Heard of Hakuba, mama? This ski paradise that hosted the 1998 Olympics is a fab spot for families… and totally within reach
I’ve just returned from a 5-day ski trip to Hakuba, Japan with my toddler and am happy to say it was a huge success, mamas. If you love to ski or snowboard (or you simply want your littles to experience a bit of winter wonderland) – here’s everything you need to know for a smooth and seamless trip.
We chose Hakuba (where the skiing events from the 1998 Nagano Olympics were held) over Japan’s other, larger ski paradise (Niseko) because it’s easily accessible by train and car from Tokyo. With a toddler in tow, I will always choose the non-flying option, and Japan has some of the best trains in the world.
The flight from Singapore to Tokyo is about six hours (with a one-hour time difference), and you’ve basically got the choice of an all-day flight that leaves in the morning and arrives late afternoon, or a redeye. (Ed note: Hong Kong to Tokyo traveling time is under four hours). From there we took the Narita Express to Tokyo Station (which is also where the bullet train – Shinkansen – for Nagano departs from). Check out HyperDia.com for train timings; you can usually book your tickets the day before or even a couple hours before departure.
If you want to avoid schlepping your ski or snowboard equipment through train stations, Japan offers a number of luggage forwarding services that you can utilize at either the airport or Tokyo Station.
We arrived to Tokyo Station at about 7 p.m., which was approaching toddler bedtime, so we opted to do an overnight in Tokyo (world class sushi for dinner? Twist my arm why don’t you). We stayed at the Shangri-La Tokyo, which is adjacent to the station and offers a super-convenient (and complimentary) meet-and-greet service where a bellman meets you on your train platform, helps you with your bags, and takes you to the hotel. They also helped book our bullet train tickets and escorted us to our train when we departed.
Some hotels around Tokyo Station offer similar services, but I give high praise to the Shangri-La, which is a beautiful hotel and provided our toddler with her own special welcome pack that included baby toiletries, a Shangri-la teddy bear, toddler slippers and toddler pajamas!
The bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano ranges from 80-100 minutes (depending how many stops you make). From Nagano Station, most people opt to take the 90-minute shuttle bus to Hakuba, which costs ¥1,500($103 HKD) per person, each way (it’s ¥700 / $48 HKD for kids). We opted to take a private taxi from the station for ¥17,000 (about $1,172 HKD). It only saved us about 15 minutes and given the difference in cost, I’d definitely take the bus next time. Our accommodation was very helpful in arranging the transport beforehand, however. Just a word of warning, mama: while Hakuba does have its own train station, you can’t access it from Nagano. The fastest way is to take the bus!
Our accommodation recommended renting from Rhythm Snow Sports, one of the biggest ski and snowboard equipment rental places in Japan that happens to be a five-minute walk from the hotel (they also provide free pick-up and drop-off when you go to rent your gear).
From Rhythm we were able to rent skis, poles, boots, helmets, jackets and snow pants. We were not able to rent goggles, hats or gloves, so be prepared to buy your own or borrow some beforehand. With the amount of snow we got during our stay, goggles are a MUST. Rhythm also rents out apres-ski boots, another must given the massive snow drifts everywhere.
Maggie had four different pairs of snow pants to choose from, and of course picked the pink ones – a snazzy pair from Spyder we brought from Singapore. Rhythm did have some kids gear available, but I wanted to be able to try things on before we went just in case.
We stayed at Phoenix Chalets, as recommended by the villa specialists at TheLuxeNomad.com. We wanted to have the space to spread out (particularly after Maggie went to bed at night!), and it was wonderful having amenities like a fully-equipped kitchen and washing machine and dryer. Chalets are available in two- and three-bedroom configurations (sleeping up to 6 people); on the ground floor were the bedrooms, full baths, and a drying room for all our gear. Upstairs was the living room with flat-screen TV (and Netflix!), the kitchen and another half-bath.
The décor was modern and sophisticated, definitely on the minimalist side. Our bed was quite comfortable, and the bathroom was sleek and modern. I loved the heated floors!
The villas on The Phoenix Hotel grounds are four-star accommodation with a well-regarded restaurant (note that we had to pay ¥3,000 per person for breakfast) and an on-site steam room. The complex is in the Wadano Woods area of Hakuba, about a 10-minute walk from Happo-One (pronounced “Happo-Oh-Nay”), which is one of the largest mountains in the area. There are lots of restaurants (mostly set within other hotels) within walking distance – one night we stumbled right next door for yummy homemade pizzas at Morino Lodge. If you want to go further afield, the hotel is super helpful in making restaurant reservations and arranging taxis for you.
