It turns out Japan has the best snow in the world. Not something you usually associate with the Land of the Rising Sun but powder enthusiasts have recently been flocking to the Japanese backcountry, far away from the sushi, the anime and the flickering robots, in search of some pristine powder and video-game-like backcountry trails – all of this combined with Japan’s top-notch hospitality, including hot baths (onsen), great food and flawless organisation.
Traditionally, Hokkaido steals the show when it comes to snow-covered peaks and forest trails but closer to Tokyo is Japan’s premier alpine resort destination and natural powder reserve, the quaint and popular Hakuba. The Hakuba Valley, which came to fame with the 1998 Winter Olympics, caters well to English-speaking tourists, with a wide range of accommodation options, eleven ski resorts to choose from for beginners and powder munchers alike, and an après-ski experience akin to Europe (bars, night-clubs, etc.). Some foul-mouthed sceptics like myself would even go so far as to say it caters to foreigners so well that you end up miles away from anything remotely Japanese.
There are however a few options for mountain lovers in search of a little authenticity and one of them is provided by Swiss couple Geraldine, aka GG-san, and Simon. The two former international snowboard competitors went roaming the planet looking to rip a few waves and blaze a few trails before ending up in Hakuba-Norikura, a mere 25-minute drive away from mainstream Hakuba. They promptly fell in love with the place and bought an amazing lodge, which they called Kodama (“Spirit of the trees”).
Set apart from the hustle and bustle of Hakuba, Kodama Lodge offers a real Japanese experience with a touch of Swiss know-how. The combination results in a friendly yet huge chalet-like structure with Western as well as zen-filled tatami rooms, located in the middle of the slopes (ski-in, ski-out!) at the top of a tiny Japanese village full of nature-loving folk. It is a peaceful place with an incredibly cosy vibe emanating from every room, complete with a yoga room, a reading area and kotatsu (wooden table frame covered by a blanket with a heat source underneath) overlooking a cosy chill-out area and occasional cinema (dubbed the Swiss Chalet area), a convivial dining area with a well-stacked bar, and the ground-floor’s showers and bathrooms.
Kodama’s appeal lies in its remote yet convenient location. Jump into a train, a bus or a car, ride your way to Hakuba for some four to five hours: GG-san and Simon will be there to pick you up and drive you up to their ski bums’ haven. If you don’t have your own, you can rent all the gear you need, including state-of-the-art backcountry equipment, in Hakuba (service includes pick-up and return to and from the town). After that, grab the nearest skis, snowboard or sledge, and you’re off! Kodama is right on the slopes and has direct access to two valleys, while other valleys can also easily be reached by shuttle, so you’re bound to enjoy some serious weeee-time!
There’s powder galore as the Japanese Alps are blessed with amazingly plump snowflakes December through April. And whatever your level, GG-san and Simon will dish out their customised advice, including backcountry tips and regular weather updates, and instantly turn you into a skiing diva, swaying on the snow, shooting off sparkling clouds of powder. Welcome to this skier’s paradise! Obviously, if you’re not into the glamorous riding scene, there is plenty of cross-country skiing and other mountaineering activities to be had too…
Once your thighs have had enough, head back to the lodge for a little respite. There are some old-school hot baths and a spa just a few steps away in the neighbouring hotel as well as traditional Japanese baths a little lower to relax your well-worn muscles. Alternatively, grab a snack and a glass of Swiss wine or craft beer, sip on a little rum or homemade plum wine before heading to the neighbouring village of Tsugaike for a traditional Japanese meal with your newfound friends from Kodama. Two or three times a week, Master Chef Simon also cooks up a delightful menu of world cuisine served in a congenial atmosphere, so don’t forget to sign up for that!
The next day is bound to get off to a good start with Simon’s hearty breakfast. This is good honest grub at its finest: bacon & eggs, local bread, cereals, yoghurts and fruits will set you off nicely. Obviously, chances are you will be dead set on skiing to your heart’s content but, should you wish to try something else, nearby Jigokudani Monkey Park will keep you entertained with its famous bathing monkeys. If you time it right and go mid-January, you might even enjoy the awesome Fire Festival, which attracts some 3,000 crazed Japanese onlookers. Either way, there is plenty to do. You might even consider including Kyoto, Kanazawa, Takayama and Tokyo into your little trip.
However long you stay, you’ll come out of Kodama swayed by the happy spirits of the forest, your shoes full of snow and your head full of epic memories. And as GG and Simon bid you farewell, you’ll leave a piece of your heart in this magical lodge on the edge of a forest, in a tiny village in the Japanese Alps.
For reservations and further info, head to kodama lodge.
- Getting to Kodama: aim for Hakuba (car 4 hours, bus 5 hours, train 3.5 hours from Tokyo), GG and Simon will pick you up and take you to Kodama Lodge. You can also rent a car in Hakuba.
- Kodama Lodge has 9 rooms, including 7 Western style rooms and 2 tatami rooms. Two rooms on the ground floor have en suite showers.
- Rooms cost between ¥8000-9000 (Christmas and New Year excluded) and include a hearty breakfast (from 7:30 to 9:00 a.m.)
- Light snacks, including pizza, edamame, dumplings and croque-monsieur are available after 4 p.m.
- Norikura only has one restaurant, but nearby Tsugaike, which is reachable by bus or car, has a few traditional restaurants to choose from.
- Daily budget: accommodation + ski pass + food = ¥15,000-20,000
- A Freeride World Tour Qualifier Event will take place in Hakuba 11-17 January 2017