Let It Slow: 16hrs Hakuba -> Tokyo

Words by Henry Romano
Photos by Henry Romano

The door to the pachinko parlor slid open as we walked past and out roared the raucous clatter of Japan’s biggest gaming obsession. A chaotic combination of pinball, slot machine, and arcade game, pachinko is only that on the surface. Look past the bright lights and loud music, you enter a world of intense strategy, from interpreting obscure odds to jockeying for the newest machines.  Armed with zero knowledge of this but supplied with the confidence of a couple Strong Zero’s – a 120 yen (~$1) shochu cocktail in a can that hits you harder than three cheap beers – we piled in, money in hand. 

It took me about $2,000 yen (~$18) just to realize how to properly shoot the little metal balls that act as both your bet and your prize. By this time it was a little after 11pm and I was a world away from where I started that day in the mountains around the quiet town of Hakuba. 

People often ask me why I love Japan so much, and the 18 hours leading up to – and including losing my money to this pachinko machine – is the perfect example of why.

The night before –

It’s our last night of a week long trip in Hakuba. Located in the Nagano prefecture and nestled in the northern Japanese Alps, Hakuba is about 180 miles northwest of Tokyo on the main island of Honshu. The town is the central hub for 10 ski resorts that make up the greater Hakuba Valley.

The mountains here have a lot similarities to those back home in the North Cascades of Washington State. Large jagged white peaks with steep spines and couloirs that descend into heavily wooded slopes below. It’s not the terrain though that attracts skiers and snowboarders from around the world, but the snow that blankets this region every winter – light, dry, and a whole lot of it (on average over 11 meters of snow falls on the valley every winter). However, this year is an exception with some locals going as far to call it the worst winter in 50 years. 

Six days of riding abnormally subpar conditions has us exhausted and with plans to travel into Tokyo tomorrow, we call it a day in hopes of getting an early start into the city. 

7am – Wake up Call

We have been staying in one of our favorite ryokans in Hakuba this trip. Ryokans are a type of traditional Japanese inn that feel like a combination between a hostel and a bed and breakfast which are typically owned by locals who live and work on the premises. The level of care you receive combined with the amount of inside knowledge and assistance that the local owners pass on, makes staying in one a must in my opinion.

7:33 – Breakfast

Our ryokan includes a complimentary breakfast every morning. On the first day of our trip the owner sat us down to explain to us everything about our stay and told us their goal was to make our favorite breakfast every morning. They did not disappoint. 

8:05 – Change of plans

With the sun shining and a new dusting of snow the night before, the owner of our ryokan recommends trying to get one last day of riding in. Plans are hatched to tour off the top of a pair of resorts known collectively as Hakuba47 & Goryu.

8:55 – Bus to the base of Hakuba47

Hakuba valley has a pretty incredible network of free busses that will get you to the bottom of the ski hill. On powder days, get there early or otherwise expect a lot of crammed buses to pass right by you. Japan is known for its ceaseless devotion to functionality and efficiency, however, these buses seem to be an anomaly to that system. They for whatever reason don’t have ski or snowboard racks which results in some pretty uncomfortable 10 minute rides to the base as everyone tries to figure out how to cram in gear and all. 

The alternative is hiring a cab which is expensive but fun as hell when you get one of the drivers that enjoys kicking out the back tires and sending it sideways around the occasional turn. On a powder day, I’d recommend reserving a cab in advance the night before so as to bypass the zoo that starts to form at the bus stations first thing in the morning. 

9:18 – Hakuba 47

It’s worth it to grab the valley pass for all the ski resorts if your planning on riding around Hakuba. A single day pass only costs about $55 and there’s discounts for multiple day passes. However, since we spent a good chunk of this trip touring we opted to instead buy a coupon book. Bear with me on this one, this system is a little complicated but it can save you a good chunk of money if you are planning on doing the same. A coupon book will give you credits for individual lift rides. One ride on a chairlift is one credit, gondolas are two credits. Since we just needed to get to the top once, for Hakuba47 it cost us just four credits (two chairlifts and one gondola) or roughly $15 – not bad. 

9:46 – Top of Hakuba47 & Goryu

Access out to the backcountry really doesn’t get any easier. Most of the mountains have gates at various points that open up to the terrain above. The top of the resort deposits us at around 5,500 feet, we expect to climb another thousand feet or so to reach the terrain and hopefully the snow conditions we are looking for. 

