For Christmas, I was invited to join a group of friends for a long weekend in Hakuba, a ski resort about 170 miles North West of Tokyo. After a mad-dash across Shinjuku station, 5 of us joined the Shinkansen (Bullet train) to Nagano, famously home of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Since living in Japan I’ve become a huge fan of the Shinkansen, the trains are fast, comfortable, very reliable and the in-seat service offers pretty decent snacks. We variously bought sandwiches and bento boxes (lunch boxes) and lot of cans of beer (unlike trains in the UK, the price you pay for alcoholic drinks is about the same as you’d pay in a shop) and had a very pleasant 2.5 hour journey. When we arrived in Nagano we were met by a minibus that took us a further hour North to Hakuba and our accommodation.
When we arrived in Nagano there wasn’t much snow to be seen, but on the drive up into the mountains it gradually increased around us and as we approached Hakuba there was so much that the road itself was frozen and we completed the last few miles driving on thick ice (all of the vehicles up there are filled with snow tyres and snow-chains). The lodge was very luxurious, comprising 3 double bedrooms, a bunk-room for 4, a gym, drying room, state-of-the-art entertainment systems and underfloor heating throughout. The largest bathroom featured a spa-bath for 4 people, with a glass wall that opened to expose bathers to the snow beyond. In total there were 9 of us in the lodge, and plenty of champagne, so it was a very lively evening, and a great start to Christmas.
Early the next morning (well, not early) we headed out to the rental shop and got equipped for the slopes. In my case, it was snowboarding equipment, but most of our group were on skis. Ski slopes are graded by steepness and technical difficulty, usually with a color code of Green being the easiest, Red intermediate and Black being for the pros. As this was only my second time on a snowboard I was slightly dismayed to discover that all of the lower, green slopes were closed, and so I joined the rest of the group high up on the mountain and did my best to get back down again. Fortunately, another in our group was a relative beginner and so the two of us stuck together and tried to share our limited tips and expertise. After a terrible first run of falling over and being buzzed by children doing 200+ mph, I managed to find my feet and had great fun riding the various ski lifts and scaring myself stupid on red runs across the mountain. I ended the day with bruises, but thankfully no breaks.
On Christmas day some brave souls from our group were out early and back up the mountain, but I chose not to push my luck and opted instead for a lie-in a a breakfast glass of champagne. The owners of our ski lodge were friends with some members of our group and had very kindly invited us up to their house for Christmas dinner. Whilst our lodge was merely luxurious, the owner’s place was more akin to a Bond villain’s lair, perching on top of a hill with panoramic views across the ski slopes below. We arrived, wading knee-deep through the snow and I was impressed to see that the large driveway of the house was completely devoid of snow, impressive given that we were in the middle of a minor blizzard. It seems that in these parts Bond villains don’t clear their own driveways and instead simply opt for heated ones, I could almost hear the individual snowflakes ‘hiss’ into nothingness as they hit the perfect tarmac. The interior of the house was equally state-of-the-art, with discrete control panels throughout to control all manner of hidden stress-avoiding technology, I spotted a transparent pool table in the corner and made a mental note to get to it as soon as was politely possible.
Dinner was provided by a private chef and assistant, brought in for the event and was excellent. Thankfully, nobody had insisted upon a traditional Christmas dinner (I’m not a fan) and instead we enjoyed a range of contemporary western dishes with Japanese touches. We enjoyed fresh ravioli in a rich fish broth, flounder, carpaccio of venison, a main of roast game cock and ending with chocolate pudding. Dinner was accompanied by some lovely wines from the massive, glass wine cellar that stood in the middle of the room. After dinner I enjoyed a (huge) glass of 18 year old single malt next to the open fire on the balcony, before getting down to business with the transparent pool table. Dinner was great fun, and it was a real treat to spend Christmas with such a fun and lively group, as Christmas isn’t usually much of an event in Japan.