by Lauren Anderson.
Japan is an extremely popular ski and snowboarding destination ideal for couples, friends and families alike – especially Hong Kong travellers due to the ease of travel and quality of snow over the winter season. Accommodation over peak season can often book out up to a year in advance, so we considered ourselves very lucky to be able to experience a trip to Hakuba, one of Japan’s largest skiing areas, to see for ourselves what all the hype is about.
We flew from Hong Kong to Tokyo’s Narita Airport on a mid-afternoon flight, which allowed us to still head in to work in the morning. Upon landing, we headed straight to the airport 7-Eleven to stock up on essential Japanese goodies such as sushi, Asahi beer, sandwiches and sweets to carb-load in preparation for the next few days of skiing ahead of us! We were picked up at Arrivals by our lovely Chuo Taxi driver and began our late night journey to Hakuba and the Hotel Marillen, which was to be our home for the next few nights.
Due to limited visibility, our four-hour drive turned into a six-hour drive, but eventually we arrived safe and sound – albeit tired – at our cosy hotel in the wee hours of the morning. For future reference, I would highly recommend an overnight stop in Tokyo before making the trip to Hakuba, particularly if you have kids, as this extremely long journey made a nap on our first full day compulsory!
Hotel Marillen is a ski-in, ski-out property located on the Nakiyama slope of the Happo-One ski resort. The hotel website claims “panoramic views of the Alps in all their glory” and this was entirely truthful! When we woke the next morning, we had a bird’s-eye view of a speed skiing competition that was taking place on the Nakiyama slope. We watched in awe over a delicious home-cooked English breakfast – the perfect fuel for the day ahead.
We found Hotel Marillen to be very homely and welcoming, with the perfect location for our short stay as it was central to restaurants, bars and of course, the snow! Transport, in the form of a snow shuttle, was within five minutes’ walking distance from the beginner slopes, while the advanced slopes were literally on our doorstep. The hotel features cosy European-style rooms, complete with a large drying room for all your wet gear after a hard day on the slopes, a big dining room overlooking the Nakiyama slope, and a small but welcoming bar for some après-ski drinks in the evening or a warming coffee during the day.
Before hitting the slopes, we decided that we needed a half-day lesson to brush up on the basics. This is definitely recommended and our European ski instructor took us through everything we needed to know. In no time at all we were ready to practice our newfound skills on the beginner hill, after first refuelling on delicious Japanese food right there on the ski slope.
We found that there were people of all ages and abilities on the slopes, which put us at ease, leaving us raring to take on a challenge! After a few touch-and-go moments, including almost falling off the ski lift and dropping a pole from said ski lift halfway up the mountain, we soon became confident in our abilities, attacking the beginner slopes with gusto. Confidence boosted, we graduated to the Nakiyama slope outside the Marillen Hotel. However, both of us will attest that perhaps this was not the greatest idea after just half a day learning the basics! Next time I would definitely spend more time learning techniques and less time sliding down the advanced hills but nonetheless, we had great fun and worked up a good appetite for dinner… and a few refreshing Asahis!
As if the snow wasn’t thrilling enough, Hakuba has a fantastic après-ski scene that is sure to help you wind down after a long day on the slopes. We ventured out for dinner one night at a traditional Japanese izakaya in Hakuba’s Echoland area, and were very impressed with the delicious Japanese fare. Apparently the horsemeat here is a local delicacy, but we politely declined this time! We also found a few favourite watering holes, where skiers and snowboarders from all corners of the world meet for a few drinks and laughes about their day. My top tip for a night out is Refuel Bar, a watering hole that is a lot of fun!
Speaking of fun, another highly enjoyable aspect of the après-ski experience in Japan is the onsen (hot springs) that most hotels offer as part of their facilities. There are a number of onsen within walking distance of Hotel Marillen, and the very best ones are typically outdoor springs with spectacular views across Hakuba’s beautiful natural scenery.
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced skier, Hakuba is a great destination to experience the slopes along with plenty of Japanese culture and a good dose of fun!