A boys’ snowboarding trip to Japan’s Alps gets the "elite" thumbs-up.
It’s been a hectic day on the mountain but as I fasten my boots into my snowboard bindings, I have a small window to absorb the surroundings atop one of the highest peaks in the Japanese alpine region of Hakuba.
The snow-covered mountain ranges of the northern Japanese Alps are finally visible after a welcome burst of sunshine interrupted the steady snowfall throughout most of the morning. It’s a breathtaking panorama.
It’s also weirdly still and peaceful this high up the mountain, a rare moment when the winds that usually gust over the peaks seem to have had a momentary lull.
But I’m on a boys’ trip and the tranquillity doesn’t last long. A couple of kilometres away in the valley below, I can hear a few of my fellow boarders launch into the “boys’ trip, boys’ trip, boys’ trip” chant that has become the trademark of our week-long sojourn to Hakuba, on the main island of Honshu.
It might be a little boisterous for the mild-mannered locals but it’s hard not to be excited after boarding sublime untracked powder in Hakuba.
The 11 resorts dotted along the Hakuba valley receive an average of 11m of snow each season and they proved to be the perfect place for our crew of 17 snowboarders and one skier.
With the group’s abilities ranging from northern hemisphere experts to beginners, the variety of terrain and conditions meant there really was something for everyone.
But just getting to Hakuba was half the fun.
Travelling in a big group comes with its own logistical challenges and, despite meticulous planning, a 24-hour stopover in Tokyo was required before we could make our way to Hakuba.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we had an opportunity to get acquainted with a truly amazing metropolis.
Using the Tokyo subway system, we managed to squeeze in a visit to the famous Shibuya intersection, navigated through the ordered chaos of Shinjuku station and neighbouring shopping precinct, visited some micro bars in Golden Gai and had teppanyaki somewhere in Ginza before departing early the next morning for Nagano on the bullet train.
And being a boys’ trip, it wasn’t entirely unexpected that two blokes were nowhere to be seen when our Shinkansen pulled out of Tokyo Central station.
A taxi from Nagano up to Hakuba took an hour but as the altitude rose so did the excitement levels and once we arrived at our base in Echoland, it was every man for himself: if you weren’t suited up and ready to go, you were probably boarding somewhere on your own for the rest of the day.
While a bus service links all the Hakuba resorts, two rented vans were our transport for the week. Driving in icy conditions took a bit of getting used to but after a 20-minute drive, we made it to Tsugaike Kogen resort, our destination for a half day hit-out.
For the majority of us it had been a while since we last boarded and, while it wasn’t pretty to begin with, it blew the cobwebs away and we managed to find our rhythm.
Overnight, a dump of fresh snow meant the Cortina resort, 35 minutes away, was where the action would be the following day.
As the most northern of the Hakuba resorts, Cortina is the first resort in the valley to receive fresh snow as the weather arrives and it lived up to its reputation as the powder capital of Hakuba.
An enormous red-roofed Tudor-style ski lodge was a kitschy introduction to our day at Cortina but the bowl-shaped terrain and tree-lined runs made it a day to remember as the pace of the boarding lifted considerably.
The early knee-deep powder in many places was almost too much of a good thing but Cortina was quite crowded for a weekday, particularly higher up the mountain.
With powder-mecca Cortina a magnet for so many tourists, the decision was made to head to Happo-One the next day. With 220ha and 23 chairlifts, Happo-One is the biggest resort in Hakuba and was the venue for many of the skiing events at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.
Happo-One proved to be a bit of a surprise, as we spent a full two days discovering gems that awaited off-piste: sheer drop-offs and narrow gully runs that were brimming with untracked powder.
Some of the Happo-One routes we discovered meant a long and arduous hike out at times but it was worth the pain. In fact, exploring the most remote parts of the resort even brought a sense of solitude that was unexpected in Japan, especially after the hyperactivity of Tokyo.
However, the solitude was definitely missing during our nightly attempt to find a restaurant big enough to squeeze in 18 customers.
It became evident early on that breaking into smaller groups of four or five people was the only solution, particularly when it came to dining at the authentic Japanese restaurants that all of us were keen to try.
Most of the better restaurants in Hakuba required advanced bookings which meant the late-night kebab, albeit with a Japanese twist, was sometimes the only option left.
As the end of the trip began to loom, the terrain park at Hakuba 47 resort was the next target, with jumps, ramps and rails all providing a test for the more skilled riders.
The terrain park aside, we quickly discovered that the ski patrol at Hakuba 47 enforced a stringent code of safety.
Our group’s attempt to build a 30cm-high ramp off the side of a cat track swiftly got the arms crossed signal from the patrol as they made us flatten it out and move on.
We later learnt that while most of the other Hakuba resorts put the onus on the skier or boarder to exercise caution when riding off-piste, Hakuba 47 had a strict policy of no out-of-bounds riding — as a couple of guys in our group found out when they strayed into a no-riding zone.
The final day at Hakuba Iwatake resort didn’t feature any new snow but the bluebird day that greeted us was more than welcome. It was unseasonably warm and started to get icy on the slopes but the entire group was milking every last run, conscious that the opportunity to board wouldn’t come around again for some time.
As we departed Hakuba the following day most of the group had left nothing in reserve, both on and off the slopes, but miraculously everyone managed to avoid injury for the week.
The same couldn’t be said about our rented vans, which suffered a few scrapes courtesy of some rather large snowdrifts.
But as the boys would say, Hakuba was “elite”.