This final chapter of our snow time adventures takes us to some of the best ski resorts found within Nagano Prefecture. Locally and internationally known as the ultimate winter holiday spot in the main island of Japan, Nagano truly needs no further introduction for snow sports enthusiasts. However, for those unfamiliar with even the concept of winter in general, this introduction of the prefecture’s most popular ski resorts in Yamanouchi and Hakuba may just be helpful in your future travel plans. Let’s go skiing!
Yamanouchi | 山ノ内町
Shiga Kogen Ski Resort | 志賀高原スキー場
In addition to being one of the 1998 Nagano Olympics host venues, Shiga Kogen is also the largest ski resort in Japan! With such a reputation, it’s not surprising that international skiers and snowboarders flock this ski resort in search of first-rate powder snow and world-class facilities. There are in total 18 ski areas connected and serviced by 51 lifts and gondolas. As it would take days if not weeks to fully explore the entire terrain, on this day we specifically visited the Higashitateyama Ski Area within central Shiga Kogen.
The weather was wonderfully clear on this day; we were told that this only happens a handful of times within a year. Lady luck was certainly on our side! We got to enjoy splendid views even from within the gondola as we headed up to an altitude of 2000 meters via the Higashitateyama Gondola Lift. It was so beautiful I didn’t want to waste a blink and miss any second of the journey upwards.
At the view point on top, we were greeted by a snow-covered vista of the Northern Alps and valleys tucked between its mountains. It was truly one of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. So incredible. Worth the trip all the way here just for this. Also, it looks so bright and sunny in photographs but in reality, we were chilled to the bones in the cold highland winds!
Perfectly in time, we took a cafe break indoors and warmed up with a hot cup of coffee by LIFT UP COFFEE from Melbourne. Such a pleasant surprise to find espresso-based coffee here like long black, latte, flat white – which can be fairly uncommon – paired with non-dairy milk alternatives like soy and almond. There are also caffeine-free beverages in local flavours like hot yuzu and amazake latte. YUM!
Access to Shiga Kogen Ski Resort: <Ski Season Only> From Tokyo, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Nagano Station for JPY8340 (Approx. 100 mins). Upon arrival, hop on to the Nagaden Bus to Shiga Kogen for JPY2100 (Approx. 2 hours). Bus route and schedule here.
Hakuba | 白馬
Located on the Northern Alps of Japan, Hakuba is no stranger to travelers across the world seeking magnificent snowscapes to ski or snowboard the winter away. It receives an average 11 meters of the finest snow annually which earned this village – that’s right; Hakuba is still officially a village even with its world-class ski resorts and international fame – a solid reputation as the go-to winter sports hub.
Traveling between different ski resorts within Hakuba is so convenient with the Hakuba Valley Shuttle Bus that is free if you have the Hakuba Valley Lift Pass. That is, if you intend to hop around exploring what other ski resorts have to offer. For first-timers, I’d personally suggest to take your time in a specific ski resort for at least a couple of days to a full week as you learn how to ski or snowboard. Now, let’s explore some of Hakuba’s renowned ski resorts!
Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort | 白馬岩岳マウンテンリゾート
Also familiarly referred to as Hakuba Iwatake Snow Field, this resort is located on a single-peak mountain with diverse slopes spread in multiple directions at an altitude of 1289 meters. It holds the most natural terrain courses in Hakuba with 26 courses serviced by 12 lifts. This caters to slightly-experienced beginners to expert skiers and snowboarders. While it isn’t as large as other resorts in the area, it certainly has its own charms too.
It’s always good news when we hear rentals are available at any ski resort; Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort is no different with this convenient service. This leads to a fuss-free experience as it minimises our luggage weight and you can get a different #ootd each time if you like. Here we are all prepped in rented ski gears and winter wear; all ready for some action in the snow! This was my first time putting on ski shoes and the staff were real helpful in making sure I got it on right. It took a while to get used to walking in it. In fact, I don’t even think I’ve gotten used to it! Haha
We took a gondola up to the slopes only to be welcomed by these energetic young students of the ski school here! They brought along a message for us and professional skiers from China that we were travelling with that said, “We are waiting for you at Iwatake, Hakuba, my friends!” How sweet! This journey so far has taught me that a shared passion for the same sport can inspire people to overcome any differences and bring them closer together.
