When I first contacted Mayumi of “The Funny Inn” about accommodating our family of six during our ski trip to Japan, she immediately replied offering availability in two rooms saying: “I promise special time in both room which is very popular for foreigners guests”. Feeling this was an offer too good to refuse, I made the booking.
Now six months later, as we arrive in Hakuba, a large ski resort in Nagano, North-West of Tokyo, I am filled with apprehension. My family is questioning my choice of such an oddly named hotel. Despite only brief communications by email however, the owners, Mayumi and her husband Hide, now welcome us like old friends and I immediately relax.
As they show us around, I can’t help thinking The Funny Inn is appropriately named. Nestled in the woods behind the main street of Echoland, a quiet suburb connected by shuttle bus to the ski areas, it looks more like a movie set for the New Hamptons than a Japanese village. Our room has a small sitting room and an onsen or hot tub with views over the mountains. The children all share a room with futon style beds and have the use of two steaming onsen style baths downstairs, one open to a snowy courtyard. It is not modern or fashionable but cosy and quaint and we instantly feel at home.
So at home that when we come down to breakfast the next morning we find our children already seated, wearing their ‘onesies’. The Japanese guests think the zebra, panda and cow at the next table are hilarious and are busy snapping photos.
Mayumi, taking dainty, imperceptible steps as if wearing a kimono, shuffles around at great speed looking after our every need. She serves a three course breakfast, brings us maps, pours the coffee and explains about the three main ski resorts: Happo One, Goryu/Hakuba 47 and Iwatake. As it is a public holiday weekend she advises Hakuba 47 might be the quieter resort for today and arranges discounted lift tickets. We have already hired our gear, conveniently delivered to the lodge the previous afternoon, so by 9:30 we are riding the gondola.
Despite being a public holiday, the slopes are quiet by Australian standards and we ski a full day, unable to stop lest we freeze. We are unprepared for the wind chill factor and vow to wear more layers tomorrow. Over the week however, the skies clear, the weather warms and we enjoy the varying terrain of the three resorts: the long forest trails of Goryu, the powdery groomed runs of Skyline at Happo One and the wide pistes radiating from a central peak at Iwatake.
The deep, dry snow makes black runs negotiable and falling generally painless and we refuel with anything from wood-fired pizza to miso soup. After a few early mistakes we learn to ask Hide’s recommendations for restaurants. We certainly would not have ventured into “Mate” otherwise, where we enjoyed excellent Japanese curries and the crumbed pork ‘tonkatsu’.
At night it is a short stroll to some of the local restaurants including Korean barbecue and traditional Izakaya or Japanese pub style fare. One night we eat at ‘Sumo-tei’ one of a chain of restaurants run by retired Sumo wrestlers. We can’t finish the sumo size portions of ‘nabe’, a specialty hot pot, but somehow manage the sumo sized beers.
The best meals however are served ‘at home’. Before becoming a ski instructor, Hide was a French trained chef in the cosmopolitan harbour town of Kobe. As well as serving up delectable breakfasts each morning of French toast, omelettes and eggs benedict (which even the normally fussy eight year old zebra devoured) he will also prepare dinner if ordered in advance.
We have done just that for our first night and on the menu is wild mushroom pasta, salt encrusted Hakuba pork with fresh local wasabi, and soft centred chocolate fondue with berry coulis.
While the smells from Hide’s kitchen waft up the stairs, I defrost in the onsen, soaking my tired muscles. I take a sip of my Asahi and watch the mountains turn pink outside my window and think to myself: I could get very used to this routine. It does seem we will indeed have a special time here, just as Mayumi promised.
Getting There: Train from Tokyo to Nagano then bus to Hakuba or a direct bus transfer from Narita airport is available. About 4 to 5 hours.
Staying There: Rooms from Y7,300 to Y10,800 with private bath. Rate includes breakfast. www.funnyinn.com/English
Skiing/boarding there: Spicy Ski rentals. Delivers hire gear to the inn and picks up at the end of your stay. Hakuba encompasses 11 ski resorts. Day tickets for each are around AUD$46. Mayumi can organise discount lift tickets (about 25% off) to Happo One and Hakuba 47. www.hakubatourism.jp
Eating there: Funny Inn: Y2700 for 3 courses or Y4200 for 5. Echoland: SumoTei – eat and drink like a sumo wrestler. Sarugaku – Izakaya, Japanese pub style.
“Louis” – wood fired pizza at the base of Hakuba 47 gondola.
“Mate” at the base of the gondola in Iwatake, near the ski school.