One flight, two long buses, and a 300 MPH train later, and we were in Hakuba. Located in the Northern part of the central island of Honshu, Hakuba Valley and nearby regional capital of Nagano were the primary hosts of Japan’s 1998 Olympic Winter Games, leaving behind a legacy that is still evident today. Typical of regions affected by the Games, massive amounts of accommodation were built in their anticipation, transforming what was once a charming local obscurity into a world-renowned alpine destination, notorious not only for it’s nine locally accessible mountain ranges, but also nearby temples, and the biological curiosity of the northernmost existing primates in the world, Japanese macaques.
Japanese Macaques ride that special line between super cute and slightly terrifying
Scattered hotels of mixed architectural style and varying quality litter the landscape, from Swiss Alpen style lodges and traditional Japanese houses, to cold rectangular, buildings which more closely resemble Soviet-era research stations. Roving packs of powder hounds howl along the roads at night, eagerly taking advantage of the loose public drinking laws. You can see them at all hours, wandering the narrow roads and occasionally slipping on ice, stumbling to avoid boxy Japanese vans as they fly around the tight corners of this sprawling little town.
Large Russian-style Happo One restaurant … Owned by Black Chef?
Our hostel of choice was called The Lab, where we stayed for five nights. Staffed by a cheeky crew of mostly Australians (and two South African siblings), its location was fairly dead centre, just a gentle ten minute walk from the local Bus station (from which they kindly picked us up and dropped us off), and even closer to the nearby slopes of Happo One. Fortunately for us, this accommodation presented a distinctly more social vibe than at our last location in Niseko (the charming yet quiet, ski-in-ski-out resort of Northern AnNuppuri), and within minutes of our arrival we were clinking glasses, exchanging stories with new friends, and guzzling the local alcoholic delicacy: Chūhai (shōchū mixed with soda water and cordial, dangerously easy to drink)
Our first night we arrived late after a long bus journey from Nagano, it was already about 10pm. Being informed that tonight was the local pubs karaoke contest, we immediately threw our massive bags onto our bunks and followed our severely sauced new friends down the slippery road to town. Results were as expected:
Spencer ended up leaving the party early, after about two hours, yet somehow me and Kia managed to get home before him. Turns out he’d forgotten the way back, and chose to spend his evening wandering through ice fields (odd hobby I know). Could have easily ended up like the the finale of “The Shining”, but he managed to stumble in through the door just before we passed out.
Then next day we awoke to rain, so we took advantage of this most welcome excuse to sleep in, and relaxed, nursing our hangovers. Finally making it up and out the door by about 2pm, we explored the local town, soon to discover that Hakuba as a whole was demographically very similar to our hostel. E.G. This town was essentially an Australian colony with heaps of Japanese restaurants.
For all its binginess, there really is something to be said for the comradely found in mountain towns. Hard working young people scrape together what they can, and come together in these distant lands to pursue the sport we love. Competitiveness takes the back seat as more advanced riders seem happy to dispense advice, fostering the skills of the next generation. We ended the days together in small, crowded venues, drunkenly making jabs at skiers or boarders (whichever one you’re not), and regaled each other with exaggerated tales of the days best lines and most brutal bails. Surface level and intoxicated though it may have been, I can easily say that this was one of the best weeks of my life.
To our friends at The Lab, we salute you!
Left: Immensely fashionable Japanese man on snowbike
Right: Myself, contemplating the utter excellence of my decision to visit Japan
Now, let’s get into some specifics.
One of the most notorious characters we met at The Lab was a man name Max. When we first met him he was already sporting one of the hoarsest voices I’d ever heard, which was not something he appeared to have any intention of changing. Max was a man of many faces. Quite literally, he brought and wore at the bar (In order of least to most terrifying) masks of the Yeti, Jim Carrey (‘The Mask’) and Donald Trump, all along with two matching, photorealistic black BB pistols. They lacked the typical orange tip found on most BB guns sold in North America, and he assured us that if we were seen in public carrying them, the Japanese police would definitely “Either arrest or just shoot you’s straight up.”
Max and his winning smile
While not exactly an ever-present figure in our daily interactions, Max still managed to insert himself into our lives with some preciously awkward situations. From passing out drunk on the hostel lobby floor, to nearly blowing his face off with locally purchased fireworks, Max is what they would refer to in his home country of Australia as a “Bogan” (Google it), and his presence, whether we liked it or not, became a defining part of this leg of the journey. While we met many others along the way (shout outs to Juma, Elea, Kailee, Phil, Hayley, Guy and Nicole!), Max has secured his top spot as one of the wildest human beings I have ever met.
At least he took his shoe(s) off… ?
