First Timer's Guide To Hakuba - MountainWatch Travel

Japan | Hakuba

First Timer’s Guide To Hakuba

Ten different resorts, 135 lifts and more than 200 runs – all pummelled by regular powder top-ups throughout the snow season. If you haven’t yet been, here’s your first-timer’s guide to Hakuba. 

There are few places in the world where you can buy a beer out of a vending machine for the equivalent of about AU$3. Even fewer places offer such convenient tipples on the side of ski slopes.

In Hakuba, lager-dispensing vending machines are just one of the intoxicating features of a visit to this buzzing Japanese ski town. They jut out from thick powder snow at the base of mountains, to the joy of exhausted skiers and snowboarders needing carb replenishment. And while cheap beers are a major drawcard for the many Australians, they are certainly not the only one.

More than 11 metres of snow (known as yuki in Japanese) tops up the ski slopes on an average year in Hakuba. Perhaps even more enticing is the fact that those who hold an Epic Pass can ski five days for free at any of Hakuba’s resorts.

Epic snowfall in Hakuba Village
Epic snowfall in Hakuba Village

Like in Niseko, plenty of Western food and accommodation options are available in Hakuba. Most restaurants have English-speaking staff and you can get by without knowing a word of Japanese…if that’s how you like to travel. But there are still some secret powder stashes and unique cultural experiences that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Hello, vending machine beers.

Heading to Hakuba for the first time? Keep reading our first-timer’s guide to Hakuba below so you don’t miss the best bits.

Janinan Kuzma in the Hakuba pow with The North face. Photo: Zoya Lynch
Janinan Kuzma in the Hakuba pow with The North face. Photo: Zoya Lynch

Guide To Hakuba: When To Go

From late November through March, Hakuba’s 10 resorts are blanketed with light and dry yuki (snow). It’s the type of snow that whisps away in the wind when you try to crush it together for a snowball. This Hakuba powder is an absolute dream to ride.

The most recent 2022-23 season was a late starter and Hakuba didn’t see any snowfall until December, so you’re best to book a January or February trip if you want guaranteed powder. Don’t worry too much if the snowfall is minimal in December: there is a saying that declares “once the Japanese powder window opens it stays open”.

The slopes can be busy during the January school holidays but quieten down in late February and March. Note that accommodation becomes cheaper in the second half of February, when there is still plenty of powder to go around.

Spring backcountry touring in Hakuba
Spring backcountry touring in Hakuba. Photo:

Guide To Hakuba: How To Get There

There are a few airlines that fly daily to Tokyo, such as Qantas and Jetstar. Flights can be as cheap as $500 one-way on sale prices. If you book with Jetstar, beware of the luggage limits and read the fine print on your ticket carefully. In most cases, you will need to purchase extra and oversized baggage.  Especially if you are travelling with a ski or snowboarding bag. Make sure you do this in advance or you will be stung with massive fees at the airport.

Bus or Train

Once in Tokyo, getting to Hakuba is a quick trip via bullet train or bus. The bullet train zips you to Nagano in under three hours and from there you can take a local bus or shuttle to the slopes. The train journey has both positives and negatives. Riding the 300km/h bullet train is exciting for first-timers but, the journey requires three connections and can be tricky with baggage.


If you are travelling with a family, the easiest option may be to book a transfer from the airport with the Nagano Snow Shuttle. It takes a little longer (about five hours) but it is cheaper and easier than lugging your bags between train stations.

Two skiers making memories in the Hakuba snow
Making memories in the Hakuba snow. Photo:

Guide To Hakuba: Where To Ski

The Hakuba Valley includes 10 different ski resorts surrounding the central town area. You can buy multi-day tickets with the Hakuba All Valley Pass, which gives you access to all of these resorts and is useful if you want to ski two resorts in one day. For example, some resorts like Cortina and Norikura are connected via lift access, and it’s great to be able to ski both. You will also save time not lining up for tickets each morning. However, if you queue for a single-day ticket it ends up being mildly cheaper (but limits you to one resort).