The snow continued to fall over the next couple of hours. We put on our skis and walked around the area. Naturally, with zero experience on my side and no official lessons, there was little progress – I had no idea what to do or how to move. Don’t worry if you’re also new to this, there are ski lessons conducted in English here in Iwatake for those with time to spare. It still felt pretty cool to have taken the first step in skis! Like in the movies! Haha
You know, this resort has a sweet secret that can elevate ski resort experiences to a whole new level. It is the HAKUBA S-CLASS VIP Lounge & Priority Pass. This premium pass gives exclusive usage of cool lounges from the base to the peak, priority boarding on lifts and gondolas (yes, legal queue-cutting!), hotel pick-up and drop-off, reserved parking for those driving, onsen hot spring access, and many more perks that will make you feel like a total VIP for JPY15000 per day. (During our visit there was actually a promotion as it wasn’t peak season yet, the price was much lower!!)
We had the pleasure of enjoying the S-CLASS lounge at the summit for lunch, away from the bustling crowd. The unlimited offerings were a treat of local Japanese and western cuisines. There were piping hot oden, hayashi rice, beef pies, gourmet cheeses, artisanal cold cuts from Hakuba Ham (mentioned in this previous post), and more. For beverages, a fine selection of wines, Japanese sake, beer, fruit juices, coffee, and TWG teas were on the menu for these VIPs to help themselves to. How fancy!
After lunch, we walked a short path through the forest towards Mountain Harbor, an open terrace that faces the stately mountains of Japan’s Northern Alps, offering a memorable winter view. This is also where the popular THE CITY BAKERY from New York opens its first outlet in Nagano. Luck was not in our favour that day because the bakery was so loved that everything was sold out and heavy snowfall limited visibility for any viewings. Ah well, another reason to come back here again, as we would say in times like this!
Official photograph from Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort.
This is how it would look like on a clear winter’s day. Beautiful!
Access to Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort: <Ski Season Only> From Tokyo, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Nagano Station for JPY8340 (Approx. 100 mins). From Nagano Station, take an express bus to Hakuba Station for JPY2000 (Approx. 70 mins). Bus route and schedule here. There are also direct bus services from Haneda Airport to Hakuba Station for JPY9300 (Approx. 5 hours 30 mins). Bus route and schedule here. From Hakuba Station, the Hakuba Valley Shuttle Buses takes you to Iwatake Snow Field for JPY500 (Approx. 10 mins). Bus route and schedule here.
Tsugaike Kogen Ski Resort | 栂池高原スキー場
Said to be particularly ideal for first-timers and beginners, Tsugaike Kogen Ski Resort is another popular winter sports destination in Nagano Prefecture that sweeps across extensive grounds. Technically located in Otari just next to Hakuba, it is so often included in its neighbour’s winter itineraries that it’s now commonly considered as part of Hakuba’s squad of ski resorts. Up to 50% of its terrain are gentle, spacious slopes for novices like us while the rest areas cater to intermediate skiers followed by those in the experts and advanced levels. Night skiing is possible too; we have yet to try this but it does sound like a fun experience!
Ski wear, gears, and equipment are available for rent in multiple rental stores across this small village located by its base. It is so compact that we easily explored it on foot in less than an hour. There are convenience stores, onsens, and many many lodging options for winter vacationers. The ski slopes and lifts seems to blend in seamlessly with the village, providing convenient access to many. Passing by these soft slopes at the base, we felt confident that we’d be able to learn skiing with little hesitation here. Wide slopes = less chance of crashing into others. Gentler slopes = less chance of falling off a cliff or tumbling all the way down. Two ski schools serve this resort area, with English-speaking instructors that require advance reservations.
Setting ski aside for the day, we headed up on the gondola to Hakuba Tsugaike WOW! It is an adventure park that introduces the French “Extrem Aventures” concept of thrilling challenges and activities unlike any other.
First, we warmed up with the more easygoing snow play with toboggan sleds, snow skates, snow drives, fat bikes, and snow racers available for rental. Kids are most welcome to participate in these exciting activities too. It was exhilarating to sled down the slopes; made me feel like a kid again. The simple joys of snow time!