In fact, the outstanding service was the highlight of our stay at Phoenix Chalets, whether it was the manager (a lovely Aussie lady named Sally) arranging our transfers and recommending equipment rental and ski schools beforehand over email, or the team dropping us off for lunch in town. The daily afternoon shuttle will take you to the local supermarket, and there’s a morning and afternoon shuttle that makes multiple stops at Happo-One (just five minutes away by car) and other mountains along with your gear.
If you want to take a break from skiing the hotel can also arrange fun activities like a snow monkey tour, onsen visit, sushi-making class, or massage – I look forward to returning so we can do more of these things next time!
The Skiing and Snowboarding
I honestly feel like I barely scraped the tip of the proverbial iceberg here! The Hakuba Valley comprises eleven different ski resorts with over 200 trails and 135 lifts. We only made it to two of them! With some of the longest runs in Japan, frequent snowfall that ensures a 10-meter snow base, and otherworldly powder conditions (fondly known as #Japow), Hakuba is fantastic for everyone from beginners to experts.
On day one, we all took private lessons with Hakuba Snow Sports School, which is located at the small, family-friendly Iimori area that’s part of Goryu and Hakuba47 (these mountains are all inter-connected, which means one lift ticket can get you around all of them).
Maggie took a lesson in the morning with a Kiwi instructor named Toby, while in the afternoon she headed to the mountain’s on-site daycare so my husband and I could get a turn. We were so impressed by Toby’s patience with Maggie (who’s not quite 3), whether he was carrying her on to the ski lift or teaching her how to do a snowplow. By the end of her hour long lesson she was cruising without him even holding on to her (she was just holding his poles!).
On the second day we decided to check out Happo-One closer to the hotel, and enrolled Maggie in the Yeti Club for kids 3-6 at Evergreen Snow Sports School. Here she was able to take a group class with other kids on the “magic carpet”, then go inside to play when she got tired (they offer a fully equipped daycare centre, plus videos for kids to watch). They also feed the kids lunch!
Even if your kids are too young to ski, Evergreen offers daycare for littles from 18 months of age. Phoenix Chalets also works with a number of reputable babysitting agencies who can look after babies at the chalet if you prefer.
Where to Eat
This was my fourth trip to Japan and, as ever, the food did not disappoint. Whether noshing on ramen or udon noodles slopeside, or eating delicious sushi, or even grabbing a pizza, there is every kind of food available, and it’s all quite delicious. There are also lots of cosy pubs and bars (and even a microbrewery). In addition to taxis, there is also an evening shuttle bus called Genki-Go that travels all around the valley with lots of stops at various restaurants. With a toddler, time is precious for us in the evenings, but it would work great for couples or families with older kids.
For our first lunch we ate at Maeda, a lovely little noodle shop in the heart of Hakuba village (the Hakuba Gondola is just about five minutes away on foot). For dinner on our first night we noshed on delicious sushi at Sharaku in the Hakuba Springs Hotel. Because it’s owned by the same group as Phoenix Chalets, we were even able to score free rides to and from the restaurant.
Another night we went up the road in Wadano to Wagyu Kobeya, which serves up delicious Kobe beef that you can cook yourself table side. It’s the first Japanese restaurant I’ve ever been to that was staffed entirely by Australian servers! Besides the totally delicious food, the restaurant also offers free pick-up and drop-off from your hotel.
On our final night we dined at a tiny restaurant in the lively Echoland neighbourhood, Sakura Ramen. There were just two tables and while the chef laboured away in the kitchen, his adorable toddler daughter played out front near the cosy stove (she was a huge draw for keeping Maggie occupied!). Equally delectable are their famous gyoza dumplings; we loved this charming little spot but it was hard to seek out, as there are actually two other restaurants with the same name in town so make sure you find the right one. The noodles were firm and springy, the broth was delicious, and the egg was perfectly cooked. It totally hit the spot on a chilly, snowy night.
At the mountains, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants both at the base and on the slopes. You’ll find universal ski mountain staples like burgers and fries, along with more regional favourites like noodles, soups, kimchi, and spaghetti bolognese! There’s a great vegetarian restaurant next to Evergreen called Roots Café. One of my favourite treats was a green matcha latte from the café near the Sakka lift.
I could obviously go on and on raving about this wonderful trip, but what I will say is that you should GO NOW, mamas! While crowds majorly die down in early February, the conditions stay excellent through March and beyond.
Phoenix Chalets, 4690-2 Hokujo, Hakuba-mura, Kitaazumi-gun, Nagano-Ken 399-9301, Japan, website