The main resort of Happo-One (pronounced “oh-nay” not “one”) is potentially the most crowded because it is closest to town. It also reaches above the tree line and can be windy or icy due to the exposure. On the plus side, this exposure offers wide areas of untracked powder when there is a snowfall. In a standard Japanese season, this will happen every few days.

Skier enjoying the phenomenal tree skiing in Hakuba
Evelina Nilsson skiing the trees on a great day. Photo: Zoya Lynch

Tree skiing is best at Cortina, one of the few areas where it is allowed by ski patrol. Cortina is a little steeper than the other resorts and can be fantastic on a powder day. Unfortunately, the Cortina secret is well and truly out and it can also be the most crowded place on a powder day. It’s about an hour bus ride from Happo and the mountain doesn’t open until 9 a.m. – so it can be frustrating for early birds itching to get out on the powder.

Hakuba Goryu and 47 have extensive terrain for intermediates and advanced skiers. 47 is also very popular among snowboarders for its terrain park. Tsugaike is fantastic on a powder day (head to the trees) and Iwatake is the best place to cruise groomers when it’s sunny. The view from Iwatake’s City Bakery at the top of the mountain, looking over the Japanese Alps is outstanding.

Insider’s tip: most resorts have strict rules about going off-piste. In some you must attend an avalanche briefing which will provide you with a tag or vest. This enables you to go into designated “powder zones” (Tsugaike and Goryu specifically require this). The ski patrol are extremely strict on those gaijin (foreigners) who ski under ropes. They will take your pass. You have been warned!

Guide To Hakuba: Where To Stay

There are three main neighbourhoods in Hakuba; EcholandHappo and Wadano. Most hotels are close to the ski slopes of Happo-One in Happo and Wadano and are serviced by regular inter-resort shuttle buses. It’s most convenient to stay in a hotel near a shuttle bus stop because the (free!) shuttles are your ticket to ride other resorts.

The Happo, the Tokyu Hotel, and Phoenix Hotel & Chalets all have shuttle stops pretty much outside their front doors. The luxe Phoenix Hotel is operated by a lovely Australian couple, Sally and Peter, who are all too happy to chauffeur their guests out to dinner or to the slopes each day. The Australian staff make things easier from a language perspective, however, you can still enjoy a semi-Japanese stay by sleeping on tatami mats if you please. We also suggest relaxing at the in-house onsen (it’s technically a spa because it doesn’t use onsen water, but you wouldn’t know).

The Happo is Hakuba’s newest luxury boutique hotel. It is extremely convenient because shuttle buses stop at its doorstep. It is also just a 2-minute walk in ski boots to the central Hakuba bus station. From there you can catch buses to Cortina and further afield. If you like wining and dining, it is also in a prime position to walk to the restaurants and bars.

Guide To Hakuba: Where To Eat

From wagyu to Melbourne-quality coffee and sushi that’s good enough for T Swift – you’re spoiled for choice when dining in Hakuba. There are so many great restaurants to choose from.

Delicious dish at Mimi's in Hakuba
Dining at Mimi’s is a must when in Hakuba

If I’m forced to name a few highlights, I’d mention Mimi’s Restaurant and Bar, Mominoki Hotel and Kikyo-ya. Keep in mind that restaurants (especially these popular ones) can be very crowded during ski season. Be sure to book at least a day in advance by asking your hotel or lodge host to call them. You can also pop in after skiing and reserve a table in person for later on. If you want to go between neighbourhoods you can catch the “Genki-go” night bus. For just 300 yen (a little over $3) per trip it will save you a lot on taxis.

A woman is buying soft drink through vending machine while it's snowing
The scale of Japanese vending machines

Finally, don’t miss trying a beer, unusual snack or coffee in a can from one of the bizarre vending machines that dot the streets and slopes. This is a must-do Japanese experience – much like heated toilet seats and bidets. Any drink with a red price label will come out hot, while the blue label signifies cold. The hot coffee cans double as useful hand warmers if you stash them in your pockets while skiing. Tip: just shake them to make them hotter again!

If you’ve read the First Timer’s Guide to Hakuba and you’re ready to experience this powder paradise for yourself, complete an enquiry form and our team will happily create a custom package for you. Or discover our packages below:

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