11:13 – Top of Kotoomi-Yama (6.584’)

The hike up is relatively simple with a well defined skin track due to the limited amount of snowfall that has occurred in the last couple weeks. At the top, we are greeted with spectacular views of the valley below in one direction and Mt. Goryu and Mt. Karamatsu in the other. The snow is fresh and light, the sun is bright, and it’s looking like our last minute change of plans is paying off.  

We choose a steep north facing aspect as our primary route down. Most all of the routes back here empty out into these massive mountain valleys that separate each resort and wind down into the valley. This north facing slope makes its way down to the Hira River which has an access road that that will take us back to the base. As we have plans to get into Tokyo at some point, we map our way all the way down for one long last run of the trip. 

Heavy winds over the last couple days and the new snowfall encourage us to dig a quick snow pit to evaluate the snowpack. Due to the generally low moisture content and consistent weather patterns, the snow layers tend to be fairly right side up here. For a low snow year, we still measure a base of over 200cm (78”) at 6,500 feet. This place becomes another world when the snow gods are cooperating. 

As we are transitioning our gear, we watch as several local Japanese riders drop in on some steep facing southerly aspects. Just as respect is such an integral part of the Japanese culture amongst its population, the respect the local riders have for the mountains around here is just as apparent. The riders choose their lines with great care and deliberation and make it through some incredibly complicated zones with the knowledge only those who ride these mountains everyday would have. 

We take our time planning our individual lines down tapping into that same sense of respect for the terrain that lays before us. It’s moments like this that thrust you into the moment and force you to live in the present. Heightened senses take in the sights, sounds, and the feel of the snowpack beneath the board.  

12:19pm – 4,000 feet down to the valley below

The snow is good and the views are unbeatable on an unusually rare sunny day in the Hakuba valley. As we make our way down, back into the tree line, we stop to gather ourselves and plot the rest of our course into the valley below. 

One of my favorite aspects of Japanese folklore is that of the yokai, especially the kodama. Yokai are spirits that typically take the form of animals or inanimate objects but possess supernatural abilities. They have been used for centuries to describe the supernatural and inexplicable phenomena that occur in life within Japanese culture. The kodama are a type of yokai that inhabit the trees in the mountainous regions of Japan. There is a phenomenon called yamabiko which refers to when sounds make a delayed echoing effect in the mountains and valleys. On this day, with the sun starting to warm everything up, the sounds of the forest are loud and the feeling of being amongst the kodama is very real. 

1:16pm – The valley floor

We get to the river below to find that the low snow pack has done us no favors in helping get across the water without getting wet. A quick splash in the creek and we are on the other side to start the 5 mile journey back down the mellow sloped snow covered road. 

Starting to get tight on time we put our heads down and grind forward so we can sneak in one last slope side ramen before catching the bus back to our ryokan. 

2:40 – Ramen pit stop

Rewarded with ramen and self pouring pints of Asahi – it really doesn’t get any better. 

3:00 – Bus back to town

Buses leave on the dot, get there early because they only come once every hour and half or so starting at 1pm and on busy days they fill up fast. 

Cram in, sit down, shut up, and hope the ten people piled in front of you are getting off at the same stop. 

3:34 – The Mantra

The acronym is P.O.R.B which stands for Powder, Onsen, Ramen, Beer and it’s the mantra when it comes to the riding in Japan. 

We finally got the deep snow we were looking for, we moved ramen ahead in line, and now it’s time for my favorite part of the day – the onsen. 

An onsen put simply is a Japanese hot spring. Around town, bath houses pipe up the hot volcanic water for the public to use. There are a lot of very specific rules to using onsen that I won’t go into detail here, but I recommend looking up prior to use. 

One of the awesome parts about staying in a traditional ryokan is a lot of them have private onsen. People with tattoos and couples can therefore enjoy bathing together without having to abide by the rules of the public baths. Five minutes is all it really takes to breath back life into tired, aching muscles from a long day on the hill. 

4:45 – Black Cat Luggage Service

Ok, this step is absolutely key to having stress free travel when getting around Japan, especially if you are heading into the city. Black Cat is a luggage service that will pick up and drop off your bags anywhere in Japan quickly, reliably, and for a pretty minimal fee. 

