Hakuba in Autumn

By on November 6, 2017

If you’ve got the call of the wild, but only have a few days to satisfy the longing, head for Hakuba. Autumn is the ideal time to enjoy the spectacular alpine surroundings before the heavy snow creeps in, and the area becomes overrun with snow bums looking to do damage to their limbs and livers. 

Hakuba is the ideal base for your getaway. Huge, rugged peaks tower over this tourist town, filled with all you might need for your wilderness break. It served as one of the main areas for the Nagano Winter Olympics, sealing its fate as a winter sports magnet in the winter season. Exceptional ski fields cater to all levels of skiers and snowboarders, but for many, the mountains’ majestic presence is more alluring during the green season, particularly the autumn.

Hakuba has so much to offer us townies. Easy access from the big smoke, simple hiking, onsens on every corner, adventure around every bend, and an enormous selection of outdoor sports to keep even the most active family aching for days. Within the area there are lakes with a variety of water sports, hiking trails, and rivers, dominated by the northern part of the Ushiro-Tateyama mountain range with its famous peaks: Shirouma-dake, Shakushi-dake, and Yariga-take. It’s the simple life without Paris and Nicole (thankfully), and all you need to enjoy it are a good pair of comfortable boots (hiking preferably), a wooly hat (if you must!), and a change of clothes.

The area of Chubu is one of the most tectonically active areas in Japan. The Nishihina lakes were formed on the Fossa Magna tectonic fault line, and lie south to north between Japan’s northern Alps and eastern mountain range. Closest to Hakuba is Lake Aoki, renowned for being one of the clearest lakes in Japan. Take a dip on a hot summer’s day, but this time of year, one’s extremities can turn a nasty shade of blue. If it’s colour you’re after, the lake is famed for its amber and emerald hues, which can be seen just as well kayaking. Lake Kizaki, located furthest to the south, has more water sports, such as wind surfing, water skiing, and canoeing. All the necessary equipment can be rented easily and reasonably. The third, Lake Nakatsuna, in the middle, is perfect for fishing.

Hiking is a simple outdoor activity that gets the family at one with nature. No lines, no specialist equipment, just get out there and go! Take it easy and go at your own pace. Only take on a course that is within you and your family’s capabilities. Wooden planked steps are laid on many of the trails, easing the climb. Don’t be tempted to change pace even when a pack of nimble 75-year-olds come up from behind with their tucked in trousers and seemingly frail bodies. These wiry warriors have the experience and probably the benefit of a hip flask filled with energy-enhancing sake. Take in the view and leave your pride at the bottom of the trail. Speed isn’t an issue, but appreciation of your surroundings is. Hakuba’s hiking offers great little cheats. Take the hiking trail, but use the ski gondolas that operate through the year. This way, you don’t exhaust your team too early on, and by the time you and they actually start puffing away; the view will already be spectacular enough to inspire everyone to greater heights.

Autumn brings the cooler weather, and of course radiant foliage. Head for the Tsugaike Natural Park, part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park, and is one of the famous high-moor areas. At 1900 metres above sea level, the leaves of the alpine birch put on their spectacular orange and red symphony of colour. For the kids, who can probably only take so much “just look at that,” there is Daisekkei (the big snow valley). This is truly fantastic, a huge area of permanent snow on the way up to the Shirouma-dake. Daisekkei is one of the largest valleys in Japan. Incredible in the summer, eerie in the autumn. Loose rocks, evidence of  the frequent rock slides, litter the white glacier. Climbing takes between one to two hours, depending on your physical fitness. The later in the year you go, the more gear you will need; it can get slippery, so beware. Crampons and ice picks can be rented or bought at the base or in the town.

If this isn’t enough action for you, use Hakuba as your base to explore the surrounding rivers, canyons, and your limits. Try your hand at canyoning, rafting, or mountain biking inland. Outdoor companies like the excellent Evergreen Outdoor Centre offer a wide range of half-day and full-day adventures throughout the year, giving unforgettable family experiences for all ages, from 2 to 102. After a hard day’s hike, a bumpy coccyx-crushing canyoning experience, or just an overdose of fresh air, nothing can beat the onsen, and in Hakuba, you are spoilt for choice. If you’re still looking to push the limits, try the Yamanba No Yu onsen, perched high (2100m) above sea level. Not really one for the youngsters, as the hike required to get there is a big one, over six hours, and usually requires you to stay overnight at the nearby mountain huts. If you do manage to get there, the reward is bathing with the gods in a stunning outside bath above the clouds. It doesn’t come much better.

For more out-of-this-world experiences, Kamikochi (upper highland) is a must. An extremely remote mountainous highland, 1500 meters above sea level. The 15-kilometre-long plateau in the Azusa River valley is a true Shangri-la. Entrance is by special bus and taxi; don’t try driving through this very special place.

If the family has had enough of adventure and requires cute, furry friends, then ‘Hell Valley’, named after the area’s volcanic activities, is the place. Here at the Jigokudani Yaen Koen, or Jigokudani Monkey Park, hundreds of Japanese macaques, Japan’s indigenous monkeys, bathe in the beautiful waters and remind us what awaits back in Hakuba.

Hakuba offers a real getaway, the chance to be at one with nature. Unwind on top of the world, or push yourself to the limits – it’s your choice. After returning from the wilderness, you’ll be aching for more.

GROUND RULES

GETTING THERE FROM TOKYO

Take JR train Chuo Line from Shinjuku station to Matsumoto, and take JR train Oito line to Hakuba. It takes about 3 hours and 45 minutes. By car, take Chuo Highway to Matsumoto and go to the north on Route 147 from Matsumoto, Nagano. It takes less than 3 hours to drive to Hakuba.

STAYING

Accommodation ranges from deluxe hotels to mountain huts.

The Sierra Resort Hotel www.sierrahakuba.com

Yamanba No Yu onsen mountain huts, call 261-72-2002

CLOTHING

If it isn’t useful, doesn’t have velcro or a toggle, then leave it behind. (That doesn’t include family members). Remember, children warm up and cool down much faster than us grown-ups, so bring a generous selection of  clothing to cover all the bases.

HIKING

The Happo-one nature study hiking trail starts from one of the main skiing areas, Happo-one.

To get there: at Hakuba Station take a bus to Happo Bus Terminal (5 minutes), from there walk to Gondola Lift “Adam” (Gondola Lift 8minutes), and Alpine Quad lift (6minutes) folled by Gratto Quad lift (6 minutes) to Happo-ike Sansou. Walk for 90 minutes up to Happo-ike pond.

TREKKING IN HAKUBA’S BIG SNOW VALLEY

Big Snow Valley (3.5 km long, 600 elevation from beginning to end). To get to the upper part of the snow valley, you will need to have proper hiking equipment.

To get there: At Hakuba Station take a bus to Sarukura (27 minutes); from there, walk to Hakuba Jiri (one hour), followed then by a quick trek (20 minutes) to the bottom of the Big Snow Valley.

IWATAKE PROMENADE

See the grand view of Hakuba’s big three mountains. Take the gondola up to the summit of Iwatake Mountain (altitude of 1,289 meters). Beginner hikers can the stroll along the nearby trail (1.5 hours to complete).

To get there: From Shinano Moriue Station walk to the Iwatake Gondola (20 minutes) enjoy the ride up the summit (8 mins.) then walk to the view point (45 minutes) and back to the gondola (45 minutes).

 

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