Hakuba Valley offers a great experience for even the most inexperienced skier.
I am not much of a skier but I love to get up into the mountains and have a go.
Unfortunately, like many people who have a go, I'm a mug. I'm as likely to finish a run on my knees as on my skis.
Until this year, I'd only been skiing in Australia, which was intimidating enough for a bloke with two left feet and yet, inexplicably, a left and a right ski.
This year, I thought I'd give Japan a try. I mean, what could possibly go wrong, right?
I chose the Happo-One resort in Hakuba Valley, Nagano Prefecture, on the basis of (1) the name (it sounded kind of cheerful); (2) the fact that it was the venue for the 1998 Winter Olympics (it sounded safe and modern); and (3) that fact that my son and I could get a hotel room for less than $300 a night. My biggest worry was that I might get into trouble on the slopes and there would be nobody around who could explain in English what I needed to do to save my life. I feared that all the signs would be in Japanese. and I'd end up hurtling down a black run instead of coasting along a blue trail.
I was also concerned that I might not be able to find suitably hot and hearty "snow food" in Japan, since I have never come in from a day on the slopes and thought, "Hey, I could dead-set murder a slightly chilled sushi roll right now!"
My son and I took the bullet train from Tokyo to the city of Nagano. During the 90-minute journey, we were surprised to find ourselves caught up in a confused and ultraviolent battle between competing teams of professional assassins.
Just kidding. That was actually Brad Pitt in the movie Bullet Train. Nothing at all happened on my journey. It's just that I am often mistaken for Brad Pitt, so I thought I ought to set the record straight.
From Nagano, it is about an hour's coach ride to Hakuba village, which sits at the hub of 10 resorts with 135 lifts and more than 200 runs. We picked up our hire skis and gear from Rhythm Hakuba, a business so Australian that you can buy a piccolo from the coffee stand. Despite my fears about language issues, it turned out that it was a couple of Asian snowboarders who had a problem explaining what gear they needed to the English-speaking staff.
I stacked four times on the first morning. My final crash was so painful that I thought I would vomit. So I resolved to take some lessons. Just like every other time I have ever been skiing.
I booked four 80-minute private lessons with Evergreen International Ski School near the Kokusai chairlift. I was wondering if all the instructors would be Japanese, but I don't think any of them were. My unlucky teacher, Ollie, came from Edinburgh in Scotland. He was a patient and resourceful man, particularly once he realised he was dealing with an idiot and I would have to more or less learn from the beginning again.
It might be worth pointing out here that I have also twice forgotten how to ride a bike.
Anyway, I didn't fall much after my first lesson with Ollie and in my final three days I didn't fall at all.
Hakuba Valley is startlingly beautiful. The Japanese Alps reach to the heavens and the ski lifts seem to trundle skywards forever. Some of the runs feel frighteningly close to the edge of the mountains, but I guess that's the nature of the game.
In the early mornings, the beginner runs are luxuriously uncrowded. Once, my son and I (and Ollie) had an entire mountain face to ourselves. Later in the day, when the boarders had recovered from their après ski, snowboards whizzed past my ears like gunshots. They say you don't hear the bullet that hits you, and I wondered if the same were true of snowboards (although, truth be told, I was far more likely to hit them).
Food turned out not to be a problem. I ended up spending my daylight downtime at Bears Café in Snow Plaza Saka, where the menu included hamburger curry and rice: a combination of two of my favourite foods in which, sadly, the whole did not turn out to be greater than the sum of its parts.
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Hakuba village is essentially a village of restaurants, bars and hotels (the Echoland district adds nightclubs to the mix). It can be hard to find a grocery store, but there are pizzas, pastas, steaks and glutinous Japanese curries everywhere. The Mark Matsuoka Grill is a popular place to pick up relatively expensive grilled meats and shabu-shabu (Japanese hotpot), but nothing in Japan seems to cost more than it would in Australia. Supercheap food trucks parked near the Hakuba Gateway Hotel specialise in single dishes such as dumplings, chicken yakitori, pork buns or beef skewers. The most impecunious snowboarders live on $2 bags of chicken nuggets from the Lawson convenience store.
There was an issue with language, though. There were not enough signposts and the path to each different run was not always clear. The Japanese staff (and there were some, on the lifts and patrols) often had to resort to speaking into peculiar translation machines. It took three of them to explain to me that my son might still be on the mountain after a particular lift had closed, and the best their machine could offer was, "Perhaps your son is waiting for you upstairs."
A fleet of free minibuses takes travellers between ski lifts and accommodation. The drivers understand almost no English, and the bloke who told us that "walkie-walkies" would get us home faster than his vehicle was absolutely mistaken.
Overall, however, it was a smooth, spectacular and enjoyable experience, and nearly everything that went wrong (and that's another story) was my fault.
I'd recommend skiing in Hakuba to anyone.
Even though I came home with a limp.
Getting there: I flew from Sydney to Tokyo Haneda airport with ANA ($1670, booked six weeks before), and my son flew JAL ($1730, booked 5 months before). Both flights were fine, but it was incredibly difficult to change the JAL ticket. The shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano cost $90 with reserved seating. And the coach to Hakuba cost $25.
Skiing there: Five days on the slopes cost us $600 per person, which included hire of skis, boots, poles, pants and jacket for about $60 per day and lift tickets at $60 per day. An 80-minute private skiing lesson costs about $105.
Staying there: We stayed at the Petit Hotel Shitaka for $250 per night, for two adults. The restaurant offered a generally unappetising Japanese-style buffet breakfast and a single 6pm sitting for a French set dinner, but the room was big and comfortable, the view was lovely, and we could ski in and out through the carpark.
Explore more: happo-one.jp/en/
Pictures: Shutterstock; Unsplash