At the heart of the Japanese Alps is Hakuba, a popular ski resort only three hours' drive from downtown Tokyo. Hakuba is among the largest skiing resorts in Japan, incorporating multiple resorts and ski areas.
It played host to the 1998 Winter Olympics as part of the Nagano prefecture, and some of the facilities are still in use, including the Hakuba Ski Jumping Stadium and the Hakuba Olympic Village Memorial Hall.
With a variety of après ski activities, Hakuba is a fun place off the slopes as well. There are a number of good restaurants serving both Western and Asian cuisine, and many hotels have relaxing hot spring baths. The main nightlife area in Hakuba is in Echoland.
Hakuba is also a popular summer resort and is a good place for outdoor activities like hiking, mountain biking, paragliding, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting. Day tours to Matsumoto Castle are a popular excursion.
Averaging 36 feet (11m) of snow per year, Hakuba is known for its reliable winter weather. The resort has more than 200 runs with a wide variety of difficulty, offering ample skiing options for beginner, intermediate, and advanced skiers. Over 100 ski lifts and five gondolas operate daily throughout the season, which runs from December to April, and night skiing is available until 10pm.
Although Hakuba has all the souvenir shops and gift stores and convenience stores that tourists might need for basic holiday shopping, it is not an impressive destination for big brands or fashion shopping and even the ski equipment shops are not exactly up-to-date with fashionable gear. Visitors should therefore not expect exciting shopping sprees, but will be able to enjoy some local crafts and produce and find some lovely souvenirs.
There are well over a hundred restaurants in the Hakuba Valley with plenty of traditional Japanese cuisine to sample and lots of international varieties as well. The best areas to seek out good food and ambience are Wadano Village, Echoland, and the area around Hakuba Station.
There are some upmarket restaurants for a tasty splurge or romantic evening but also plenty of wonderful budget eateries where visitors can enjoy simple and tasty Japanese food, international pub grub, and other Western favourites.
Hakuba boasts that it has the best après ski drinks scene and nightlife of all the ski resorts in Japan and there are indeed many bars, pubs and watering holes to choose from. The resorts in the area attract a young crowd as well as families and the atmosphere in the evening is often very festive and sociable. Those in search of a good party will probably find one. Echoland, Wadano, Happo, and Goryu all have numerous bars.
For some extra fun in the snow visitors can try cross country skiing (on the Winter Olympic course), snowshoe tours through the scenic valley, and snow rafting. There is also a lot to see and do in Hakuba for those who need a break from the slopes. Popular excursions include trips to Matsumoto Castle, Nagano's Zenkoji Temple, and tours to see the Japanese snow monkeys at the Jigokudani hot springs which is an absolute must for animal lovers.
With so many options, the ski slopes can be a bit overwhelming and it may be difficult to find your way around in the beginning.