Skiing (or snowboarding) is the BEST Family Holiday
When our kids were little my husband and I decided that skiing would be a feature of our family holidays. Purely selfishly of course. What child, when they no longer think hanging with their parents is 'cool' or in the least desirable, would say 'no' to a family skiing holiday! Also...we can put the kids in ski school from 9am - 3pm where they have fun, learn to ski safely and competently (instead of like little crazy drunk people on sticks) AND we get the day to ski as a couple ... and maybe have a little lunchtime nookie (whaaat? We're on holiday!). My personal favourite place to ski right now (please understand I am pretty fickle and will probably change my mind on this after the next ski holiday) is Hakuba in Japan. Let me tell you why. But first - how cute are these guys!!
Getting to Hakuba
Getting here is a cinchple (my 9 year old's answer to something that is a cinch and simple - its that easy). We took a direct flight from Brisbane to Tokyo, spent 5 days in Tokyo (I promise I will blog about this too because it was AWESOME), sent our ski luggage ahead of us to Hakuba so we didn't need to deal with it and children and trains and directions, and then caught a direct train from Shinjuiku to Hakuba at 7.30am in the morning. Trust me when I say sending your luggage ahead is worth it for approximately AUD$20.00 a bag it means you can focus on getting to the right landing, not losing your kids in the crowds (unless that's desirable of course - don't worry we understand), having a relaxed entry on to the train without having to fight with all the other passengers trying to find space for their own mountain of luggage and having space for a couple of 'one glass sake's'. Just organise it directly from the airport or your hotel. Too easy.
Getting home (do I really need to talk about this already? aaaggghh) was just as easy. We took the Nagano Snow Shuttle from Hakuba Base Camp direct to Narita airport. It took about 6 hours but there were plenty of rest stops with really interesting eateries on the way to keep you entertained. Oh...and the bus had wifi. Kids on iPads and me with a great book. That is 6 hours after 2 weeks of skiing well spent!
Ok so I admit that when I sat down to plan this holiday I felt overwhelmed with the different localities within Hakuba. Hakuba is really quite big and can appear daunting when first looking at it. Trust me though - once you are here it is all very straight forward and easy. There is a free shuttle that runs between ski fields and, while the timetable is slightly hard to interpret at first, it is all pretty easy.
We chose to stay in Happo One. This is largely because the Evergreen Ski School is there and we had heard excellent things about it. We stayed in the Gondola Apartments. They are well appointed, fully self contained, WARM (quite possibly THE most important thing in Hakuba) and the location is excellent. I have to be honest with you though (as promised) there are some strange things like only one mirror in the whole house (gasp!) and absolutely NO storage whatsoever. Apparently this is not unusual for Hakuba. The laundry/drying room is downstairs and communal, but pretty straightforward to access. AND there is no Toto toilet (why else do we come to Japan??). BUT I would still absolutely recommend it. It is a short walk to the gondola where (if you are organised) you can easily jump on with the kids and ski them to Evergreen OR it is one shuttle bus stop away from the slope where the ski school is located. It is warm and near loads of amazing restaurants and bars. The manager, Kieran, is a peach and more than happy to help in any way required. They also run a free pick up and drop off service to the bus to get back to the airport and to the supermarket for supplies. Oh and they run a micro brewery in Iwatake that will pick you up and drop you home if you are having dinner there. Perfect!
There are plenty of tiny little restaurants in Hakuba but (be warned) a lot of them need to be booked in advance.
Sometimes you (I mean I) just feel like a little bit of good old Aussie food and drink. For this, we absolutely loved the Rabbit Hole. The food was totally on point - burgers, loaded fries AND a couple of healthy grainy salads. They also do Fireball whiskey shots - if you haven't tried one, you simply must. Whiskey and cinnamon in a sweet belly-warming shot. Soooooo good! Complete with a pool table, this is a fabulous bar with the kiddies.
We also really liked Blizzard - a brand new pizza/pasta joint a hop, skip and jump from the front door of the Gondola Apartments. It opened in Mid-January this year so its brand spanking and it actually has a choice of red wines on the wine list. Most restaurants and bars over here have one red or one white wine. That's the choice. Not quite as sophisticated as I'm used to. The decor is seriously cool too - definitely worth at least a drink if not two.
