Nestled at the foot of Japan's Northern Alps mountains, Hakuba in the central Japan prefecture of Nagano is known globally for hosting ski jumping and alpine skiing in the 1998 Nagano Olympics and for the vast snow-tipped gorge that you can trek along in summer.
Like many other winter resorts in the country, Hakuba boomed with swarms of tourists thanks to the skiing and snowboarding craze that gripped Japan in the 1980s and 1990s during and after Japan's asset-inflating bubble economy.
Decades on, the area struggled from a sharp drop in the number of winter vacationers compared to the peak periods, the aging of local inn and hotel owners and dilapidation of their facilities, as well as a shortage of labor and younger generations aspiring to take over their operations -- leaving many owners with no choice but to fold their businesses.
The Tsugaike and Iwatake areas, which host two of the 10 skiing grounds making up what is now dubbed "Hakuba Valley," are no exceptions. During the days when young skiers flocked to the areas, Tsugaike had discos and bars to cater to their after-ski entertainment needs. Unlike Niseko in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, which remarkably succeeded in weathering through and even growing out of the post-bubble plunge in the skiing population thanks to foreign tourist and investment demand, Tsugaike in the village of Otari generally continued to see the yearly number of visitors to its ski fields drop until recent years -- to 23% in 2015 compared to 1989. The number of hotels, inns and stores in the area has also more than halved from its heyday. The Iwatake area, which hosts Hakuba Iwatake Snow Field, has also seen the number of places to stay plummet from around 150 in the late 1980s through early 1990s to nearly 80 by 2019.
In a bid to change the status quo and revitalize the local communities, the Hakuba region is aiming to transform itself into "all-season mountain resorts" in lieu of primarily being winter and summer destinations.
Efforts toward that goal include launching a "harbor" and a "beach" on mountains that visitors can enjoy regardless of the vastly different seasons and whether or not visitors ski or trek.
At "Hakuba Mountain Harbor" at the summit of 1,289-meter Mount Iwatake, terraced wooden decks welcome visitors to offer them a chance to command a view of snowcapped 3,000-meter Northern Alps peaks while sipping freshly dripped coffee and savory bread served by The City Bakery cafe originally from New York. Popular menus include a croissant sandwich with locally bred Hakuba pork -- a combination exclusive to this mountaintop outlet -- and hot chocolate.
After Hakuba Mountain Harbor opened in October 2018, about 30,000 visitors flocked to the facility in about a month -- the equivalent of the previous guest numbers to the area in green season, from spring to fall. In the 2019 summer season, numbers of visitors to the observation deck reached some 130,000 between April 27 and Nov. 10, and the winter season just got underway on Dec. 13.
The facility apparently has the potential for serving as a stage for various events, with wedding ceremonies that are already taking place there, in addition to jazz concerts and traditional Japanese dance and music performances. If you need more incentive to visit, the heavenly terrace is also apparently capturing attention as an "instagrammable" spot.
During the summertime, the summit area also hosts dog runs, an athletic park and a picnic area -- all within "Iwatake Green Park" that was launched in collaboration with leading camping brand Snow Peak in July 2019. Equipped with a shared office space, the area also aspires to cater to the growing needs of teleworkers and "workationers," those on working vacation, away from the scorching summer heat in urban areas like Tokyo. A music and film festival atop Mount Iwatake is also planned for May 2020.
At Hakuba Happo-one Snow Resort in the village of Hakuba, visitors can chill out on "Hakuba Mountain Beach" set up in the 1,400-meter-altitude Usagidaira area in July 2019, where deck chairs, parasols in summer and pints of locally brewed beer await visitors to admire the views of mountainscapes as far as 100 kilometers away on a sunny day. They can even sweat in saunas inside out-of-use gondolas and cool down in a nearby jacuzzi -- all out in the open.
Amid the growing inbound tourism demand across Japan, Hakuba has witnessed a rising number of foreign guests, with the figure reaching a record 367,000 during the 2018-2019 winter season, a roughly 11% increase from a year earlier. About 50% of foreign visitors to the area come from Australia, followed by those from Asia at 30% and the remaining 20% from Europe, North America and other areas. Unlike Japanese tourists, foreigners tend to stay longer, for a week or up to around 10 days.