Next, we decided to try out the more formidable activity – a net course adventure that’s the first of its kind in Japan. Set up high above grounds, the nets form 3 difference levels of tough obstacles! With extremely strong safety nets below, children and adults can conquer these challenges without hesitation. It does take quite a bit of effort and strength to pass through each course but here’s a fun little secret – just fall if you want to. The bouncy safety nets below make it a pretty amusing experience on its own. Sit back and chill like Cheesie here!
Access to Tsugaike Kogen Ski Resort: <Ski Season Only> From Tokyo, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Nagano Station for JPY8340 (Approx. 100 mins). From Nagano Station, take an express bus directly to Tsugaike Kogen for JPY2200 (Approx. 1 hour 30 mins). Bus route and schedule here. Alternatively, from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal, take an overnight bus for JPY5200 (Approx. 7 hours). Bus route and schedule here.
Happo-One Ski Resort | 白馬八方尾根スキー場
Pronounced as happo-o-nay, this ski resort is one of Hakuba’s largest and most prominent winter sports destination for avid skiers and snowboarders who know where all the good powder snow are. After all, it did play host to several games back in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Happo-One Ski Resort is now home to 14 different courses of various difficulty levels; with the highest elevation of 1830m and the longest course charting up to 8 kilometers.
It is also home to one of the the most scenic panoramas of surrounding mountains!! Can you imagine skiing or snowboarding down the slopes to such a breathtaking sight? I am convinced that it is worth a visit just for the pure enjoyment of these mountainous views. We just couldn’t stop gushing over the snowy mountainscape.
In fact, those who don’t ski at all or perhaps skiers taking a break from the sport would appreciate the Corona ESCAPE Terrace perched at an altitude of 1450m in Happo-One Ski Resort. This seasonal bar lets you sip on chilled beer with its signature wedge of lime as you grill sausages and marshmallows on its little barbecue pit. We love the bright, open concept and it was such an unexpected outdoor experience to relish in mid-winter.
Before you leave, pop by the Hakuba Mountain Beach decked just across for another look at the snowy surroundings and snap a few shots on beach recliners that curiously contrast against the winter’s fluffy white snow!
Going down to the base, we headed to Happo-One’s Sakka Snow Debut Park built specially for families and children to have fun with snow in various ways!
There’s a play section where little ones amuse themselves with fresh snow while slightly older ones can attempt to sled or snowscoot more adventurously next to it. What a clever way to get kids into snow sports and hooked for life! Haha.
The following section is a short gentle slope equipped with Magic Carpet, a moving conveyor belt that takes you up – like a simplified version of ski lifts. This can be used by both children and adults who are learning how to ski and snowboard. For only JPY800, all areas can be enjoyed for the day. We took advantage of this super beginner-friendly area to put on our ski gears and gave it a try. Cheesie did so well sliding down the light slope while I struggled to understand how skiing even works haha! Even standing still was a major struggle as I couldn’t help but slip down despite not moving a muscle. Luckily, our kind guide – who knew how to ski – gave great tips to regain control and with her literally holding my hands as we inch downwards, she helped me (very shakily) ski down on my own eventually! I guess it’s kind of like learning how to ride a bicycle. You need that extra wheels or hands for support at first and in time, get the hang of it to slowly ride on your own.
Access to Happo-One Ski Resort: <Ski Season Only> From Tokyo, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Nagano Station for JPY8340 (Approx. 100 mins). From Nagano Station, take an express bus to Hakuba Happo Bus Terminal for JPY2000 (Approx. 1 hour 30 mins). Bus route and schedule here.
Alternatively, from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, an express bus heads to Hakuba Happo Bus Terminal for JPY5200 (Approx. 70 mins). Bus route and schedule here. Those coming from Haneda Airport can also catch an express bus for JPY9300 (Approx. 5 hours 30 mins). Bus route and schedule here.
