Why You Should Add Hakuba to Your Summer-in-Japan Itinerary
Australians love Japan. We crave its sushi, we embrace getting pissed at karaoke, we marvel at the novelty of being naked in a public bathhouse. We also love to shred the powder that coats the mountains of the country’s many ski destinations. This is especially true of Hakuba, one of the most accessible snow resorts from the capital, just a few hours’ train or bus ride away from Tokyo. But underneath all of its melted snow, Hakuba is just as great, and most definitely worth adding to your itinerary in the warmer months. Here’s why.
There’s nothing more wholesome than scaling a snow-peaked mountain covered in alpine wildflowers. Though in winter you can ski and board down Karamatsu-Dake, in the warmer months, it’s a spectacular place to go for a stroll.
The walk officially begins a fair way up the mountain, which you reach by way of gondola and chair, and like everywhere else in Japan, is dotted with snack and souvenir shops. The best part is that the lifts are actually lowered for the green season, meaning your feet literally skim through fields of lilies on your way up. Though the path is clearly marked with occasional staircases, it’s super rocky and steep in places and surprisingly not that well maintained, so watch your feet.
Just over an hour into the walk, you will happen upon a rather stunning pond called Happo-ike, which is the perfect place to stop for lunch and a wee. If you’re the conquering type, you can continue on until you reach the 2696-metre peak which, from the top of the third lift, is 10.5km one way.
During the height of summer, the mountain tends to be swarming with elderly Japanese tourists who don’t exactly set the most cracking pace, but even when it’s busy, the hike is so worthwhile. Take a hat if it’s a sunny day, as there’s no shade at all and it can get pretty sweaty.
Spend a Day at Lake Aoki
Lake Aoki is a glorious place to pass a whole afternoon alongside. Given its lack of a proper public beach, you can be hard pressed to find a good spot to plonk your picnic, as many of the most ideal entry points have been snaked by paid campsites whose owners are unlikely to let you on their land unless you’re a guest. If you don’t mind swimming without a shore, you can park at a few places in the forest on the northern side of the lake and hack your way to the water through the forest, but if you want the ultimate chill spot, we suggest heading to one of the many SUP and kayak rental places that fringe the edge.
Our favourite is Aoki Lake Club and APC on the eastern side of the lake: a little wooden shack marked with a Swiss flag. Not only is the guy who runs it a mad chiller who doesn’t own a million other businesses in town, but he has built a beautiful terrace and pier out the front of his shop where you can wallow in the shallows and sip on a beverage whilst soaking in the immense beauty of the lake. You obviously also have to rent some sort of water device in order to be there, but it’s totally worth it, as Lake Aoki is enormous and fun to explore.
Frolic in the Snowfields on the way to Hakuba’s Highest Peak (or just hang in the carpark)
At the very windy end of route 322 is the rather thrilling Sarukura carpark. We say thrilling because, unlike most expanses of concrete, this one is a pleasure to be in thanks to the phenomenal power and beauty of the manmade waterfalls that surge alongside it.
If you’re just as into climbing as you are carparks, this won’t even be the end of your adventure, as Sarukura actually marks the beginning of the trek to Shirouma-dake. This is Hakuba’s highest mountain, and one of few in Japan that boast snowfields all year round.
An avalanche in July 2008 tragically proved deadly for a couple of hikers and rockfalls are not uncommon, so it’s worth enquiring at Hakubajiri Lodge – an hour into the trek and just before the Daisekkei snowfields – about the day’s conditions and risks. You may want proper gear to attempt the Daisekki, including crampons and a helmet, but the former can be purchased at the hut, and as long as you’re not walking in knockoff Nikes, you should be sweet.
The ridge takes between two and four hours to reach from the beginning of the snowfields, and provides unreal views. There are two lodges up there as well as a campsite, with the usual thing to do either being to continue to the summit in time for sunset, or wake up at 3:30am and catch the sunrise from the top.
From there, you have a couple of choices depending on how hardcore you are. Either you can return to Sarukura, continue south to other peaks or keep going to Yarigatake, which has one of the highest onsen in the country, before finishing where you started back at the carpark.
Soak in an Onsen
Speaking of onsen, the Japanese word for natura hot spring, they are plentiful in Hakuba, and are still just as enjoyable in the warmer months as they are in winter. Many offer to cure your physical ailments too, which is always nice, and no doubt after a day’s hike, your muscles will be sore and in need of some healing.
To give some background, onsen are split according to sex, and you bathe fully naked – but only after you’ve given yourself a bloody good scrub at the sit-down showers first. Just be sure to dose up on water and green tea once you get out, as a hot bath can actually be pretty dehydrating. Our favourites are the onsen with outdoor baths or big windows where you can treat your eyeballs to views of the mountains, such as Kurashita-no-yu. You can find a full list of bathhouses with more details about their location and facilities in English here.
Hang Out With Bathing Ape
Japan only has one species of monkey, and in the Nagano prefecture, they’ll more often than not be soaking their monkey bones in a hot bath in Yudanaka. Unless you have a car and can rely on the sweet gift from god that is GPS, from Hakuba, you’ll need to get to Kanbayashi Onsen via Nagano Station, which takes about two hours. From there, it’s a clearly-signed 30-minute walk to Jigokudani Monkey Park through a cedar forest.
The monkeys are at the very end of the rather scenic trail just maxing and relaxing in the hot springs without a care in the world. They’re so fucking chilled it’s not funny – you can get right up in their grill to take photos and admire their monkey-wisdom and they don’t even bat an eyelid. It’s not as el naturale as you may think: there are ropes for the monkeys to play on and the springs are totally man-made, but they’re still wild animals, and it’s an awe-inspiring experience to watch them bathe.
Gorge on Ramen at Zebrik
Zebrik may not be a very Japanese-sounding name, but the tastiness of its ramen will seriously knock you sideways. It’s located opposite Lake Aoki in a cutesie log cabin, and not only are the giant steaming bowls of soup delicious and so filling that you’re unlikely to finish them, they’re friendly on your wallet too. We recommend getting the spicy miso with an extra serving of melt-in-your-mouth chashyu, accompanied by a side of crisped-to-perfection gyoza.
In 2020, we’re taking our writing workshops on the road, spending two weeks in Tokyo and two weeks in the alpine village of Hakuba. If you want to learn the ropes of freelance writing whilst exploring Japan’s pristine nature, not to mention its phenomenally tasty food and fascinating culture, get an application in now! No experience necessary, and uni students may be eligible for credit.