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Hakuba: A Japanese Winter Wonderland that’s Closer than You Think

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Heard of Hakuba, mama? This ski paradise that played host to the 1998 Olympics is a fab spot for families… and totally within reach

I’ve just returned from a 5-day ski trip to Hakuba, Japan with my toddler and am happy to say it was a huge success, mamas. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much snow in my life – if you love to ski or snowboard (or you simply want your littlies to experience a bit of winter wonderland) – here’s everything you need to know for a smooth and seamless trip.

Getting there
Gear
Accommodation
Where to Ski and Snowboard
Where to Eat

Getting There

We chose Hakuba (where the skiing events from the 1998 Nagano Olympics were held) over Japan’s other, larger ski paradise (Niseko) because it’s easily accessible by train and car from Tokyo. Niseko is on the island of Hokkaido, which requires a separate flight. With a toddler in tow, I will always choose the non-flying option, particulary since she loves trains, and Japan’s are some of the best in the world and a true travel pleasure.

The flight from Singapore to Tokyo is about 6 hours (with a 1-hour time difference), and you’ve basically got the choice of an all-day flight that leaves in the morning and arrives late afternoon, or a redeye. The thought of getting off a redeye and then traveling a few more hours definitely did not appeal to us, so we opted for a morning flight that got us to Tokyo at about 4:30pm. From there we took the Narita Express to Tokyo Station (which is also where the bullet train – Shinkansen – for Nagano departs from). Check out HyperDia.com for train timings; you can usually book your tickets the day before or even a couple hours before departure.

If you want to avoid schlepping your ski or snowboard equipment through train stations, Japan offers a number of luggage forwarding services that you can utilize at either the airport or Tokyo Station.

We arrived to Tokyo Station at about 7pm, which was approaching toddler bedtime, so we opted to do an overnight in Tokyo (world class sushi for dinner? Twist my arm why don’t you). We stayed at the Shangri-La Tokyo, which is adjacent to the station and offers a super-convenient (and complimentary) meet-and-greet service where a bellman meets you on your train platform, helps you with your bags, and navigates you through busy Tokyo Station right to the hotel. They also helped book our bullet train tickets and escorted us to our train when we departed.

I think a number of hotels around Tokyo Station offer similar services, but I give high praise to the Shangri-La, which is a beautiful hotel and provided our toddler with her own special welcome pack that included baby toiletries, a Shangri-la teddy bear, toddler slippers and toddler pajamas!

The bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano ranges from 80-100 minutes (depending how many stops you make). From Nagano Station, most people opt to take the 90-minute shuttle bus to Hakuba, which costs ¥1,500 (about S$19) per person, each way (it’s ¥700 / S$9 for kids). Unsure of how our toddler would handle the bus, we opted to take a private taxi from the station for ¥17,000 (about S$212). It only saved us about 15 minutes and given the difference in cost, I’d definitely opt for the bus next time around. Our accommodation was very helpful in arranging the transport beforehand, however. Just a word of warning, mama: while Hakuba does have its own train station, you can’t access it from Nagano. The fastest way is to take the bus!

Once in Hakuba, our accommodation provided a handy shuttle service with stops at multiple mountains, along with a daily afternoon van to the supermarket and town. It’s also easy to arrange taxis around town; nowhere seems to be more than 10 or 15 minutes away.

Gear

Although I grew up skiing, my gear is still sitting halfway around the world in my parents’ basement. Our accommodation recommended renting from Rhythm Snow Sports, one of the biggest ski and snowboard equipment rental places in Japan that happens to be a 5-minute walk from the hotel (they also provide free pick-up and drop-off when you go to rent your gear).

This came in handy as I needed to swap out my boots on day 2 (which they happily helped me with), as it was easy to just walk over. Plus, when we were finished with our gear we just left it in the hotel equipment room, had them call Rhythm to let them know, and they came by to pick it up no problem.

From Rhythm we were able to rent skis, poles, boots, helmets, jackets and snowpants. We were not able to rent goggles, hats or gloves, so be prepared to buy your own or borrow some from friends beforehand. With the amount of snow we got during our stay, goggles are a MUST. Rhythm also rents out apres-ski boots, another must given the massive snow drifts everywhere. I wasn’t aware of this and ordered some beforehand for both Maggie and me from American outdoor outfitter LL Bean (which ships free to Singapore on orders over $100). Her boots were sooo cute; we need to go somewhere else cold just so she can wear them again!