Hakuba Goryu Ski Resort | 白馬五竜スキー場
This resort is an all-rounder ski and snowboard destination that caters to all – from single daredevils to group thrill-seekers to families of all ages. It’s been welcoming skiers and snowboarders for 50 years; rising triumphantly from turbulent times caused by avalanches decades ago. I can see why it’s so popular among foreigners as English is so commonly used in displays and communications. There are Caucasian ski instructors and staff manning counters specially serving English-speaking visitors. At the same time, it retains its distinctively Japanese atmosphere.
Hakuba Goryu Ski Resort offers 16 courses of quality powder snow in beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels for both skiers and snowboarders, serviced by plenty lifts with minimal waiting time. A large selection of ski and snowboard gears are available for rental while those looking to purchase can opt to shop high quality international brands here. Families with young ones can make full use of its day care center, indoor playground, and kids snow area for enjoying the soft snow.
While we’ve casually attempted to ski a few times throughout the trip, it didn’t always work out well despite best efforts. We struggled with getting used to the ski gears, low visibility during snowfall, minimal experience, and general fear of falling down to our deaths. Haha! In fact, it was my first time truly experiencing the outdoors in mid-winter so I had zero idea what skiing is like even in theory. On the other hand, Cheesie has had a lesson or two in previous winter trips but haven’t had much chance to practice and master it confidently.
Determined to overcome these limitations, we signed up for a lesson here to at least learn how to stand up after a fall and slide down even the gentlest of slopes. Here, group ski and snowboard lessons are offered for both kids and adults for a reasonable rate of JPY7000 for two hours, with a choice of English or Japanese-speaking instructors.
After registration, we changed into our gears in the comfort of a private lounge room. It was so convenient for us to relax, prepare for the outdoors, leave bulky belongings in, and return to a warm space later. This can be rented at a fee depending on the room size; a private room for four starts from JPY13000. Then, it was back to school time!
We were so fortunate to have an instructor to ourselves, despite signing up for a group lesson. We opted for a Japanese speaker but the friendly instructor could also converse in basic English. She took great patience in teaching and guiding us. She made steps sound so simple that it was easy to follow instructions and see results immediately.
Before long, she said let’s take the lift up!! Which sounded way advanced but we had SO MUCH FUN.
We took it slow and within an hour or so, we learned how to move forward, slow down, speed up, brake, stand up after a fall, and make turns! We even leveled up to the next lift station that’s slightly higher up with a steeper slope. That was challenging for beginners like us especially when it started to snow, but absolutely thrilling!
Before we could confidently conquer it, it was the end of our lesson. We’ve got a long way to go, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that skiing is much easier to learn than expected. Didn’t thought we could achieve so much in just two hours. I’m the least sporty person ever yet now, I’m officially addicted. 10/10 would recommend signing up for a lesson even if you’ve got just half a day to spend here!
The aforementioned LIFT UP COFFEE from Melbourne is also available here!
To make this experience extra memorable, photography and videography services are also available for hire to document your ski or snowboard sessions for the gram. Or just your own personal collection! This counter is easily spotted by the Escal Plaza exit towards the slopes. Yes, English-speaking staff is available. What’s really impressive is that the staff could film around you from multiple angles while skiing down a slope. That’s mad skills!
TL;DR? Watch our ski lesson fun times in motion, filmed and edited by Rentry Goryu.
What a great way to document your first clumsy ski experience (for us) or for the pro – flaunt all you want to the internet! Pretty affordable too I’d say!
Access to Hakuba Goryu Ski Resort: <Ski Season Only> From Tokyo, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Nagano Station for JPY8340 (Approx. 100 mins). From Nagano Station, take a shuttle bus directly for JPY2300 (Approx. 1 hour 30 mins). Bus route and schedule here.
Alternatively, from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, take a direct bus for JPY5200 (Approx. 5 hours). Bus route and schedule here. There are also overnight buses from Tokyo Station by JamJam Liner that runs directly for only JPY5000 (Approx. 6 hours). Bus route, schedule, and English booking service here. Rest assured that Hakuba Goryu Ski Resort’s main building, Escal Plaza, opens 24 hours for late night / early morning arrivals during the ski season.
This marks the end of our Ishikawa, Niigata, Nagano #SnowTime journey. Thanks for reading and I hope the posts help you plan your winter fun in Japan next year! Till then. ^^