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Green Season in Hakuba

A photograph of the Hakuba Valley
The Hakuba Valley

After a few days in Matsumoto, the next stop on our summer tour of Japan was the Hakuba Valley. An internationally famous ski area, it is allegedly the envy of Japan’s other ski resorts for managing to also attract tourists during the summer.

While there is a Hakuba village, centred on the JR station of the same name, Hakuba is the name used to describe the series of villages and hamlets strung out along the valley. In winter there are shuttle buses to convey skiers to the different (disconnected) ski areas, in summer we changed accommodations every few nights to give us easy access to different attractions and dining choices, using a combination of trains, hotel shuttles and taxis to get around. The taxis were easy to use once we had been recommended an English speaking operator, and inexpensive for short journeys such as from Happo to Iwataka.

It seemed very quiet during our visit at the end of August. Apparently the week before it had been significantly busier due to the Oban festival, but the distributed geography of the settlements, and huge winter capacity, means it will always feel a bit like a ghost-town in summer. In particular, in Happo village, it was noticeable that while there was a selection of lunch venues catering to hikers, in the evening there were very few restaurants open for dinner—I suspect those hotels that are open are exclusively half-board in the summer and thus the supply of customers for independent restaurants is too small.

The highlight of our stay was white water rafting on the Himekawa river. Being late summer, the river level was so low that the rapids were very tame, making it a great introduction to the activity for small children. Being dipped into the cold mountain water was incredibly refreshing in the summer heat! The sky athletics course in Iwataka was a little more challenging than the forest adventure the children had done closer to Tokyo, but the cheerful staff helped us round and made it fun.

On our final day we took a series of gondola and chairlifts up from the Happo One base station to 1600m. It was fascinating to see a ski area without snow, although the chairlifts were surprisingly close to the ground for much of the journey and my legs were regularly brushed by tall grasses. The hike at the top yielded some beautiful views, as shown in the photos below, but it was proper hiking on rocky and uneven paths, and combined with the summer sun (still intensely hot even at altitude), we only managed a short section before riding the chairlifts back down.