during your visit to Japan.
* The Urban Mum (& Dad) personally paid for all components of this trip, opinions are our own.
** Do not forget to choose your Travel Insurance wisely, not all ski holiday insurance cover is created equal (CoverMore have a great option).
Our family also loved Nozawa Onsen. Have you skied in Japan?