Hakuba has in recent years become synonymous with the seasonal influx of international snow chasers (predominantly Aussies) looking to tear up the country’s powder-dusted slopes and party a little too hard. Oh, and the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. However, these gorgeous alps nestled in Nagano Prefecture offer more than its reputation.

It would be fair to argue that the area is just as impressive in the “off” summer season, when the crowds have long left, the convenience stores have been restocked with Strong Zeros (not that you need them), and the mountains have well and truly thawed, transforming the area from ski resort to scenic summer escape.

One of the biggest benefits of visiting Hakuba in summer is that it is a refreshing retreat from the sweltering concrete heat of Japan’s main cities. However, unlike relatively dry Hokkaido up north—another popular snow destination that’s excellent for summer fun—Nagano Prefecture is in mainland Japan, so it does get humid. The warmest time of year is between late June and mid-September, when the average daily temperature hovers anywhere between 18 and 27 degrees Celsius.

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Hakuba summer highlights

Stunning lakes

Scenic summer landscape in Hakuba Nagano Japan
Photo by iStock.com/kimonofish

One of Hakuba’s most iconic summer features is also very much overlooked in winter—for obvious reasons—and that’s the area’s stunning lakes. With pristine, clear water, flanked by lush, untamed forests, and home to plenty of water sports opportunities, it’s worth a visit for the lakes alone. There are four main lakes: Lake Aoki, Lake Nakatsuna, Lake Kisaki, and Happo-ike Pond.

woman on stand up paddle board as the sunsets
Photo by IStock.com/sketchyT

Located not far from the city of Omachi, Lake Kisaki is a popular destination for those looking to try water sports like SUP and kayaking. For those who want to make the most of the outdoors, there’s a campsite located on the west side of the lake too.

Just north of Kisaki sits the heart-shaped Lake Aoki, another popular spot for water sports and swimming. It’s more popular than Kisaki—but not crowded—making it hard to miss, and probably the best out of all four lakes for those looking to spend a day or half-day by the water. There are SUP and kayak rental stores dotted around the lake for easy rental access.

lake-nakatsuna-spring-cherry-blossoms hakuba
If you’re in the area in the spring instead of summer, Lake Nakatsuna is a wonderful spot for cherry blossoms | Photo by iStock.com/tak-photo

Lake Nakatsuna and Happo-ike Pond are more sightseeing destinations than water sports centers. If you’re into fishing, Nakatsuna Lake is a popular fishing spot, and it hosts the annual Lake Nakatsuna Crucian Carp Fishing Competition on the third Sunday of June.

Happo-ike Pond at Happo-one in Hakuba, Nagano
Happo-ike Pond at Happo-one in Hakuba, Nagano | Photo by iStock.com/Hiro1775

Happo-ike Pond is located within the perimeters of Hakuba’s famous Happo-ike ski resort, nestled in the high, and sometimes summer snow-dusted, mountains. It’s a hiking destination that can be reached via a 90-minute, 1.5 km hike from the highest chair lift. From the pond, there’s an opportunity to go farther and scale the 2,696-meter-high Mt. Karamatsu for even better views, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

Excellent hikes

Mt.Karamatsu in summer
Mt. Karamatsu | Photo by iStock.com/Hiro1775

Mt. Karamatsu

Given the landscape of Hakuba, plus the milder climate, it makes sense that the area is a hiking haven. There are trails all over the place for all levels of hikers, but let’s start with Mt. Karamatsu, the aforementioned mountain whose trail extends beyond the Happo-ike Pond trek. Happo-one is a great place to start your hiking journey, and the area even has a route guide (PDF here) in English, which is an excellent tool for planning your journey. From Happo-ike Sanso to Happo-ike Pond, it’s a doable hike, about 90 minutes, and clocking in around 1.5 km. For casual hikers, the three-hour round trip is probably enough, but for more adventurous folk, it’s from here the real fun—Mt. Karamatsu—begins.

Happo-one mountain hikers in summer
Photo by iStock.com/7maru

The trail continues on from Hakuba-ike Pond, and to reach the top of Mt. Karamatsu takes an additional two hours each way, meaning that to go the entire route from Happo-ike Sanso, it’s about a 7-hour journey. This trek is popular with school groups in the summer, so chances are you won’t be hiking solo. It is challenging, but not pro-level difficult, so if you’ve got good shoes and a reasonable level of fitness, you should be fine.

