Hakuba, Japan : Shaken not stirred

30 Jan

by Penny Schroder-Smith (Hakuba House staff 2014/15)  Read more of Penny’s personal blog at Trail27.

Hakuba, Japan : Shaken not stirred

There’s no doubt Japan has secured itself as the number one spot in the world for powder skiing and snowboarding. But it’s only in the last few years that it has become a place worth considering over the U.S. or Canada among a wider demographic based particularly in Europe.

The two most popular resorts in Japan are Niseko, a purpose-built resort in Hokkaido on the North island, and Hakuba, an old rice farming village that has become the most recognised place to ski in what are known as the Japanese Northern Alps.

Based approximately four hours’ drive north-west of Tokyo, Hakuba translates to ‘white horse’ and was named in 1956 after two groups of villages, Kamishiro and Hokujo, joined forces. Being part of an extended valley made it a vital stopping point during the last two centuries on what was known as the old salt road, a journey between the salt flats on the west coast to Shiojiri, a market town close to Matsumoto.

Today, Hakuba is made up of nine ski resorts. Despite many of them being located below 1000 meters altitude, they boast an annual average snowfall of more than eleven meters, compared to areas in the French Alps – Les Arcs, for instance – which receives around five. Consequently, fair weather skiers will be disappointed. You’ll be lucky to have one or two sunny days a week here. Although, being on the same latitude as Morrocco and Athens means that when the sun does make an appearance it’s often a belter. Alternatively, powder hungry riders and those who don’t mind skiing in heavy snowfall will be richly rewarded. Backcountry riding is also easily accessible with the right knowledge and the right kit.

While Niseko has very dry snowfall, Hakuba has steeper terrain, which lends itself well to the best tree runs you can find anywhere in the world. Happo-one is the biggest resort of the bunch and sees many Japanese travel in for the weekend from Tokyo. On a powder day any of the resorts will be set to, as one visitor put it, ‘overflow the happy bank’, but where Happo gets 20cm of fresh snow, Cortina will have had 40, maybe 50cm. A day trip there will have you beaming for days: fields of untouched powder and lap after lap of fresh tree runs. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to being in a ski movie. On that note, on a clear day you can see the far off spines that Jeremy Jones and Travis Rice have ridden down, which is one thing. But when you get returnees such as Rice, who’s in Hakuba again this season, it proves there must be something special about these peaks. (Here’s Trav in the trees the last time he was here).

Away from the hill, Hakuba, as with Japan in general, is extremely safe from a cultural, social point of view. You’re not likely to get your wallet or ski jacket stolen from a bar during après as many have in France. Neither are you likely to get your car stolen if you accidentally leave it unlocked. So much so that the majority of residents leave their cars unlocked when they park up.

But it’s not always fun and games. On 22nd of November 2014, just under a month before the start of the ski season, a 6.7 earthquake hit the central region of the Nagano prefecture and was a direct hit to Hakuba. Around 45 people were injured, over 1500 homes were damaged and a further 50 were completely destroyed. There were, however, no fatalities – a rarity for such a large earthquake.

A few Hakuba residents have since admitted that, not surprisingly, the quake was hyped in the media, which was, and will always be a worry for a town that relies so completely on its snow-seekers for its long term survival. The town’s mayor was quick to publish a reassuring statement to travellers, claiming that the resort and its infrastructure was safe, despite ‘untruthful reports, rumours and media hysteria’ that had ‘created a negative impression for the entire village, ski resorts and facilities.’ Since the season started on 20th December, the town and its tourists seem largely unaffected by the worry of another quake. Yet, there lurks an echo of the resort’s other past experiences of fragile highs and lows, whilst also highlighting its dependancy on international visitors, especially those from Australia.

Up until the 1980s, ski areas in Japan were domestically dominated. A nationwide boom in leisure activities in 1960s led to an increase in visitor numbers in Hakuba rising from 336,000 in 1960 to 1.6 million in 1967, a four fold increase. By the 1980s, Japan’s growing economic bubble, which allowed banks to lend too easily, saw Hakuba’s infrastructure grow into the resort as it stands today, with many Japanese people building and buying lodges, hotels and apartments. But, as always, the boom was not to last. By the time the Japanese economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, the bid for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games had already been placed. The Games took place towards the tail-end of one of the country’s biggest economic crashes. The same people who had built Hakuba were now bankrupt or in serious debt. However, by using Hakuba as the platform on which to stage the ski jump, cross country, downhill, super giant and giant slalom events, it allowed the resort to come to international attention, especially to the Australian market. As a consequence, it was many of those early visitors from Oz, who were looking for decent snow closer to home than Europe, who bought the lodges and apartments that were being taken to auction. Along with the rise in budget air travel in the early 2000s, it secured a new international era for Japan’s ski industry.

Since then, the mining boom in Australia has seen a huge impact in Hakuba. But should the dollar decrease in value, it brings with it a potential crisis that other resorts could ride through. It highlights the need to tap further into other international markets such as the Scandinavians, who have been regulars for the past few seasons, and more recently, the Alaskan/American market, where many are having a particularly poor season this year.

For Hakuba, the quality of the snow will no doubt ensure its survival and will hopefully keep drawing international revellers for more of the white stuff. “No ski, no life” sums up the tone when it comes to Hakuba and its tight knit community, many of whom have been working in the area for generations. It’s a quote that was made at a pre-season event for locals and seasonnaires by Oito, who is part of the family that owns the Iimori resort. Aside from owning part of the hill, his family also owns a construction company which has been heavily involved in the clear up following the earthquake. He had come to the event still dressed in his overalls, as work was continuing into the night. Despite the long hours, roads were repaired days, almost hours after the quake. People were moved away from affected areas or their homes, and many whose houses were destroyed have since been moved to temporary purpose-built housing. The swift effort of the locals in Hakuba even prompted many in Tokyo to reflect on how community can shape the after-effects of an inevitable quake in the capital. An article in the Japan Times stated that, “We hope the earthquake will be an opportunity to recognize anew the importance of mutual help and cooperation within local community.”

Whether a season is affected by environmental or economic factors, in ski resort life, there are no guarantees. Yet for many who live in the mountains, and especially in Hakuba, it’s a risk that’s always worth taking.

Travis rice Hakuba tree runs

Jeremy Jones in Hakuba