Hakuba – Japanese Alps, Nagano
Hakuba is a small town popular with skiiers, snowboarders and hikers. It is in a wide valley ringed by foothills which rise up to the majestic peaks of the Japanese Alps.

View over Hakuba valley

Not impossible without a car but whichever way you go it wont be quick. By shinkansen its going to take 6 hours via Matsumoto on the Azuza Limited Express, and set you back over 8,000yen.
When I tried to search for local trains I was recommended to fly instead – not surprising since it would take 7 hours and cost nearly 6,000.

The easiest way is to take a Keio highway bus from Shinjuku Bus Station. They run every couple of hours, the trip takes 4-5 hours with a couple of rest stops along the way, but at least you’re guaranteed a seat and can take a nap

Obviously if you’re planning on skiing then winter is best. The peaks are usually open and snow covered from mid-November to February, but you might get a longer season during cold years. For hiking in the higher mountains be warned that it can start snowing from October, so peaks may be closed to hikers.

Where to stay
Hakuba may be a small town but there are plenty of hotels there and even more within easy reach by public transport. They range from backpacker’s hostels to huge Swiss-style lodges. There are a few mountain huts on the peaks too. There’s a fair few restaurants but these may keep shorter hours outside of the peak skiing season. Amazingly there are only 2 convenience stores there at the time of writing, so stock up.
Outside Hakuba roads are not illuminated, so plan your route carefully if you’re travelling at night

Small alpine lake on the mountain

Things to do
Skiing is the sport most travellers come for. Hakuba hosted some events when the Winter Olympics were held in Nagano Prefecture in 1998, and you can see the ski jumps and courses laid out from then. There’s tons of slopes ranging from bunny hills to suicidally steep, and lots of ski lifts to take you up. Not much on the slopes themselves except the occasional restaurant tacked onto a ski lift, but on the positive side the slopes look much more wild and natural. More information on slopes near Hakuba available here

Hiking in Hakuba is awesome if you cheat and take a ski lift instead of battling up one of the Alps from the ground. Take a lift during the off season to 1,000 or 2,000 metres, and the views are stunning. What appeared from the ground to be a ring of hills around the valley reveal their true identity as foothills to the mountains, that stretch in long blue tinted ridges all the way to the horizon in every direction. In Autumn you can fast-forward through time as you climb up in the lift, seeing green leaves at the bottom of the slopes changing into yellow, orange and red as you ascend.
Mt _____ is a popular hike which goes past 3 large cairns, permafrost and uncountable views before the peak. To do it within a day you’ll need to take all 3 ski lifts in succession, then keep up a fair pace to be back for the last lift at 4.30 (costs 1,500yen). If you can’t manage the full walk in one day, or you want to go further, there’s a mountain hut near the peak open during the summer for hikers planning to walk from the summit along an alpine ridge.
Give yourself some time to adjust to the higher altitude before setting off and take warm clothes – its bloody cold up there!

Mountain shrine

Cycling around the valley can be beautiful. Its not far to Lake Aokiko, called after the still and deep blue of the water, where you can often see clear reflections of hills, forest and peaks. A road goes through the valley, through a long, dark and very echoey tunnel then turn left to go around Lake Aokiko. Although the busy road from Hakuba has a couple of hills along the way, once you’re at the lake its completely flat and very quiet, and on the way back there’s a great downhill.
If you can’t make it all the way to Aokiko, along the road there is a large marsh and a small forest with bike trails, including a boarded walkway that winds through the middle of the swamp. Although the marsh is near the main road it is very peaceful, so look out for dragonflies, butterflies and birds.

Watersports Lake Aokiko has some watersports during the summer, such as canoeing, waterskiing and windsurfing.

Walkway through marsh

Hakuba is a beautiful place with lots to explore but it is an ‘outdoors’ town – there’s a small history museum in Hakuba, a few shops and as far as I’m aware that’s it for indoor attractions, although the onsen are always good for relaxing in when the weather’s bad. Aim for good weather, and get out even if it’s raining.


Train Times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Accommodation – http://www.hostelworld.com

General information – http://www.japan-guide.com