During one of two long weekends in September, I visited Hakuba (白馬) a popular ski resort area nestled in the Northern Alps of Nagano Prefecture. If the name sounds familiar, you may remember the town received international recognition for hosting several events during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Although famous for its pristine, snowy landscapes, Hakuba offers an undeniable charm even in the offseason.
Over twenty years have passed since the games, but the area is still popular among Japanese and foreign tourists alike who visit this small yet lively town to spend some time on the slopes and bathe in onsen (Japanese hot springs). But if you’re like me, and you think barrelling down a mountain with blades of death attached to your feet is a bit too much for you, there are many other relaxing ways to enjoy the beautiful scenery. Hakuba has lots of options for those looking to take it easy and connect with nature. Hiking and visiting the hot springs are just two activities almost anyone can enjoy. There are also many cute restaurants and cafes as well as scenic nature trails to explore nearby.
To get to Hakuba from Niigata, we rented a car and drove along the picturesque coastline. I’ll create a seperate post to elaborate more on where we stopped along the way. The journey is just as important as the destination, and this journey definitely deserves some recognition. But for now, I’ll write about Hakuba. The first full day of our trip, my travel companions and I departed from our Airbnb to grab breakfast and coffee at Penguin Cafe. The waffle set was delicious, and I have never had a better matcha latte in my life. The breakfast sandwiches are also affordable and very satisfying. After filling our bellies and grabbing snacks and supplies from a nearby conbini (convenience store) we headed over to the first gondola station to purchase our ropeway tickets. We took the Happo Alpen Line, a popular choice for backpackers and mountaineers who don’t intend to use the ski slopes. The round-trip price was around 2980 yen. Our passes allowed us to ride a gondola and two ski lifts into the mountains to reach the trailhead. (Be careful not to lose your tickets for the return trip!) The lifts also offered spectacular views of the town from above. We could even see cows grazing peacefully on the gentle slopes below our feet. As we climbed even higher, Hakuba eventually disappeared. Getting off the lift was like stepping into another world located above the clouds. We had to take several moments to admire the panoramic views of the alpine landscape.
We took in the fresh mountain air and snapped a few pictures before beginning the rest of our ascent on foot. Our first destination was Happo-ike (Happo Pond), a place known for stunning views of Hakuba Sanzan (Hakuba’s Three Peaks) reflected in the pond’s glassy surface. The trail to the pond was gorgeous. Several stretches of the path we walked were made from carefully laid wooden boards wet from the morning rainfall. Other areas consisted of large rocks that formed makeshift stairs. At one overlook spot, a group of older women stopped to take a picture with us, and we talked about our travels in broken pieces of Japanese and English. They were twin sisters and a lifelong friend on their own mini vacation from Nagoya, the city I studied abroad in two years prior.
After about 90 minutes of rigorous hiking, we arrived to the pond and explored the surrounding area, chatting with the friends we made along the way. The weather was slightly nippy, but fortunately we dressed appropriately for the cold and somewhat unpredictable climate of the Japanese Alps. Initially, clouds and wind hindered our visibility, and there were no promised reflections visible on the pond’s foggy surface. Even so, it was impossible to deny the beauty of the landscape that surrounded us. We took a snack and water break and kept our spirits high. It was still a beautiful day, and there was no point in crying over the weather right? Fortunately, after about thirty minutes of resting the weather cleared, and I experienced breathtaking scenery I know I won’t find anywhere else. Maybe it was the power of positive thinking, or maybe it was dumb luck, but before we knew it, the pond transformed into a mirror before our eyes. I’ll just say I’ve never seen anything like Happo Pond before, and I know it will be a long time before I experience that feeling again.