A friend lent me a parka for Maggie, and I rented snowpants for her here in Singapore from Popsicle, a brilliant service with lots of high-quality winter gear for kids of all ages (they have adult stuff, too!). Maggie had four different pairs of snow pants to choose from, and of course picked the pink ones – a snazzy pair from Spyder that would’ve cost over $200 to purchase, only for her to outgrow in a couple months! Rhythm did have some kids gear available, but I wanted to be able to try things on before we went just in case.

There are lots of gear and equipment shops throughout Hakuba so you can always pick something up in a pinch at a much cheaper price than what you’d find in Singapore, though prices were still a lot higher than what I’m used to in the U.S.

Accommodation

We stayed at Phoenix Chalets, as recommended by the villa specialists at TheLuxeNomad.com. We wanted to have the space to spread out (particularly after Maggie went to bed at night!), and it was wonderful having amenities like a fully-equipped kitchen and washing machine and dryer. Chalets are available in 2- and 3-bedroom configurations (sleeping up to 6 people); on the ground floor were the bedrooms, full baths, and a drying room for all our gear. Upstairs was the living room with flat-screen TV (and Netflix!), the kitchen and another half-bath.

The décor was modern and sophisticated, definitely on the minimalist side in blacks and whites and neutrals. We found our bed quite comfortable, and while the bathroom was sleek and modern, the rain shower didn’t have a great pressure (and there was no accompanying nozzle or soaking tub – which meant I never felt like my hair got quite clean). I loved the heated floors, and Maggie loved sitting by the window at the steps, watching the snow softly coming (and the snow plough that came to push it away).

The villas are on the premises of The Phoenix Hotel, four-star accommodation with a well-regarded restaurant (note that we had to pay ¥3,000 per person for breakfast) and an on-site steam room. The complex is in the Wadano Woods area of Hakuba, about a 10-minute walk from Happo-One (pronounced “Happo-Oh-Nay”), which is one of the largest mountains in the area. There are lots of restaurants (mostly set within other hotels) within walking distance – one night we stumbled right next door for yummy homemade pizzas at Morino Lodge. If you want to go further afield, the hotel is super helpful in making restaurant reservations and arranging taxis for you.

In fact, the outstanding service was the highlight of our stay at Phoenix Chalets, whether it was the manager (a lovely Aussie lady named Sally) arranging our transfers and recommending equipment rental and ski schools beforehand over email, or the team dropping us off for lunch in town on the day we arrived. As aforementioned the hotel also has a daily afternoon shuttle to take you to the local supermarket (hot tip: don’t expect to find any cereal there!), and there’s a morning and afternoon shuttle that makes multiple stops at Happo-One (just five minutes away by car) and other mountains along with your gear.

Every request was handled quickly and with a smile, and it made our stay a total pleasure. If you want to take a break from skiing the hotel can also arrange fun activities like a snow monkey tour, onsen visit, sushi-making class, or massage – I look forward to returning so we can do more of these things next time!

Read More: 5 Family-Friendly Stays in Hakuba, Japan

There are tons of places to stay in Hakuba, from spartan ski lodges to super tricked out villas that can sleep 10+. Because it’s Japan (where everything is super clean), even the most basic accommodation should be pretty good – it’s just a matter of having a convenient location. Having now gotten a better lay of the land, I’d love to go back with a group of friends.

The Skiing and Snowboarding

I honestly feel like I barely scraped the tip of the proverbial iceberg here! The Hakuba Valley comprises eleven different ski resorts with over 200 trails and 135 lifts. We only made it to two of them! With some of the longest runs in Japan, frequent snowfall that ensures a 10-meter snow base, and otherworldly powder conditions (fondly known as #Japow), Hakuba is fantastic for everyone from beginners to experts. I hadn’t been on the slopes in nearly a decade, not to mention my husband (who grew up in the oh-so flat Midwest) had only skiied a handful of times before, and Maggie hadn’t even seen snow, so we definitely took it easy.

On Day 1, at the hotel’s recommendation, we all took private lessons with Hakuba Snow Sports School, which is located at the small, family-friendly Iimori area that’s part of Goryu and Hakuba47 (these mountains are all inter-connected, which means one lift ticket can get you around all of them). Hakuba Snow Sports School is run by a New Zealander named Daniel Mees, and most of the staff is Aussie and Kiwi (there are more Aussies in Hakuba than there are in Singapore, I think!).

Maggie took a lesson in the morning with a Kiwi instructor named Toby, while in the afternoon she headed to the mountain’s on-site daycare so my husband and I could get a turn. We were so impressed by Toby’s patience with Maggie (who’s not quite 3), whether he was carrying her on to the ski lift or teaching her how to do a snowplow. By the end of her hourlong lesson she was cruising without him even holding on to her (she was just holding his poles); my aunt who’s a ski instructor in the U.S. saw a photo I posted and was amazed by her perfect stance.