Twinkle Twinkle Little Aus
On a slightly less hectic note, we did actually manage to get among some more traditionally Japanese elements in the region, starting with a guided expedition by Japan Ski Holidays, which picked us up from Hakuba, and brought us to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey park. A mixed demographic of mostly young families made up our bus, which we rode for roughly an hour, eventually reaching the small mountain town where the macaques reside. One brief hike later, and we had reached the view of a traditional onsen, invitingly pumping hot steam into the cold mountain air.
After a little more walking, we reached the ticket window, where we were graciously ushered through (having purchased the tour online), and in just a few moments we were surrounded by hundreds of disarmingly fearless (and thoroughly well pampered), Japanese macaques.
Top: People Onsen
Bottom: Monkey Onsen
Interview with our lovely guide Aoki! (sorry for the shaky camerawork, monkeys are distracting!)
During our visit we learned that Japanese macaques reside in both the Northern and Southern regions of Japan, with the Northern variety (the ones we were visiting) being the larger of the two. These Northern monkeys have also taken on the curious adaptive habit of combating winter cold by bathing in naturally occurring hot springs. Rival groups of macaques will sometimes engage in turf-wars to secure domination of the prized baths, with only the dominant gang being allowed to enter the water. Interestingly, only the female and juvenile monkeys will relax in the springs. As our guide explained later, the males remain dominant by appearing larger than the rest, and having their fur matted down by water exposes the true size of their bodies, so they only very rarely partake in bathing.
Not so looking so tough now, are you?
While being exceedingly cute, the experience of visiting the snow monkeys was slightly dampened by the more prevalent primate species dominating the wooden walkways: human tourists. I say that with the total awareness of the irony oozing from that statement, but I think its still worth saying. Anyone planning on making the trip would be advised to either go early, or choose a slow time of year to visit. If that is not possible, try your best to block out the screaming children and keep your distance from their teched out fathers as they jockey for position, vying to take the winning shot of what may already be the most photographed monkeys in the world.
All the same, the monkeys were still super adorable, and I think it was worth checking out.
Next on the tour we were taken to a small town between Jigokudani and Nagano, where we were treated to a traditional Japanese lunch. Trying our best to ignore the bratty Australian children seated next to us, who kept complaining that the Japanese were going to kill them with this “gross” food, I managed to enjoy my meal (which was objectively delicious, you ungrateful little shits, if a little exotic looking). Next we toured a sake distillery/museum and exchanged travel stories with some fully-grown, and thankfully more mature Australian tourists seated there. We ended the lunch portion of our day with Matcha green tea ice cream, and loaded the bus with smiles on our faces as we headed to our final destination, the temple in the dead centre of Nagano city: Zenkō-ji
Our well-earned lunch
Zenkō-ji is unique in the fact that it is the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan, dating back to the 7th century. The city of Nagano started as a small town built around it, and eventually grew into the sprawling metropolis for which the entire prefecture is now named. Guarding the temple are two fierce Niō statues, a common sight in these temples. They are there (in theory) to protect the compound from the enemies of Buddha. Standing at about 20 feet tall, I personally think they’d do a pretty good job.
This temple was founded before Buddhism split into different sects, and because of this it is currently managed by both the Tendai and Jōdoshū schools of Buddhism, with twenty-five priests from the former and fourteen from the latter who maintain the ceremonies and grounds of this immaculate temple.
Entrance to Tendai compound
The first statues encountered once entering the inner grounds are known as the Rokujizō. These six statues represent the “Bodhisattvas”, people who willingly gave up their chance for enlightenment in order to provide it to others. It is said that they are able to travel between worlds, and communicate with the six realms of hell, starvation, beasts, carnage, human beings and divine beings.
Pretty heavy stuff for such zen looking guys, but I’m sure their sacrifice is appreciated.
The six Bodhisattvas of Zenkō-ji
The main Buddhist image located in Zenkō-ji is known as the “Hibutsu”, which means “Secret Buddha”. This idol is unique because it is thought to be the very first image of Buddha brought to Japan, which forever transformed the structure of Japanese theology in too many ways to count. The protocol of this temple requires that it’s location is kept an absolute secret, away from the eager eyes of everyone from the public, to even the head priest of the temple himself.
After a whirlwind tour of the temple grounds, we finished up our day and hopped on the bus back to Hakuba, sleepy from the sake and absolutely glowing from our first experience in a Buddhist temple.
We rode Happo One for the next few days, but the conditions weren’t ideal (lack of snowfall and too icy), so we ended up spending most of our time enjoying the local restaurants, preparing for our next leg of the journey. After a rushed goodbye last Sunday morning, we were on the road again, heading first back to Nagano, then taking another bullet train to Kyoto, the former political, and current cultural capital of Japan.
More on that next week.