Churning Japanese27 January, 2008 | The Sun Herald
The offer seemed too good to refuse: a hot-air balloon ride at 6am to watch the dawn break on a new year.
Sure, I was there to ski but this is Japan, the land of the rising sun, so an hour or so floating through the stunning snow-covered valley at daybreak seemed appropriate. Besides, the lifts didn't open until 8am.
What I didn't reckon on was the painful combination of a New Year's Eve hangover and the mercury dropping to a bone-chilling minus 16 degrees.
It was still dark as Shinji Wada and his team from Hakuba Outdoor Sports Centre stood in the middle of a frozen rice paddy harnessing the balloon to the basket. Fortified by a can of hot sweet instant stuff masquerading as coffee but perfect in the circumstances, we scrambled into the basket and began to drift upwards.
You could have sworn Mr Wada had pushed a button, because within seconds a splinter of light broke from the eastern side of the valley, throwing a veil of soft pink over the stunning three peaks that make up the Hakuba mountain range.
Japan's reputation as a skiing mecca is well known but this secret spot, just over two hours by train from Tokyo, is often overlooked in favour of its northern big sister Niseko. While the move by Qantas to start direct flights from Cairns to Sapporo has resulted in Niseko being swamped with Australians, many are now seeking a skiing experience that is more "Japanese" than the VB-and-Vegemite village up north.
Whether surveyed from a balloon at dawn or from the Virgin Cafe at the top of the Happo One ski field , it's hard to believe that this extraordinary alpine playground is only just being discovered by foreigners.
Although the area hosted the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998, language obstacles and a lack of PR has meant its pristine powder and enviable elevation have been enjoyed almost solely by the Japanese. The lucky few foreigners who unwittingly stumble across it have naturally kept the secret to themselves.
Friends had told me about the average annual 11-metre snowfalls, the great back- country skiing and the hot spring baths (onsen), but what really makes Hakuba so appealing is its accessibility. I left Sydney at 10pm on a Friday and was gliding down the piste by noon on Saturday. Thanks to a one-hour time difference there was no jet lag, and the smooth and comfortable bullet trains (shinkansen) from Tokyo to Nagano mean you can catch up on sleep.
But what about the snow? Like everything in this highly evolved technological nation, it comes regularly and on time. Just when you've enjoyed three or four days of perfect sun-warmed slopes, suddenly it clouds over and for the next 72 hours the white stuff comes down. Likewise, the lift passes are not your usual crumpled and soggy tickets but an electronic disc which you slip into your pocket. I'd stuffed mine into my jacket alongside a little digital camera which - as is apparently pointed out in the Japanese signs - set the sensors off, beeping wildly.
While the region's 11 resorts are beginning to introduce English signs on the mountains, down in the village you're left to fend for yourself. Gyms could be supermarkets, bars could be gift shops, and that quaint little bed and breakfast might just have been a brothel, for all I knew.
Thanks to the Olympics which led to the building of dozens of hotels and pensions, Hakuba's infrastructure is well-equipped to deal with a boom in tourism. The village is more spread out than some of its purpose-built north American and European equivalents, but the new Gengki-go shuttle bus is efficient and cheap at just 200 yen ($2) a ride.
I was staying in Echoland, where gorgeous log cabins and chocolate-box-pretty pensions peep out from the pine and birch trees, making it feel like some bizarre Asian take on The Sound of Music. Will Messiter , from Manly in Sydney, is just one of a growing number of Australians who have seen the potential and bought property in the area.
He and a group of friends now run Monkey Rider , an upmarket backpackers' hostel where rates start from 3500 yen ($36) a person a night. "We'd been to Niseko, but we loved the atmosphere and the amazing powder here in Hakuba," Will says. "There's a real commitment here to retaining the character of the place and not making it too Westernised."
I'd assumed when I'd left my kids at home with their dad that communication issues would make Hakuba an unlikely destination for a family holiday. But quite the opposite. The ski fields, in particular Goryu, are well-equipped for little ones. A huge indoor play centre, easy runs down to the base, and familiar food are provided. Goryu is increasingly hiring more English-speaking instructors, but the local Evergreen Outdoor Centre also runs kids' lessons in English.
Although the Goryu pistes are open until 10pm, the lure of food dragged me away. The area boasts plenty of little izakaya, pub-style restaurants serving traditional Japanese food. Nonjaes, in Echoland, is one of the largest and offers a huge menu in English.
Owner Takashi Tabei - nicknamed Gin-san because of his preference for gin in his youth - serves delicious fried squid ($4) chicken yakitori ($4) and strips of lamb ($9), which we barbecue on a hotplate. He reveals he hasn't put his prices up for 15 years. "My wife won't let me," he laughs. "I'm supposed to be the boss but she's the one in charge."
I try not to eat too much, since the hot onsen bath is still to come. Plenty of hotels have their own, but Mimizuku-no-yu is one of several public onsen with stunning views of the mountains. Women and men are sent in separate directions and once inside I follow the lead of the women around me and strip off then scrub off under the warm showers. Only then can you enter the hot baths.
Fourteen hours after my magical mountain balloon ride I look up, and those same peaks are now cloaked in silvery moonlight. A couple of clouds skirt across, and next to me an elderly woman smiles and says something in Japanese.
Her daughter sees me listening and translates. "Snow tomorrow," she says. "And she is never wrong."
* Getting there: Malaysian Airlines flies to Toyko from Sydney starting from $1026. See http://www.flightcentre.com.au. There are bullet trains from Tokyo to Nagano. For a shared taxi from Nagano station to Hakuba fax 0261 72 4577 from within Japan.
* More information: For daily snow reports, resort guides and forums see http://www.snowjapan.com. Evergreen Outdoor Centre runs back-country tours and ski and snowboard lessons. Phone 0261 72 5150 0261 72 5150 or see http://www.evergreen-outdoors.com. Hakuba Outdoor Sports Centre has balloon flights, snow rafting, paragliding and canoeing. See www.hosc.co.jp.Source: The Sun-Herald
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/01/25/1201157652767.html