As part of efforts to meet the growing accommodation needs of inbound travelers, regional development firm Ikeike Tsugaike has launched new dormitory-style inns in the Tsugaike area by renovating old facilities that are friendly on the wallets of young budget travelers. Called "UNPLAN Village Hakuba," a pair of casual inns run by Tokyo-based hostel operator Fika are equipped with bunk beds and offer cheap plans starting at 5,000 yen per night, as well as twin and group guest rooms. The two facilities can accommodate up to a total of 92 guests. Fika already operates another two "UNPLAN" hostels in Shinjuku and Kagurazaka in Tokyo, hosting guests from across the globe.
"In the past, I think hostel-like culture could often be found at inns for skiers in Japan, where owners would talk to guests and help them make friends with each other. I hope we can create a culture where guests can mingle with others, just as seen in snow resorts before," said Hiroki Fukuyama, president of Fika.
In the Iwatake area, where a babbling stream runs along streets and a restored waterwheel stands, efforts to renovate aging inns and vintage homes are also underway. The area is known for a nostalgic Japanese atmosphere due in part to its connection to the ancient 120-kilometer "Salt Road" (Chikuni Kaido old highway) linking Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture to Itoigawa in Niigata Prefecture, through which salt was brought into the Shinshu region from the Sea of Japan coast in olden times. Iwatake hosted one of the post stations along the route back then.
One such renovated establishment is Hatago Maruhachi operated by Tokyo-based firm "Funny," which has just added a third inn to the same brand-name series operating in Iwatake since December 2018 by refurbishing a former inn with an old warehouse dating back to the Meiji period. Stepping inside, one can gasp at how western-style beddings are fitted into a traditional Japanese attic while each room is equipped with modern kitchen appliances and a washing machine.
The price list for the latest facility, Hatago Maruhachi Sanbankan, starts at 30,000 yen for a standard room for two persons during the winter season, excluding tax and a service fee.
A nearby reception facility for these inns, called "Shoya Maruhachi," has a restaurant inside an over 160-year-old vintage house dating back to the Edo period. Featuring time-tested wooden beams and pillars, the establishment -- formerly a home of a village headman with multiple entrances that were used depending on the different ranks of visitors -- is already popular among foreign tourists staying in the area. The 100-seat diner offers sashimi seafood fresh from the Sea of Japan coast, "Sanzoku-yaki" deep fried chicken, "Shinshu soba" noodles and other local delicacies.
Along the same, cherry tree-lined street in the Iwatake area lies another new inn called "Haluta Hakuba," which also gave a new lease of life to an antique inn for skiers. Its spacious interiors are dotted with stylish vintage furniture imported from northern Europe, and guests can try a range of unique experiences including a pebbled bath facility called "Toji-ba" featuring a mix of traditional Japanese bath therapy (toji) and mineral mist inhalation, as well as futons stuffed with steamed horsetail hair -- which is resilient and breathable and said to last for 100 years -- in high-end rooms.
"Our concept is to offer settings that allow guests to feel like they are living here even though they are on the road," said Yu Kaneta of furniture importer "haluta," the Ueda, Nagano Prefecture-based operator of the facility. The accommodation fees start at 26,000 yen per night for a double room.
Across from Haluta Hakuba lies Hakuba Ham, a workshop-cum-store inaugurated in August 2019. Hams and sausages produced and smoked by meisters at the shop are made from locally grown Hakuba pork after feeding piglets with sake lees. Its gentle and rich taste leaves visitors hankering for a taste of other items, including chorizo and pork tongue.
While attempting to make the local communities even more attractive to inbound and domestic visitors, Hakuba has apparently not forgotten its raison d'etre -- one of the world's finest ski resorts.
(By Tetsuko Yoshida, Staff Writer)
(To be continued in Part 2)
Hakuba can be accessed by highway bus from Busta Shinjuku, or the Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal in Tokyo in about five hours including stops at service areas. A JR limited express service is also available from Shinjuku to Hakuba Station, taking about four hours. Taking the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano Station and then using local trains or buses to Hakuba are also an option.