Words :: Ben Osborne // photos :: Mattias Fredriksson.
“Bring your f*cking snorkel”
That simple advice came from my buddy Javier as soon as he learned I’d signed up for a trip to Hakuba, Japan. At the time, I brushed it off as an overused social media cliché. Javier is a guide with Extremely Canadian, it’s his job to pump my sails like that.
For a moment I doubted the reality of ‘Japow’ would live up to the daydream I had fabricated from years of ski films filled with bullet train travel scenes, pow-covered faces, and oft-visited snow monkeys. My infatuation with the place was real, but would it—could it—live up to the fantasy in my mind’s eye?
Six turns into my first run, I realized Javier was not messing around. Flowing with each turn into the unmistakable depth and weightlessness of the Japanese powder, all doubts were quickly dismissed—Japan is certifiably snorkel-able.
After years of dirtbag adventures, Japan was the first time I’d treated myself. Guided by Extremely Canadian, I spent two weeks zipping up short ski-tours from the resort followed by massive descents, seeking out the most delicious food in town, and experiencing unique culture along the way. I fell in love with Japan.
And because the world needs more love, here is a short list of my favourite moments and trip tricks from my brief (but not last) time in Hakuba. In this age of information saturation, curated social media blurbs and a near-global migration to any ‘next big thing’, it’s rare for a place to exceed expectations and transcend our daydreams. For me, Japan did just that.
Air: Cruising from the West Coast of Canada or US by air? You’re lucky. Major hubs like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver have daily, non-stop flights to Tokyo which typically come in at just over nine hours of air time.
Land: From Tokyo, there are a few options to get to Hakuba.
Bus: Most routes require a train/bus combination and are priced affordably.
Shuttle: With pick-up from the airport and drop-off where you need, this is certainly the easiest option.
Bullet Train: This requires a few awkward transfers with a large ski bag, but is the cheapest and quickest option. It’s also a spectacle to ride this one-of-a-kind mode of transportation. I recommend using a baggage transfer service to avoid hauling your precious skis or board through crowded stations during the transfers.
From Tokyo, we chose to head to Hakuba via Chuo Taxi. After a few late-night bus transfers and some smooth operating by our driver through a Japanese blizzard, we arrived at Morino Lodge.
With multiple locations around town and a variety of room types, Morino Lodge is an ideal place to rest your head as a skier or rider visiting Hakuba. For smaller groups, the Lodge has affordable single room options that put you near the grill, a drying room, and other classic hotel amenities. The Lodge also offers chalets to accommodate larger groups.
Other options range from Airbnbs to high-end boutique hotels. Scope it out and just remember, regardless of room type, the most important service provided is free shuttles to the mountain each morning. Morino Lodge had us covered on that front.
Keep an Open Mind
One of the common misconceptions about riding in Japan is that all the good terrain is right in front of you, and lift-accessed riding is the end-all be-all. I quickly learned that the real gold lies a bit further off the beaten path.
We arrived at our first location to scout out one of the most popular resorts in the area, Hakuba Cortina. After slapping on the touring skins and walking for literally five minutes we kicked off a cycle of neck deep never-ending laps.
As our guide Alex Wigley put it: “Why would I ski over tracks when I could ski fresh pow?” Touché.
The hazards of backcountry travel are very real. Foreign terrain features and never-ending snowfall require complex navigational skills to get through it all. Just as the good terrain is right around the corner from the lift-accessed terrain, so is the dangerous terrain. Whether you plan to ride out of bounds or not, always bring your avalanche safety gear and ride with a knowledgeable crew.
Not experienced in backcountry travel? This is where the Extremely Canadian tour really pays off. Guided trips like these are led by experienced backcountry enthusiasts who have perfected their navigation of the terrain and are quick to share their expertise with guests. Also worth mentioning, the guides have familiarity with navigating cultural experiences and, perhaps most importantly, the dining opportunities.
Hakuba offers a wide range of dining options, from grab ‘n’ go, to some of the most delicious ramen in the world right on the side of the hill. Here are my favourites:
Grab ‘n’ go: Looking to pack lunch for the hill? Head over to 7-Eleven or Lawson’s Market and pick up some onigiri—a sushi roll in the shape of a triangle the size of your fist. Two of these should be plenty for a day on the hill, and the options include veggie, salmon, even fried chicken with mayo.
Okinomiyaki: These Japanese savoury pancakes are not only delicious, they offer an interactive dining experience. Construct your own pancake at Bos and have them cooked right in front of you.
Ramen: This traditional dish is a darn good meal in the middle of a ski day. Just inside resort boundaries at Hakuba Goryu, you’ll find a funky, family-owned wooden lodge and some of the best ramen of your whole trip.
Onsens: If you’re a fan of the hot tub after a long day on the slopes, you’ll love the onsens. Swap out chlorinated tubs for mineral-rich bathing pools and you have an onsen—a traditional Japanese bath house using naturally-heated water from geothermal hot springs. Scattered slopeside and all over town, onsens have many health benefits, especially after a hard day’s riding.
No swimsuits—treat the onsen like your baththub at home. Would you go in there with a swimsuit?
Leave the beers at home—an onsen does not have the same party vibe as your typical western hot tub
Always wash before entering the onsen
*Note: some onsens do not allow people with tattoos. Always check with the management for their rules, as they change depending on location.
As I returned home with an undeniable hangover from an amazing trip, people asked me “How was Japan?” My answer was always, “Better than I could have ever imagined.” In a world where we are always looking for more—Japan was a welcome reminder that expectations are rarely conducive to good times. If you’re receptive and willing to be surprised, you’ll find doors opening to adventure and culture that will delight even the most seasoned mountain traveller. But yeah, bring a snorkel. –ML