Toby was equally patient with my husband and me, taking us all over the mountain and giving us individualized instruction based on our abilities. If you’ve never skied before (or need a major refresher), I’d highly recommend starting off with a private lesson. Hakuba Snow Sports School also charges the same regardless of how many people are in your group (that is, my husband and I together cost the same as a single person).

Iimori was about 10 minutes from Phoenix Chalets; Hakuba Snow Sports School will pick you up with your gear if you take a morning lesson, and they’ll drop you off if you take an afternoon lesson. Otherwise there’s also a shuttle to the hotel, or it’s super easy to take a taxi.

On the second day we decided to check out Happo-One closer to the hotel, and enrolled Maggie in the Yeti Club for kids 3-6 at Evergreen Snow Sports School. Here she was able to take a group class with other kids on the “magic carpet”, then go inside to play when she got tired (they offer a fully equipped daycare center, plus videos for kids to watch).

They also feed the kids lunch; this worked out perfectly as it gave us plenty of time to ski on our own and explore the mountain, but then pick Maggie up at 1:30 to ski together. On the first day she was a little nervous to go off with her teacher “Tinkerbell”, but she must have had a great time because the next day she happily marched off in her boots with barely a goodbye wave.

Ever if your kids are too young to ski, Evergreen offers daycare for littlies from 18 months of age. Phoenix Chalets also works with a number of reputable babysitting agencies who can look after babies at the chalet if you prefer.

Where to Eat

This was my fourth trip to Japan and, as ever, the food did not disappoint. Whether noshing on ramen or udon noodles slopeside, or eating delicious sushi, or even grabbing a pizza, there is every kind of food available, and it’s all quite delicious. There are also lots of cosy pubs and bars (and even a microbrewery), but being old (and tired!) we never made it out at night past dinnertime. In addition to taxis, there is also an evening shuttle bus called Genki-Go that travels all around the valley with lots of stops at various restaurants. With a toddler, time is precious for us in the evenings, but it would work great for couples or families with older kids.

For our first lunch we ate at Maeda, a lovely little noodle shop in the heart of Hakuba village. It was really fun to see people walk in in their ski and snowboard boots (the Hakuba Gondola is just about five minutes away on foot). For dinner on our first night we noshed on delicious sushi at Sharaku in the Hakuba Springs Hotel. Because it’s owned by the same group as Phoenix Chalets, we were even able to score free rides to and from the restaurant.

Another night we went up the road in Wadano to Wagyu Kobeya, which serves up delicious Kobe beef that you can cook yourself tableside. It’s the first Japanese restaurant I’ve ever been to that was staffed entirely by Australian servers, I think! Besides the totally delicious food, the restaurant also offers free pick-up and drop-off from your hotel.

On our final night we dined at a tiny restaurant in the lively Echoland neighborhood, Sakura Ramen. There were just two tables and while the chef labored away in the kitchen, his adorable toddler daughter played out front near the cosy stove (she was a huge draw for keeping Maggie occupied!). Equally delectable are their famous gyoza dumplings; we loved this charming little spot but it was hard to seek out, as there are actually two other restaurants with the same name in town so make sure you find the right one. The noodles were firm and springy, the broth was delicious, and the egg was absolutely perfectly cooked. It totally hit the spot on a chilly, snowy night.

At the mountains there are plenty of cafes and restaurants both at the base and on the slopes. You’ll find universal ski mountain staples like burgers and fries, along with more regional favorites like noodles, soups, kimchi, and spaghetti bolognese! There’s a great vegetarian restaurant next to Evergreen called Roots Café. One of my favorite treats was a green matcha latte from the café near the Sakka lift.

I could obviously go on and on raving about this wonderful trip, but what I will say is that you should GO NOW, mama! While crowds majorly die down in early February following Chinese New Year and the Aussie/New Zealand school holidays, the conditions stay excellent through March and beyond.

The magic of seeing my daughter getting to frolic in the snow absolutely made this trip for me; while she loved skiing, she was equally enamoured of simply getting to put on a hat, boots, and snowpants! She loved eating snow, didn’t quite grasp how to make snow angels, and delighted in kicking over the snowman that my husband painstakingly built for her.

While most of the time I don’t particularly miss the harsh winters that I grew up with in New England, this trip reminded me of simple delights like catching snowflakes on your tongue, waking up to tree branches covered in snow that seem like something out of a fairyland, and relishing the silence that settles over the world when it snows at night. I look forward to making more magical memories with Maggie in Hakuba in the years to come.

Phoenix Chalets, 4690-2 Hokujo, Hakuba-mura, Kitaazumi-gun, Nagano-Ken 399-9301, Japan, website

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