It’s snowing lightly and the sun has just set behind the mountains of Hakuba Ski Resort. There is a pink glow in the sky. Catching snowflakes on my tongue is a crazy experience and even crazier because I am totally naked but feeling very hot.
How is this?
I am sitting in the open-air Japanese baths of the Highland Hotel (more about Hakuba hotels here) with panoramic views of the Hakuba ski range after a day on the slopes.
I have to pinch myself to know I am not dreaming as I revel in one of the many delights of winter in Japan.
Hakuba Ski Resort
For Australians getting to Narita, Tokyo is easy and there is no jet lag as there is only two hours difference between Australia and Japan.
Getting to Hakuba is an adventure in itself.
Just over an hour’s ride from the airport to Tokyo Station and then 1hr and 20 minutes on the Shinkansen (Bullet train) to Nagano, where I have lunch at one of the many atmospheric Ramen places (a specialty of the region) before visiting Zenko-ji, the 7th-century Buddhist temple.
According to legend, this will ensure my passage to the Land of Happiness.
When I get to Hakuba, I cannot believe how vast it is!
There are 11 ski resorts spread over a massive range of mountains, all converging into the same valley with 138 ski lifts and five gondolas in operation.
This provides an infinite choice of runs from challenging Olympic black runs to wide open gentle slopes.
The steepest run is 35 degrees and the longest 8km.
Beginners enjoy 30% of the whole area while Intermediates have 40% and Advanced skiers commandeer the remaining 30%.
I have never seen so much snow in my life and I have been on skiing holidays to Zermatt, Verbier and Thredbo.
The average snowfall in Hakuba is 11 metres.
Yes! It’s a marvellous playground.
Iwatake is my first test as it has the easiest terrain.
The fun begins when going up we spot deer frolicking down below in the woods.
A ski-school group of happy little children decked out in brilliant, psychedelic snowsuits and helmets queue ready to go up under the watchful eye of their instructor.
Later on, I found them again carving gentle curves on the snow in the wake of their teacher as if they were all held together by the same umbilical cord.
I am trying snowshoeing today, something I had never done before.
The rental area at the bottom of the resort has state-of-the-art equipment for hire and knowledgeable, smiling staff who go out of their way to fit you with the right gear.
The demarcated area for snowshoeing in Iwatake is in a silent forest with no boundaries.
In the interest of safety, you have to register your name at the ranger’s office at the start of your exploration.
I find it hard work but rewarding as the views are worth the effort.
Later I go down and transfer to Happo-One (all on the same lift pass), another resort with a different outlook.
I feel like an eagle perched on this high peak.
From here I can see all seven ski resorts, each of them with all the facilities you could dream of: from restaurants to onsen; shops to food courts.
Happo village down in the valley becomes my favourite as it has lots of fine little places for eating (izakayas) and trendy bars and cafes to hang out.
I have a look at the Shiroumaso Ryokan here in Happo and find it exquisite.
There is a special smell to good ryokans. It’s a smell of wood and fresh tatami mats that is appealing and refreshing.
A long time ago Hakuba was called Shirouma (white horse) because when the snows melt in spring, the shape of a horse appears on the surface of Mt Hakuba.
Horses were used to till the fields and this silhouette was a sign for the farmers to start planting the new crops.
Hakuba has accommodation to fit all budgets.
If you have a special occasion or want to splurge, Hotel de La Neige is it (not to be confused with sister property La Neige Honkan, equally luxurious but of a different style).
I have lunch at the fantastic La Neige Higashi-kan restaurant.
My choice is fresh and flavoursome: a stylish gallette of buckwheat flour (what soba noodles are made of) topped with a mix of miniature herbs, salmon, cured ham and a hint of cheese.
Desert is burdock ice cream (yes, delicious) topped with crunchy, roasted buckwheat.
This forest hotel sits among tall trees, some more than 100 years old.
On inspection, the rooms reveal themselves bathed in subtle light filtered through the tree trunks.
The corner suite catches my eye as it has a Jacuzzi propped up on a glass corner overlooking the woods.
Another afternoon incursion to the ski slopes completes an exhilarating day and I am now ready for a good long soak at the open-air onsen at the Highland Hotel (Hokujo 21582 Hakuba) where I am staying.
The views are as stunning from here as they are from the rooms and dining room, designed to catch as much of the panorama as possible.
Where to eat in Hakuba
Dinner at Zen is a 10-minute walk from Happo village, proves a delicious experience.
Traditional tatami rooms where guests sit on the ground around low tables are full with happy skiers.
There is also a western-style dining room with tables and chairs for those who prefer it.
Walking around the valley I realise Hakuba is not just a ski resort but a real village where people live year-round and grow rice and vegetables once the snow bunnies are gone.
There are quaint houses to discover, Shinto Shrines in the middle of tall cedar forests and bonsai gardens the locals tend to carefully.
As I amble the quiet lanes amongst stone lanterns and thatched cottages almost buried in the snow and away from the tourist’ hubs, I suddenly think the visit to Zenko-ji might have worked its magic and
I have already stepped into the Land of Happiness…