The best old school ski towns of Hakuba Valley, Japan

Hakuba Valley. ©Hiroya Nakata

Just under three hours from downtown Tokyo, in the Northern Japan Alps, sits Hakuba Valley – one of the country’s most popular ski areas, and with good reason.

Home to a soaring mountain range that bisects the main island of Honshu, you’ll find peaks up to 3,000 metres filled with powder snow, and a region full of history and a culture that dates back to 300 BC when Hakuba Valley was settled.

It’s a place where salt roads transported minerals from the Sea of Japan to the land-locked towns and where mountain families have lived for generation after generation.

Hakuba Valley is also a place for world-class skiing. First introduced to Japan in the early 1900s by the Austrians, the valley now boasts 10 ski and snowboard resorts from old-school boutique to international world class and was home to the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998. Expect 11 to 13 metres of super dry snow every season and 143 runs for you to explore, not to mention 103 lifts in the valley and 7 terrain parks.

With three key mountain towns, a plethora of sub villages in which to bed down and a partnership with the Epic Pass, Hakuba Valley is the perfect place to discover when it’s safe to travel once again.

To make it even easier, we’ve listed a guide to the region’s old school towns.

Omachi

Omachi

Tucked away high up in the Northern Alps, is the best-kept hidden city of the area: Omachi.

This modern town founded in 1889 is an easy access point to Kashimayari Snow Resort for night skiing with a five-kilometre run and Jiigatake Snow Resort perfect for families, both on the Hakuba Valley lift pass.

Omachi City is surrounded by the Three Lakes of Nishina – Lake Kizaki is closest to the city centre and surrounded by hot springs, Lake Nakatsuna is a local’s fishing favourite and Lake Aoki is renowned for mountain reflections from the surface. You’ll also find the remnants of the thousand-year-old Chikuni Kaido Salt Road around the three lakes.

The area is also home to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route that boasts the famous snow corridor walk with up to 20-metre snow walls on either side. Tourists can walk the 500-metre corridor each spring.

Love sake? Explore the city’s three sake distilleries made from alpine waters.

Love history? There is so much of it to discover here, with the people of Hakuba Valley having been in the area for over 6000 years, long before skiing was discovered. Try the Nishina Shinmeigu Shrine, one of Japan’s oldest shrines, or the Omachi Alpine Museum dedicated to all things mountain from the history of climbing to the yukigata patterns in snow.

Make sure you’re in town during February for the Omachi Snow Festival, a mix of traditional drum performances, fireworks, torch parades and more.

Hakuba

Think of Hakuba as a mix of western and traditional Japanese culture served up in a mix of village precincts that offer fun night life, traditional onsens and mountain inns, modern lodges and happening restaurants and bars after a massive day hitting up this area’s famous powder.

This uber cool mountain town offers a number of districts that are connected by the Genki-go night bus so you can stay in one and après in another. Echoland is between the Happo-one and Hakuba47 snow resorts, this is where you go for dining, drinking and dining some more. It is further away from the slopes than Happo and Wadano but has more night life on offer.

You’ll find the Wadano area on the north side of the Happo-one snow resort. With ease of skiing access, higher end ski in ski out accommodation and a ski school hub, Wadano is popular for those who like to ski hard from sun up to sun down. There are some sweet little restaurants amongst the village trees laden in snow that you may never want to leave.

The easiest resorts to access from Hakuba are Iwatake, Happo-one, Hakuba47, Goryu and Sanosaka. Expect a mix of uber groomed and deep powder on beginner to advanced runs and guided access to the valley’s pristine backcountry. Plus there’s night skiing to be found at Goryu, and the course has been running on 100% renewable energy since December.

Otari

Otari

You came for the powder, right? Then Otari has your name all over it. A sweet and quiet village tucked deep into the valley with big mountain snow and eleven onsens to soothe your weary ski legs.

This is where the authenticity of small Japanese towns comes into its own and makes you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. Stop by the Otari Folk Museum, which has been around since 1868, and discover more about village life; wander the shops and pick up a pair of handmade straw sandals and boots; or try the local delicacy of pickled vegetables made with salt from the Salt Road.

Powder tree ski lovers will have heard about Hakuba Cortina Snow Resort, serviced by a giant old school hotel at the base and filled with perfectly spaced tree runs for mega powder days. It’s also interconnected with Hakuba Norikura Onsen Snow Resort, where you’ll enjoy little to no lift lines and an authentic type of charm.

Otari also plays host to Tsugaike Mountain Resort, the second largest resort in the valley with terrain parks, backcountry access and the opportunity to enjoy the surrounding mountain views while you cruise down many of the designated pistes.

Après in Otari is low key and usually held in lodges around a fire or over a meal, old school style.

Save with lift passes

All of the ten resorts mentioned in this article can be accessed by the Hakuba Valley Day Pass. You can also purchase multiple days on the pass to allow you to explore as much as possible. Or, if you have the Epic Pass, you can access five consecutive days here.

Ready to discover Japan’s largest resort? Find out more about Hakuba Valley here. 

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