We stayed at the pond perhaps a bit too long admiring the scenery before deciding to move on. Almost everyone else returned in the direction we came from, but we continued forward. The exposed, rocky path eventually turned into twisting shrubbery and beech trees; I hoped we wouldn’t spot any hungry bears in the forest. Our goal was to reach Mt. Karamatsu-dake summit and then turn back. It’s common for hikers in the area to spend several days in the mountains traversing between various points. However, we had no plans to camp overnight. We needed to return to the gondola by 4:00 o’clock. The forecast was calling for a typhoon later that evening, and we did not want to get stranded overnight. On our way up, we passed several discouraged mountaineers who had been forced to abandon their campsites and depart early. To ensure the safety of those visiting the region, officials were closing the trails before dark in preparation for the storm. Despite this, my group was confident we would make it back in time, so we continued forward.
About an hour later, our stomachs started to rumble, so we stopped to eat our conbini lunch consisting of rice balls and protein bars. A few hikers passing by told us about how far we were from the summit, and I felt uneasy hearing their advice. They said if we hustled it would take about another hour-and-a-half to reach the top. We had already spent a considerable amount of time at the pond, and the afternoon was getting later. While I am not in poor shape, I move at slower speeds than most, and I have to stop to take breaks due to my asthma. By this point, I had already used my inhaler once. We also had to factor in time to return to the station before the last gondola descended. My friends and I still felt determined to complete the trek, but I also was painfully aware of my body’s limits. I urged my friends to hustle to the top and not worry about leaving me behind. I would follow them at a comfortable pace until it was time to head back. If we got separated, we would meet at the lift station. Normally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable alone, but the trail was fairly busy that day with other hikers. If something unfortunate happened, someone would eventually come across me. We also still had cellphone service, so in the worst case scenario I could call for help.
As my friends gradually disappeared into the distance, I realized that while companionship is great, sometimes it’s refreshing to embrace nature alone. It was good to spend some quiet time with myself on the trail, and I’ll admit it was also nice for my lungs to huff and puff in seclusion. With my trusted inhaler in hand, I endured the steeper inclines and loose rocks hoping to join my friends at the summit. I stumbled a few times on the rain slick rocks and my lungs hurt from the sharpness of the cold air, but I didn’t let those things stop me. I was determined to do as much as I could. All things considered, I made it relatively far, but the feeling of disappointment was hard to ignore when it came time to turn around and I still hadn’t reached the peak. My stubbornness gave way to self-preservation, and I grudgingly turned back. During the climb down, I imagined what my friends were doing—I couldn’t stop comparing myself to them. Why couldn’t I be more physically fit? Why couldn’t I move faster? Why did I have a lung condition?
I was angry with myself for not finishing my journey even though the timeframe was so narrow. It was hard to turn back with the knowledge my companions were experiencing a sense of accomplishment I desperately wanted to share with them. Not to mention I’m sure the view was incredible. However, as I made my way back down the slopes, I realized something important. Even though I didn’t reach Karamatsu-dake summit, I still gave my best effort on the most difficult hike I had ever attempted. Plus, I also saw gorgeous landscapes and made new friends who also shared a love for hiking and nature. Sure, I didn’t meet my initial objective, but I got pretty close. And for a person with asthma who doesn’t regularly scale mountains, I would say that’s an achievement worth celebrating. Although I was initally tempted to exert myself to maximum capacity, I realized it was more important to be safe and listen to my body than take unnecessary risks for the sake of keeping up with my friends. During my descent, I forced myself to think positively and began planning a return trip to Hakuba that would include plenty of time budgeted for me to complete the course. I knew if we had begun even just an hour earlier, I would have made it to the summit.
I eventually reunited with my friends just in time to catch the last gondola, and we happily made our way to the nearest onsen to refresh our tired muscles and scrub off the day’s sweat and dirt. While enjoying the warm bath together, I didn’t feel jealous, inadequate, or out of shape at all. We had a great day, and I wouldn’t let one small mishap sour my mood. The minute I stopped comparing my experience to theirs, I felt so much better. They showed me their pictures taken at the top, and I gasped in awe. I felt truly happy for their success as well as my own.
If you’re planning to do this hike, save your energy for the higher altitudes and take the lifts. Bring plenty of water and wear sunscreen. Your skin burns more easily at higher altitudes. Dress in layers and give yourself plenty of time so you’re not rushing back like we were. And don’t forget to take pictures!