Child Care (oops I mean ski school)
We put the kids into Evergreen Ski School. I have to say I am super impressed. Previously I've felt like ski school is actually just a form of child care and the kids don't actually learn very much. That is NOT the case here. The kids had 9 days of lessons in groups of 3 days with one or two days off in between so they get a break and don't get too cranky with tiredness. Their skiing has gone from OK they can ski in mainly snow plough in slow deliberate wide turns down fairly easy green slopes to WOW they can ski parallel with poles (perfectly planted) down any slope on the mountain, do small jumps and not scream bloody murder when I take them down a black slope. The instructors are attentive and really focussed on skill building. Seriously good. The only very small issue is that you drop the kids off at 10am and pick them up at 3.30pm, which doesn't leave a lot of time to ski on a different field (like Iwatake or Hakuba47 for example). But honestly, I think that's just the nature of Hakuba.
I ski at a reasonably advanced level. OK so I don't do 360's, hefty mogul runs or much tree skiing but I can ski competently down a double black diamond and keep up with my slightly more adventure seeking husband. Regardless I like to fit in a ski lesson wherever possible to make sure I can still keep up with my kids when they're 15 (or quite possibly 10 at this rate). This holiday I did a full day lesson (including a small powder clinic - perfect for those of us who grew up skiing in the Southern Hemisphere and haven't actually encountered powder before) with John Stewart from Hakuba Snow Sports. I love this ski school as it is run by a couple of kiwis (sorry not sorry - I am biased of course!) and they specialise in private lessons. John was hands down THE best instructor I have ever had. To be fair he is the instructor of the instructors and is not always available for lessons but if you can book him you should. He teaches by getting you to understand how something should feel. I can remember feelings even when I can't remember specific techniques. So, rather than try to remember how I am supposed to be bending my legs, exactly what position my body should fall to and how to turn the skis, John taught me how I should feel when I am doing all of those things correctly. Now I know if I am getting it right because it feels right. Genius.
Check out these amazing shots of John (sadly not me) doing his thing!
I am ever hopeful that if I just spend enough time following John down the slopes that I too can look like this...a girl can dream right??
But How Do I Choose the Right Field?
There are 8 main fields in Hakuba - Happo One, Goryu (Limore & Hakuba 47), Iwatake, Tsugaike-Kogan, Cortina, Kashimayari, Jigatake and Sanosaka. We were in Hakuba for 14 days and skied on Happo One, Limore, Hakuba 47, Iwatake and Tsugaike-Kogan. My favourites were Iwatake and Tsugaike-Kogan. Both fields are quiet and have a lot of options for multi-level skiing. If you are a beginner, both fields have incredible beginner green slope terrain and the more advanced red and black runs are fabulous for the more advanced skier.
Happo One was great because of its location. We waltzed (not literally...except on powder days) out our front door to the main Happo One gondola, which was fabulous but the slopes are a bit busier because of its central location. On our first day, we made the mistake of trying to ski the kids to ski school. We quickly discovered that the only run from the gondola (that we knew of at that stage anyway) was a double black diamond. VERY BIG OOPS. Picture a hysterically screaming 7 year old being evacuated from said run by my stepbrother. Serious kudos to the man that can snowboard near vertical moguls while carrying a sobbing 30kg child. Not my finest parenting moment. Luckily for everyone this is not a parenting blog. And just trust me - on the first day (no matter how keen you are to hit the slopes) take the shuttle!
What if I don't want to ski?
These days I feel like I slot into the 'apres ski' camp more than I do the 'actual ski' camp. And sometimes I just want a day to rest my aching old (ish) muscles and not put on a gazillion layers of base, mid and top layer thermals, ski pants, ski jacket, glove liners, gloves, buff or balaclava, helmet and goggles. I get exhausted just thinking about it. And don't even get me started on ski boots!
To be honest there are not a lot of options in Hakuba if you don't feel like skiing. If you also don't want to curl up with a good book or a movie on Netflix (yes the Gondola Apartments do offer Netflix - yay), then your options are either the snow monkeys or a cooking class. I am not one for tours and the idea of being stuck on a bus with a million tourists from 7.30am - 5.30pm was frankly not appealing to me. So snow monkeys were out. In saying that, I have heard amazing things about the tour so if you're into that kind of thing, it would be incredible I am sure. Instead I did a gyoza and ramen cooking class with the kids. I LOVED it. It started at 10am and finished at 1pm after we had gorged ourselves silly on the mountain of gyoza and huge bowls of ramen we had made. It was easy and it made me re-think my aversion to cooking Japanese style food at home because I thought it was too complicated. There are a number of cooking classes available in Hakuba so choose the one that suits you and make sure you book in advance. And look - there's a fashion element too - how cute are these aprons. Kawaii!
The season starts in Hakuba on 20 December and ends late February. I would recommend waiting until about the 7th or 8th of January because the Japanese holidays and long weekends are finished then so the slopes won't be as busy. In saying that, the fields are incredibly quiet compared to our slopes in the Southern Hemisphere so pretty much anytime is going to be great!
What are you waiting for? There's still plenty of time this season!!