Somewhere between Nagano and Hakuba, I started to wonder why I brought so much gear. Japanese culture is known for small spaces and efficiency, and my extremely fat Atomic powder skis, clunky avy gear, and week’s worth of stinky baselayers felt bigger and more burdensome with each passing hour.
The day in question started with a 5 a.m. flight from Sapporo to Tokyo, where an oddly phallic Shinkansen bullet train took me to Nagano. The train travels so fast, objects out the window get blurry. Lugging my gear from the train platform to the bus station to load the bus to Hakuba, followed by strapping my ski bag to the roof of a Volvo taxi cab for a dizzying drive to Tsugaike, and then making one final push up the hill by foot to the Ha-Mon Hotel, the entire sport of skiing felt like a burden when I finally got to sleep that night.
The next day, when I was choking on powder during my fourth lap in the backcountry of Hakuba Cortina resort, none of the traveling troubles mattered. Skiing deep, creamy snow in perfectly spaced trees, I make a silent promise to myself that I’d travel by foot from Nagano to Tsugaike once a week with twice the amount of gear just for a day like this.
In addition to the powder, the catalyst to the about-face in my attitude about skiing was my group’s guide, Lewis Ainsworth. He had completed his International Federation of Mountain Guides Association certification in New Zealand sixth months prior and was keen on showing my friends and me why Hakuba is better than Niseko (or anywhere else, for that matter). He came out swinging with a lift-assisted tour out the Itadaira Gate of Hakuba Cortina, the northernmost ski area in Hakuba Valley.
For Americans, Canadians, Australians, and Kiwis, every visit to Japan can be disorienting, especially at various ski areas on both Honshu, the main island, and the northern island of Hokkaido. Hiring a guide for skiing is a critical part of making the most of the experience, and Hakuba-based GoodGuides, who Ainsworth works for, is one of the best guiding services in Japan when it comes to serving up powder-filled adventures.
Started by fellow New Zealander Jerry Williams in 2015, GoodGuides’ services are designed to provide skiers and snowboarders visiting Hakuba access to the best snow in the world and some of the biggest terrain Japan has to offer. The “get to know you” stage that most guiding services require a day for was expedited to the first run to get to the zone, which was a major perk considering we only had a guide for the day.
“For over 1,000 years, people have lived in the area [of Hakuba],” Williams tells me over a drab of Japanese whiskey after the powder day of a lifetime. “The mountains are big with nearly 3,000-meter peaks, and it’s so central to other areas as well. We get so much snow here, and I prefer to have the opportunity to get into those big alpine slopes [when conditions allow]. As a skier, Hokkaido is easy with good snow everywhere. But to test and challenge yourself and your friends, there’s Hakuba. There is a lot of stuff I want to keep skiing on a personal level as well.”
The success of GoodGuides led Williams, who is also fluent in Japanese, to purchase a slopeside hotel, Ha-Mon, at the Tsugaike ski resort, another one of the resorts in the Hakuba Valley system. With a soft opening at the beginning of the 2019-’20 ski season, Ha-Mon plans to expand were curtailed by the pandemic. But Williams’ goals of reducing the amount of waste the hotel and guide service produce—single-use plastic is everywhere in Japan—and help make a difference for every guest that stays is still in motion.
“We’ve started having reusable and recyclable lunch boxes and utensils during our guided days,” says Williams. “And we’re working towards a partnership with Eden Reforestation Process. For every dollar that you give them, they plant trees. We’re planning a dollar for every night that a customer spends in the lodge, which will be ten trees per night.”
While the hotel is striving towards becoming even more environmentally friendly, Ha-Mon is already a great place to stay. The rooms are comfortable and modern, and the dining space is full of natural light and smiling faces from breakfast to the homemade, family-style dinners that are well worth making a reservation for. The onsen downstairs is always hot and ideal for relaxing sore legs after a long day in the mountains. The hotel also serves as a home base for GoodGuides.
“I want to make it a place that encompasses everything. All my hobbies, all my passions, the environment, sustainability, backcountry skiing, Japanese culture, Western culture,” says Williams. “For foreigners, it’s still comfortable and presented in a way that you can understand. And the same for Japanese people coming to a Japanese-style lodge where they can mix with foreigners in sort of this fusion of Western and Japanese culture.”
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The day after our guided tour with Ainsworth, my partner and I spent a day on our own at the Tsugaike resort. It was an instant snap back to the disorienting reality that is all too common for skiers in Japan without a guide. We found the good terrain on the map, but arrived at the gate to find out that we needed special passes to access the terrain. After a series of connections on a discombobulated lift system to a remote lodge, we sat through a 45-minute “safety session.” In other words, it was a two-hour process to finally ski the good terrain after we first arrived at the top of the mountain.
Granted, once we got into the gated territory of Tsugaike, it became clear that the special safety session is a good thing for all visiting skiers: There were terrain traps below double-fall line tree runs, meter-deep tree well hazards, and a variety of other dangers lingering throughout the gated terrain from top to bottom that seem a world away from the glades of North America. If visiting skiers don’t have a guide, they still need all the guidance they can get.
While the skiing with the special pass was good, I wondered if we would have been better off hiring Ainsworth or someone else from GoodGuides for another day instead of risking it on our own. On the next visit, I know that’s exactly what I’ll do. And I’ll bring just as much gear, because all that trouble was totally worth it.
Related: Plan the Perfect Ski Trip to Niseko