Credit goes to Elmo for coming up with 'Hakuba Matata', and yes it's a play on 'Hakuna Matata' (had to clarify for Al Du). I'm going to try to sum up my experience here, if you care to read the more detailed entries regarding my Hakuba experience, please see my Snowbook.
By the way Hakuba means White Horse, "according to lore, a group of farmers many years ago decided that a patch of snow that always survives the summer resembled a white horse, or hakuba." (Strom, NYTimes) Thought that was interesting...
Riding in Japan is a phenomenal experience. Mountains aren't the biggest in the world, but it's a small price to pay when the snow (or slush) is so damn good (not a single brown/bare spot even with the insanely warm temperatures). Craig (Morino Lodge co-owner) explained to me that the reason they get so much snow is because the cold air from Russia picks up moisture in the Sea of Japan, before dumping it as snow when it reaches land. I guess it's similar to a lake-effect, but much more consistent in Japan.
While the trails may get somewhat crowded, lift lines were somehow never an issue. I don't know how that works out but I'll take it.
In addition to the conditions, the attitude of the riders here is so positive. Park rats aren't like the punks you see in the states. As an extension of their every day manners, you'll be hard pressed to find any bad attitudes to ruin your day. Back on the East Coast, or most of North America for that matter, you probably can't make it through one day of riding without some ass ruining your day. Not so here, like almost every other Japanese person I met, they are well-mannered.
You also almost never see bad riders. I guess they are so focused on improving their riding technically, everyone rides pretty well. You do see noobs, but they aren't like the ones we are used to seeing, sitting on their rears and bitching and moaning. Here they take learning seriously, getting some serious instruction from their mates are instructors. In America, you sometimes meet people riding for 10 years and yet they can't do anything but go down the mountain riding regular (or goofy). I don't understand how some riders can do the same thing for 10 years and not get bored. I've also never seen such a high concentration of skilled female riders before. Kevin and I were trying to pick up tips from them.
The lodges are pretty cool areas to be in and the food blows the states away. I've never really felt comfortable in any lodge in America. Either there were tons of kids screaming or they were just plain dirty and smelly. The ones here are clean (as you would expect) and are very comfortable areas to relax in. I especially liked the all concrete and wooden lodge at the top of Iwatake Mountain. Even though it's a double-story ceiling cafeteria, it still felt pretty cozy. I swear, the Japanese can do no wrong with concrete.
Stolen boards, not a chance
When on breaks in the East Coast, if you don't lock up your board, you can pretty much kiss it goodbye. I don't think crime exists in Japan (exaggerating, there is crime, but so few incidents that it makes America look like it's in a state of anarchy). Here, just toss your board anywhere and you don't even have to glance over your shoulders.
Parks are still in its infancy, they love building their kickers so that they send you vertical. Because of that, their transitions are pretty steep and short horizontally. You also don't get a good rhythm going compared to some of the parks I've seen in America.
The first mountain we hit up was actually two attached to each other, Hakuba47 & HakubaGoryu. Even with two mountains joined together, it was still somewhat small. The park had a pipe and a lot of features but the queues were long. I was blown away by how much air the riders were getting even when they weren't approaching the kicker with much speed. They really know how to pop at the lip.
Iwatake had a good park but it was so warm that day that the slush really slowed us down. In a way it was actually a good thing since it forced us to mimic the pop that the Japanese were getting off the kickers. We were going to go back the next day until we found out the High Cascade Park was open on Happo One.
Happo One probably had the best park we rode in, not because the others were built poorly, but because we were used to American-shaped transitions, placement of the features and lips. As I already mentioned in the Snowday, it was built by the Mt. Hood Meadows Crew.
Lift tickets were all around $25 to $30 a day. Actually all seven resorts in the vicinity will accept a ticket you can buy at the lodge/hostel/hotel called Hakuba 7. There are many more mountains half an hour to two hours away so if you are curious and don't mind the commute, go for it.
Kevin, Joy and I stayed at the Morino Lodge. The facilities were very comfortable and clean. The DVD collection they had available was great (we watched a Matt Damon flick, forgot the name of the movie, and the Lion King because Elmo got 'Hakuba Matata' stuck in my mind). The continental breakfast was great (I loved the bread). Most of all, the owners, Matt and Craig were very personable and were always available. They gave us rides on more than one occassion and even went out to eat with us. The pricing of the lodge approaches those found in the states, but it's totally worth it. Their location is great too, walk less than 5 minutes to nearby Tokyu Hotel to catch the shuttle buses for every nearby resort, or walk the other way for 10 minutes or so to Happo One.
If you must go with a cheaper route, I'll have to recommend K's House. They have locations in Hakuba, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Mt. Fuji. I stayed at the Kyoto house twice and it was by far the best hostel I've ever stayed at. I spoke with a Californian I met there and he said the house in Hakuba wasn't bad at all.
In Kyoto, I met an Australian who worked at Niseko, which is a great resort town (from what I hear) near Sapporo, for the season. It's pretty far away from Tokyo though, so plan on spending a decent amount of time traveling. Nothing like the 2.5 hours for Hakuba. There are also a mountain or two near Tokyo, again, Kevin would be the go to guy for that information. If you have any questions about Hakuba, fire away, if I can't answer it, Kevin should be able to.
Hoping to get another day or two in before I leave for Korea/USA.
Made a day trip to Gala Yuzawa, a resort close to Tokyo. The trip takes just a little over an hour (77 minutes) on the Shinkansen and it's convenient as hell. The train station is basically underneath the resort. Step off the train, walk up a flight of stairs and you are at the ticket booth which looks like a hotel lobby. Be warned though, the lockers are a ridiculous $10! The entire trip along with transportation clocked in at under $110 (you can purchase a round trip ticket and lift ticket voucher from the JR Ticketing Booths). The conditions for spring were great, again no bare spots, no ice. Some of the jumps were a bit slow but the park crew was on top of it, constantly reshaping the approaches. Wish it was this convenient back in NYC.