Those of you who haven’t been able to make it to Japan for the last couple of years can thank guys like Nick Kowal for their commitment to giving us our Japan powder fix, albeit through a screen. The Hakuba business owner has kept our Facebook feeds filled all season with clips of perfect backcountry lines from his favourite haunts in Happo and Goryu.

Nick is a 16-year Hakuba veteran who first started skiing in Japan in 1995, so we were keen to hear his thoughts on how the season has stacked up against years past. Word on the grapevine is that it has certainly been one of the better ones; numbers from Snow Japan confirm that it’s been the second deepest January in the last decade.

Nick Kowal backcountry, Hakuba

“It’s kind of been non-stop”, says Nick, when we pose the question.

“There’s been no warm weather. [In other years] you get those times where the trip makers say: ‘hey, you should have been here last week’. Not this year. This year every week is the week you should be here.”

“You might have a week where one or two days may not be as good as the rest. But you’re still going to get four days of thigh-deep powder, just incredibly deep and perfect for backcountry.”

“This year every week is the week you should be here” – Nick Kowal

Nick, who is a licenced ski instructor and aspiring backcountry ski and snowboard guide, reveals that with fewer skiers competing for snow in the Hakuba backcountry, it’s also been much safer.

“It’s been really easy, to be honest, to figure out where you want to go and how to stay safe. Because you don’t have to venture into something that’s so crazy to try and get that next line.

“And we don’t have the competition to push us into something we have to before we’re really ready.”

Nick Kowal, Hakuba

Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Nick and his fellow Hakuba business owners, who are all operating with reduced staff, he says. Nick reveals that he has kept his cottage rental business running through the pandemic (catering to expats and Japanese clients), but has had to put bookings for his lodge “on pause”.

The change, he says, has made it much easier to schedule his day around skiing, which was a luxury he never had when operating the lodge.

“I never used to be able to be the first one on the mountain. [When you’re running a lodge] you’ve got to make sure everyone’s out of the door, then you can follow them.

“Now all I have to do is get my kids off to school, then I’m generally on the mountain – after a coffee – at 8.15 or 8.30, and I don’t have to rush because no one’s here.”

On the Hakuba Powder Lodging website, Nick describes 2004 as the year that his “search for the perfect ski destination” came to an end – when he and his wife decided to make Hakuba their full-time home. With trips to more than 50 other Japanese ski resorts under his belt, we’re naturally interested to hear why he eventually chose Hakuba.

“The honest truth is that I saw Niseko blow up and I knew Hakuba was probably next. The proximity to Tokyo, the really good skiing,  the mountain culture around here, and all at a really good price.”

“And you just don’t find the backcountry access off the lifts, like you get in Hakuba. I’ve never seen it at any other resorts.”

So where does a Hakuba local who’s spent 16 years exploring the resort head to when there’s a powder day?

“I’m mostly a Goryu and Happo guy. If you climb above Goryu you can find some pretty insane ridges.

Happo is probably number one if you’re going to take it from the beginning all the way through to the end. Spring is mind-blowingly incredible. So much to hike off there.”

“If you’ve been following [Norwegian snowboarding legend] Terje Hawkinson, he’s made Hakuba home and is putting up some crazy videos. We’re mostly riding the same things, but where he can pop a 360 out of nowhere I’m basically skiing the powder.”

Best resorts outside Hakuba?

With trips to 50 ski resorts in Japan, it would be a missed opportunity not to ask Nick where his favourite spots outside Hakuba are.

“I think the best resort in Japan for tree skiing is Nozawa Onsen”, he says.

“If you were going to ask me: storm, powder day, skiing in Japan – that would be my answer.

“And I really like Tenjindaira for backcountry. You can do a lot there. I was better a long time ago before they realised everyone was skiing under the ropeway. Now they close [that area] when there’s really heavy snow. ”

Zao is another good one, but you’ve got to understand the lift system. If I were to go there I’d want to find someone who knows the place. It’s apparently a good sneaky place where you can get a lot of stuff that nobody else does.”

For information about Nick’s business (and to tap into some of his local knowledge!), visit the Hakuba Powder Lodging website.

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