Canny skiers and boarders take advantage of low-season prices to enjoy world-class powder on blue-sky days when the views are awesome and crowds have disappeared, writes Rachael Oakes-Ash.
Don't be fooled into thinking March-April means less snow. Mountains rise to more than 3000 metres in the Japanese Alps, a 150-kilometre spine down the centre
of Honshu, the country's main island. When the average winter snowfall is 11-12 metres, as it was last winter, you can be guaranteed of great skiing. Here's where.
Home to seven resorts, Hakuba Valley in Nagano Prefecture is best known for its Happo One fields. If you're looking for big numbers, Happo One's 200 hectares of skiable terrain has it, with more than 1000 metres of vertical rise and an 8.5-kilometre ski run. (Lift tickets from ¥4600, or $57; see happo-one.jp).
As with most Japanese resorts, where slope-side vending machines rule, expect the unexpected at Happo, including a McDonald's at the top of the main lift. Happo One is where the speeding Austrian champion skier Hermann Maier spectacularly crashed during the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998, and Hakuba resorts have long demonstrated an affinity with Austria, so don't be surprised to see faux Tyrolean-style facades on chalets or hear yodeling-style music being pumped from a sound system while you're served katsudon for lunch at a mid-mountain cafe.
Happo One is the closest resort to the region's main access town of Hakuba and the resort villages of Wadano, Happo, Echoland,
Misorano and Hakuba Station, where most accommodation and dining options are clustered. Get there by taking a three-hour Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Nagano Station, then a one-hour express bus to Hakuba. Shuttle buses take skiers between
individual resorts and villages and the Genki-go bus operates a shuttle between accommodation and apres hot spots after dark.
A short drive from Happo One are the twin resorts of Goryu (tickets from ¥4800; see hakubagoryu.com) and Hakuba 47, ideal for families and "jibbers" in search of a terrain park in which to practise spins and jumps. On the other side of Happo One is the boutique Iwatake resort, which features 120 hectares of skiable terrain suited to beginner and intermediate skiers and riders. (Tickets from ¥3300; see hakuba.jp/iwatake/en).
Further along the valley is Tsugaike: intermediate terrain, laid-back atmosphere, no crowds and a sports bar complete with indoor skate ramp. Tsugaike's 156 hectares is accessed by 23 lifts.
Hakuba Cortina, deeper still in the valley, has long been the quiet achiever of the alps, receiving an average 12 metres of snow a season in terrain that forms a natural bowl of steep ski lines and tree runs.
In March, Cortina was receiving 70 centimetres of fresh snow a week and when the resort closed at season's end, it still had a 3.5-metre snow base at the peak and two metres below.
Cortina has 50 hectares of terrain with eight lifts and 500 metres of vertical but punches above its weight with pristine views, the chateau-style Green Plaza hotel at the base (see hakubacortina.jp) and an open, off-piste tree skiing policy not found at any other Hakuba resort.
Buy an interconnecting ticket at Cortina and access another 50 hectares at neighbouring Hakuba Norikura, known as HakuNori and favoured by snowboarders and terrain-park skiers.
When the valley's lifts stop at night, do what the locals do and head to an onsen. If your accommodation doesn't have a hot-spring bathhouse, try the Mimizuku Onsen and Kurashita No-Yu Onsen. Both have stunning mountain views (see hakubatourism.com).
For the best okonomiyaki pancakes in town, try Emu, near Hakuba Station; Kikoya for fresh sushi and Zen in Echoland for the soba noodles. For upmarket dining, try Mimi's at the Phoenix Hotel.
GETTING THERE from Tokyo: take the Nagano Shinkansen train (about 3hr), then an express bus (1hr) to Hakuba. If coming from Tokyo's Narita Airport by express train to Tokyo (Shinjuku) Station, be prepared for a walk between platforms. Luggage can be sent via "tukubin", or courier, from the airport to Hakuba for about ¥2500 a bag, one way.
STAYING THERE Hakuba Springs Hotel has reasonably priced accommodation for families and groups. From ¥9450 a person, twin share, including breakfast. See hakuba-springs.com.
If you like your resorts purpose-built, all in one and open for skiing until May, Appi Kogen has your name on it. In Iwate prefecture's Hachimantai National Park, in northern Honshu, Appi's highest point is about 1300 metres and there are plenty of very long, wide, fall-line runs. Tickets from ¥5200 a day; see appi.co.jp.
The resort was built during Japan's ski boom in the 1980s, when no expense was spared. The impressive Hotel Appi Grand thrusts skyward from the mountain base, the resort's 21 trails are super-groomed and the 280 hectares of skiable terrain feature hooded quad-chairs and eight-person gondolas. Plus there are two hot springs. Did we mention Appi sits on the same longitude as Arlberg, Austria and Aspen, Colorado?
GETTING THERE from Tokyo: take the Hayate Shinkansen (2hr, 20min) north to Morioka and change for a train (JR Hanawa line) or bus to Appi Kogen station. From there, a free shuttle bus to the snow is available. See japan-iwate.info.
STAYING THERE The Hotel Appi Grand has twin-share and family-size (up to five people) rooms and suites, free internet access, restaurants and bars. The resort also has rooms at the Appi Grand Villa and Grand Annex. Off-mountain accommodation at the village costs from ¥7000 to ¥9000 a night, including meals. See snowjapan.com.
Known as Japan's spring skiing capital, Hakkoda can receive 14-20 metres of powder every winter. In Aomori prefecture in Honshu's far north, Hakkoda is known for storms that bring big snow dumps in their wake. However, Hakkoda is not a mountain for beginners or even intermediates. Consider it a lift-accessed back-country experience, with one ropeway (cable car) and a double chair. The off-piste terrain has a 650-metre vertical drop and is best undertaken with a guide. Maps are available at the ropeway station. In spring's good weather, the ropeway (¥4900 for five runs, buy from the ropeway office) allows skiers access to a vast area for blue-sky days among the trees.
GETTING THERE Fly from Tokyo-Haneda to Aomori Airport or catch the Hayate Shinkansen from Tokyo (about 4hr). Then take a JR bus (about 1hr) to the Hakkoda ropeway station. See hakkodapowder.com.
STAYING THERE the Hakkoda Resort Hotel has traditional and Western-style rooms, a restaurant and onsen. Rooms from ¥29,400 a person. See jnto.go.jp.
This article produced with support from Japan National Tourism Organisation.