We arranged with our host the night before to have our ski bags picked up the next evening and taken to the Tokyo-Narita Airport for our flight out in several days. After jumping out of the onsen and packing up the last of the gear all we have to do is drop the bags in the lobby and our host works with Black Cat to handle the rest. This allows us to pack just what we need for the few days we have planned in Tokyo and saves you the massive headache of dragging heavy board bags through rush hour in Tokyo Station. 

5:15 – Bus to Nagano

First leg of the trip into Tokyo is a quick 30 minute bus ride into Nagano which is the largest city and capital of the Nagano Prefecture. Buses leave from the main station in Hakuba every 30 minutes and cost around $16 one way. 

The bus drops you off right at the main station which is a short walk up to Hokuriku Shinkansen. The Shinkansen is Japans network of high speed rail lines. The bullet trains, as they are known in english, travel up to 200 mph and are a clear reminder of how barbaric travel is back in the states. 

6:00 – Shinkansen to Tokyo Station

It really doesn’t get more easy than this to travel. The trains come every 20-30 minutes depending on time of day. From the time we walked up to the ticket counter, purchased the $75 ticket, and walked to the platform, our train was scheduled to depart in three minutes. They leave on the dot, and there’s really no issue if you miss one, because another will be leaving in just a short 20 minutes. 

The seats are comfortable and have charging outlets, the wifi is fast and free, and the trip only takes an hour and a half door to door – and without having to lug around massive bags, it helps make what should be a stressful travel day rather enjoyable. 

7:40 – Tokyo Station

It’s wild and hectic and reaffirms the decision you made to use Black Cat when you see other foreigners trying to navigate the crowds with large ski and board bags. I’ve been through this station many times and still have no idea where to go once I am there – google maps is your friend, it loads times, which platform, and most importantly which train on that line will get you to your destination. 

8:17 – Shimokitazawa 

Just three hours after leaving Hakuba, we are in my favorite part of the city and where we have a loft for the next several nights. Shimokitazawa is everything I like about Tokyo. Removed from the bustle of the popular Harajuku and Shibuya neighborhoods, Shimokita is known for its high density of cafes, vintage shops, izakayas, and live music venues. Cars are limited to the small roads throughout Shimokita creating a pedestrian friendly environment as you wind through the little streets of cool store fronts. A couple highlights are: Frankie Melbourne Espresso for your morning fix – across the street is one of the many amazing bakeries in the area, Big Time-Shimokitazawa for an amazing assortment of vintage clothes and accessories, and Shirubee for a fun izakaya experience with an amazing specials list (get a reservation ahead of time.) 

Our loft is just a two minute walk from the Shimokitazawa train station which serves as the center of the neighborhood. Tired and hungry we unpacked quickly and are heading out in search of ramen and beers to end out the day.

9:05 – Ramen part 2

You can never have too much ramen.

A helpful tip about eating out in Japan. Most izakayas are small little hole in the walls that can only seat so many people. Because of this, lines often form during peak hours at popular spots. This is honestly the best way to find a quality izakaya to eat at. Don’t be afraid to wait in line for some food! I guarantee it’s almost always worth it.

9:47 – 808 bar

Just when you think you’ve explored every nook and cranny, Shimokita delivers. We found this epic little bar that is Hawaiian themed complete with Gerry Lopez surfboard on the wall, vintage skateboards, and some of the best mojitos I have had in a while. 

10:46 – Pachinko

And this brings me back to the beginning with that pachinko parlor door sliding open and beckoning us in with all the craziness that game is.

After realizing I really should read up a little bit about the game of pachinko before I drop more cash, I stumbled across an interesting set of rules pertaining to pachinko etiquette. 

Rule 1 – Show no emotion – Your winning face should be the same as your losing face so as to not drag those around you onto your emotional rollercoaster

Rule 2 – Turn down the sound and lights on your machine so as to not draw attention and to respect other players around you.

Rule 3 – Listen to the staff, they are there to help and offer assistance in making your experience pleasant. 

So there you have it, a noisy, flashy, exuberant machine that makes no sense at first glance on the exterior but one that operates with extreme efficiency and operates following a strict set of guidelines based on respect for the game and for those around you. 

If that doesn’t sum up Japan, I don’t really know what does.

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