I AM an admitted addict. I have a weakness for powder. I need it. Where do I get my powder junkie fix? Wyoming? Alaska? BC? Colorado? France? While those places definitely rock, they cannot compare with the blissful 11-meter plus base of the white life that coats Japan’s Northern Alps every winter like a blanket of pure pleasure. If, like me, you are a serious powder junkie, then you owe it to yourself to book your flights, rooms, gear, guide and head to the sleepy hamlet of Hakuba, some 4.5 hours northwest of Tokyo by express train. What? Concerned about radioactivity from Fukushima? No worries. It lies some 460 kilometers away and, with the prevailing winds, is of zero concern. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about powder, steeps, tree-runs, chutes, bowls and all the things that cure the urges all true powder junkies have, including the need for unabated SPEED.
Hakuba was home to events of the 1998 Winter Olympics and one of the worst crashes in the history of the games: Herman Maier’s massive splatter out on the downhill at Happone. That aside, the village and its mountains have remained obscured and off the radar for most of the world’s powder hungry skiers and snowboarders, much to the dismay, mystery and guilty pleasure to those of us who have lived and ridden here for years. Located some 50 kilometers from the Sea of Japan, the mountains of Hakuba rocket to heights just over 3,000 meters. That may not be as high as those of the U.S./Canadian Rockies or Europe, but while those ranges can be high and dry, the chutes and bowls of Hakuba boast a consistent snowfall with a relatively safe snow pack that is second to none. Perhaps the only place with the steeps and powder to rival Hakuba are the mountains of coastal AK, but to access those, you need deep pockets to pay for heli time. Not so in Hakuba. You can ride chest deep powder right off the lifts, and if you’ve got the ability and desire for more, then join a backcountry tour offered by Evergreen Outdoors and get some untouched, pristine runs with face-shots a plenty.
Japan is mistakenly seen as an expensive destination. While this may hold true for the urban areas, countryside Japan is quite the opposite, and when compared to ski resorts around the world, Hakuba represents unparalleled value. Lift tickets run less than $60 U.S. per day and if you’ve got the time to spend an entire season you can pick up a season pass for each of Hakuba’s big resorts for a fraction of the price of season passes elsewhere. Same goes for lodging. You can stay for anywhere from US$400 to US$50 per night, according to your needs.
What about the snow? Imagine chest deep powder, tight or open trees, massive bowls, gnarly couloirs, and gentle glades. Whatever your desire, the mountains of Hakuba have it and more. Just remember to exercise cautionary judgment, especially if you want to venture off-piste. Avalanches are a danger and they have killed people in the mountains. They don’t care how well you ski or ride, so just make sure you go with a guide who knows the terrain and snow-pack. That said, the powder riding in Hakuba is relentless. Make sure you’ve got the legs and lungs for plentiful powder riding in a pristine setting with some of the nicest people in the world. The Japanese are consummate hosts and Hakuba is a wonderful place for your winter wonderland getaway.