Iwatake Day Hike

Another slightly more casual option is Iwatake Day Hike, which sits on the south side of the Iwatake Ski Resort. The trail runs for a little under 5 km, and is a mix of gravel roads, forested paths, and mountain hikes. It takes about 2–3 hours each way and is suitable for mid-level hikers. Plus, if you’re tired once you get to the top, there’s always the option of taking the gondola back down. Also, a nice little tip, the path goes past the Hakuba Brew Pub for those who want to treat themselves on the way back down. We’d recommend you pack a lunch to enjoy at Tengu no Niwa, the halfway rest stop.

The Asuza riverChubu-Sangaku National Park
Photo by iStock.com/Eric Deveaux

Chubu-Sangaku National Park

If you want to explore further, check out Chubu-Sangaku National Park, home to the iconic alps of Kamikochi. This national park is lined with hiking trails and paths for all levels, including the Nishiho Trail, a mid-high intensity trail that crosses over from Nagano to Gifu Prefecture.

pathway through Tsugaike natural garden
Photo by iStock.com

Tsugaike Natural Garden

Still in Nagano, Tsugaike Natural Garden is another excellent option. The park is lined with options, from mountainous hikes to boardwalk paths for those more into taking it easy and taking in the views.

Endless adventure activities

Given how popular a destination Nagano has become for winter sports, a multitude of businesses have set up shop in the area, and in summer, many of them transform into outdoor tour operators and adventure sports outlets. There are a lot of operators offering a variety of activities, with plenty posting information online in English.

We don’t want to give any preference in terms of selecting businesses because where you go will depend on who’s open and in what area you’re based. However, we do recommend a few experiences, such as mountain biking, as it’s a great way to see the region and try something that you don’t have that many opportunities to experience outside of the region. Canoeing and kayaking, as mentioned, are excellent ways to cool off and take in the pristine beauty of the area, while those who want to live life on edge should try canyoning. For the uninitiated, canyoning is essentially a hybrid of bouldering and shooting down naturally formed waterslides of Nagano’s rivers. Go Nagano is a great resource with information on local tour operators, so check it out for more information.

Day trips from Hakuba

Given how much there is to do in Hakuba, staying in the area for a week or more—the usual length of time for winter guests—is definitely worth considering. If you want to take a day off from hiking, swimming, or exploring the more adventurous side of the area, the region is also ideally located between some excellent local sights.

Matsumoto is the first one, and by now, the city is not much of a secret but well worth a visit at least once. The castle city is a quaint taste of traditional Japan mixed with more modern elements, like stylish cafes and backpacker-populated guesthouses. Looking beyond the city’s famous landmark Matsumoto Castle, be sure to check out the charming Honmachi and Daimyocho streets, which are lined with old traditional-style houses turned street food shops and cafes.

Zenkoji Temple entrance with visitors approaching
Photo by iStock.com/thanyarat07

Zenkoji Temple situated in central Nagano is another worthy day-trip destination. It’s home to Japan’s first-ever Buddhist statue and is considered one of the country’s most important temples. Surrounding the temple, you’ll find the Nakamise temple approach, which, like many temple streets, is lined with vendors selling souvenirs and excellent local food.

Photo by iStock.com/blanscape

If that’s not enough old-world charm for you, you can also always make a little trip to the Nakasendo Trail’s most famous areas nestled in the picturesque Kiso Valley, Magome and Tsumago. Check out our comprehensive guide on the area.

Honorable mention

For those fond of a craft brew or two, keep an eye out for the local tipples from Hakuba Brewing Company. The brewery produces five different beers using water from the region. However, one of the biggest draws of this brewery is the fact that it’s Japan’s only 100% emission-free brewery.

How to get to Hakuba

If you have your international (or Japanese) driver’s license, exploring Hakuba by car is the easiest and most convenient way to cover all the bases. It takes about 4–4.5 hours to reach Hakuba by car directly from Tokyo. If you don’t want to drive all that way, another convenient option is to take the JR Chuo Line Limited Express Azusa 37 train from Shinjuku Station to Matsumoto Station (2.5 hours), rent a car in Matsumoto, and drive the additional 1–1.5 hours. However, it is worth noting areas like Chubusangaku National Park can only be accessed by bus. There’s a car park site and bus service running from outside the park to the center of the park.

Alternatively, you can get to Hakuba via a mix of public transport options, and there are a few. Following the Matsumoto route, you can take the JR Chuo Line Limited Express Azusa 37 to Matsumoto and transfer to the JR Oito Line (local train) to Hakuba. The other option is to take the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano and at Nagano switch to an express bus to Hakuba.

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