Hakuba Valley guided tours with Extremely Canadian are the ultimate way to visit this a stellar ski destination reports Features Editor Bronwnen Gora.
The Hakuba Valley offers so much. With 11 resorts, some of Japan’s steepest mountains, copious snowfall, numerous vibrant villages and stunning scenery, not to mention virtually everything you want to experience in the way of Japanese culture (even a cat café).
As if that’s not enough, Hakuba’s backcountry is first class and easily accessible, with numerous options for out-of-bounds experiences of the highest quality.
No wonder Hakuba can confound visitors. This place is big, with many moving parts, and first-time visitors are often tripped up simply trying to decipher the shuttle system between resorts or finding a place to eat that’s not booked out.
Fortunately, I didn’t get a chance to experience this for myself when an 11th hour invitation to join an organised ski touring trip in Hakuba with Whistler outfit Extremely Canadian arrived on the desk. The initial plan had been to go alone and wing it. But soon after arriving in Hakuba it didn’t take long to realise Plan A would have resulted in a lot of legwork just learning how to get around, let alone finding the best places to ski and eat. While packed with fabulous ski resorts, Hakuba is spread out along a vast valley dotted with small hubs. Getting the hang of where to go, when and how, takes some doing.
Being with Extremely Canadian’s Hakuba World Tour backcountry ski trip however was effortless – each day our qualified mountain guides sorting out where to find the deepest powder and safest lines as well as the finest sushi, the closest onsen for apres ski and more. In the Hakuba Valley local knowledge can make or break your trip. Another major bonus was simply being part of a like-minded group of skiers. Hakuba’s many-faceted nature means that for the sole traveller, finding pals to ski and hang with is not as easy a task as it is in a one-resort destination.
EC also prioritises fun with a capital F. While ski touring (and safety of course – each tour undergoes an avalanche briefing at the start of the week) is the No.1 daily priority, the days are fluid. Our guides Alex, Chelsea and Jorje briefed us each morning in the lounge of our cosy modern four-bedroom Chalet Serenity.
After checking we were all good with whatever they had planned, we’d climb into one of EC’s two hired vans for a short drive to one of Hakuba Valley’s 11 resorts where we’d start the day’s tour. After taking lifts to the highest point we would exit the resort boundaries to skin up through forests and along ridges with stunning, expansive views of the surrounding alpine. Deep powder descents followed, fresh tracks, day in day out, through those wonderful tree runs for which Japan is famous and into open fields. Being so close to the in-bounds each day meant lunch always involved conveniently skiing down to a mountain restaurant to try yet another unique and tasty Japanese dish – no cold pack lunches for us. Bliss.
Nothing was set in stone either, so when the challenge of a down day or two arose, as it did during our February week, our trio of guides quickly made alternative arrangements. Surprisingly, the few down days we had ended up ranking just as highly as the skiing – a visit to the region’s world famous monkey park an unexpected highlight, the discovery of a go-karting track on the way to Matsumoto Castle proving a hugely enjoyable and riotous occasion that ignited our competitive natures, while a trip to the stunning Zenkoji Temple was a fitting finale to our week-long cultural immersion.
Each night we ate in a different and equally fabulous restaurant, all pre-booked by EC, from exquisite a la carte to cook-your-own okonomiyaki (big fun). We were wowed by the award-winning wagyu of Juan Steakhouse and overawed by the theatre of Shouya Maruhachi’s delicious artistically presented cuisine. Best of all, we made friends and ski buddies for life.
· Take a tip: don’t go to Hakuba Valley alone. Look up Extremely Canadian’s World Tours. The next Hakuba World Tour is February 2-9, 2020. See https://extremelycanadian.com/hakuba-japan/
· Price: $5500 CDN / $5250 CDN with Epic Pass
· Extremely Canadian also operates fully guided World Tours to Hokkaido in Japan, La Grave in France and Courmayeur in Italy. Custom World Tours can be arranged.