The Festive Mountains of Japan
Hakuba was disturbingly deserted on first arrival. The rows of Swiss houses were all dark-windowed under heavy grey skies, outlined by the sharp white backdrop of the Japanese Alps. After arriving at our remote and slightly creepy Fawlty Towers-esque hotel, making snide cracks about The Glacier Hotel actually being a glacier, and bemoaning the lack of a kettle, we wondered where the life in the town was hiding. There was barely even a road near our hotel, but we were optimistic that there would be more life in the town centre.
We had come to Hakuba, Nakano-ken, over the Christmas holidays, to avoid the homesickness that often comes with Christmas abroad. Skiing, snowboarding and partying would be our remedies for the lack of turkey, presents and family banter that we’d usually be having. Nagano Prefecture is best known for Nagano City, at which the 1998 Winter Olympics were held, though the prefecture has many other hidden highlights, far less well-known. Hakuba is one such place and despite its quiet first impression, the town has a wealth of ski-resorts and associated night life, as well as numerous idyllic outdoor hot-springs.
The sweet old couple who run The Glacier Hotel kindly drove us to Hakuba station that first night (and many times after), where they assured us restaurants could be found. Slightly dolled-up and looking for somewhere lively, we walked determinedly along the dark, wet streets, where the only truck to drive through the street, probably for hours, powered through the drains overflow and sprayed us from head to toe. We only found a closed McDonald’s, an upmarket hotel with the sign “We have no connection with the Yakuza” and a small restaurant manned by a smiling, wizened old lady. Though it was good to know that the Royal Hotel had no contact with the Japanese mafia, we decided we’d support the cute old folks of Hakuba, who kindly read the menu to us.
Some hours later we bizarrely found ourselves in a heaving mass of drunken ski instructors, having used a kindly cabby as a makeshift tour guide who had brought us to a solitary karaoke bar that turned out to be the evening’s entertainment epicentre. To rapturous applause we joined the ski workers end-of-year party (guess they don’t see many foreigners here), were given some drinks and began to chat. I was mostly talking to a former Buddhist monk, who offered me reams of philosophy then announced “Japanese likes to work too much; I like the good things in life, like skiing, alcohol, talking to you.”
At the same party we stumbled across ski instructor Dave, of Evergreen Outdoors Centre. He was a lucky find indeed, possessing a wealth of local knowledge, a team of English-speaking, skiing, snowboarding and snow-shoeing instructors, and a huge chugging dinosaur of a van, which he was happy to pick us up in, even from our remote hotel in the sticks.
Hitting the slopes
Despite the fame brought by the 1998 Winter Olympics, and the reported expensiveness of Japan, winter sports are surprisingly reasonably priced. It cost around £30 for a whole day’s snowboarding tuition, and around £20-£25 to hire all of the necessary gear, so just under £60 for everything. Skiing the next day was even cheaper when Dave allowed us to use his own clothes, to save costs.
People always say that the first day of snowboarding is the worst. You fall over constantly, get frustrated, fall over a bit more and get achy legs. The most difficult parts are the monotonous preliminaries: the learning to push yourself uphill with one foot attached to the board, the supporting leg screaming in agony, whilst wearing what feels like a space suit and 10-tonne shoes. Still, the split second’s adrenaline rush from edging forward on the slope, followed by a few moments of ecstatic motion, of maybe 20 feet, then the inevitable crash-landing on the powdery snow were fantastic, more than worth the effort.
At the end of the day the instructor let us go up on the ski lift. From the very top of the slope we practised our zigzags as we went through the thick untouched powder which slowed us right down, and often buried us past our knees.
For me, skiing was fantastic, and a good deal easier than snowboarding. Again there were the preliminaries of side-stepping up and down the slope, learning to step around in a circle, ski straight and pull the feet into a bracing ‘V’ to stop. Picking these things up pretty quickly, and then learning the ‘duck walk’ – using the skis as huge skates in outwards motions to quickly get uphill – I was able to practise the moves alone. While ski instructor Ben tended to the perpetually immobile, I gradually learned to move from side to side, and stop in either direction.
Soaking in hot springs
Cold nights and aching muscles made us seek out Hakuba’s other main attraction. Surrounded by snow-capped trees and strings of white Christmas lights, there’s a steaming hot spring, called an ‘onsen’ in Japan. With plastic bottles of sake floating in the water, the warm alcohol was a delicious and classy way to relax before seeking out Dave’s latest recommended night spot. In a small local night club later, friendly locals, a good DJ-mix, and Dave’s ghost stories from his travels in York, England, completed our festive trip, in a town that is alive with hidden attractions.