On most world maps, Japan and Canada are shown at opposite ends of the earth. So, while they're both popular ski destinations in their own right, surely only a crazy person would combine them into one globe-trotting ski safari? For a start, the flight from Tokyo to Vancouver must be at least 13 hours, right? And then you've got the hassle and expense of buying two separate ski passes.
It turns out maps can be deceiving. The flight from Tokyo to Vancouver is actually only 8½ hours. And thanks to Hakuba Valley in Japan joining the Epic Australia Pass last year, pass holders can now ski five consecutive days at the valley's 10 resorts in addition to 10 days at Whistler. All of which means you no longer need to be crazy to combine two of the world's finest ski experiences in the same trip. But what's it like to tackle these two contrasting destinations back-to-back? I selflessly volunteered to find out.
Every time we stop at a traffic light, my taxi driver takes out a small feather duster and carefully runs it over his dashboard. When we reach the hotel, he carefully removes my skis from the roof rack, straightens his immaculate grey suit, bows and then drives off.
Skiing at Hakuba is full of these moments of unadulterated Japanese-ness. One day, I'm buying hot coffee in a can from a vending machine on the slopes; the next, I'm languishing in an onsen surrounded by Japanese men with washcloths balanced on their heads.
Located 270 kilometres northwest of Tokyo on the island of Honshu, Hakuba Valley has 10 ski resorts scattered along the spectacular Japanese Alps. Only two pairs of neighbouring resorts are connected on the mountain (Hakuba 47 and Goryu plus Cortina and Norikura) but there's a free bus system that shuttles skiers between the respective base areas.
While the infrastructure is what a real estate agent might call rustic (think quaint wooden huts and ponderous chairlifts), most of the resorts have automatic base scanners, which at least expedites the initial upload. We're staying at the stylish Hakuba Tokyu Hotel in Wadano, a tranquil, forested neighbourhood that offers convenient access to the nearby resort of Happo One (One is pronounced "oh-ne").
The ski season runs from December to May and on average the valley gets 11 to 13 metres of snow. It's not quite as dry as the legendary powder in Niseko but it's not far behind. Unfortunately, our visit coincides with the warmest February for a decade and two big rainfalls have swept away the best of the fluffy stuff. There's still decent coverage on the higher runs and the upside is we have three days of blue skies and sunshine that has us lunching outside in T-shirts.
Food is a highlight of any trip to Japan and the valley is peppered with authentic local eateries and izakayas (casual bars that also serve snacks). Highlights include the region's trademark soba noodles, served hot in a rich seaweed broth at Maeda; some sublime sashimi at a restored 17th-century farmhouse called Shouya Maruhachi; and the spicy fried chicken at Sarugaku.
One thing you won't find here is a riotous apres scene. The liveliest neighbourhood is Echoland but even here the bars are mostly intimate, low-key affairs – no Aspen-style champagne-spraying in these parts.
Away from the slopes, it's sometimes easy to forget you're in a ski resort at all. There are no buildings over eight storeys high and a sole Subway is the only US chain. A stroll around Happo village reveals a perplexing architectural mishmash of lantern-adorned Japanese dwellings, Swiss-style chalets and several concrete monstrosities that look like they've been imported from Kazakhstan. There are some interesting historical sites, too, such as Hosono Suwa, a beautiful Shinto shrine surrounded by towering 800-year-old cedars.
All in all, the atmosphere is low-key and relaxed. Locals still buy their red bean paste buns from the bakery in the village and you'll often see people washing their feet in the hot water baths scattered around town. One day I'm chatting with an English-speaking local on a chairlift and he sums it up perfectly: "Basically, we're a town, not a resort."
Whistler Blackcomb, on the other hand, is very much a resort – a slick, billion-dollar masterclass in service and convenience. Spread across the neighbouring mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb, North America's biggest ski resort boasts more than 3000 hectares of skiable terrain, including three glaciers and 16 alpine bowls.
Since buying the resort in 2016, Vail Resorts has spent $C66 million (About $61 million) on infrastructure improvements, the fruits of which were unveiled last season. Several lifts were upgraded but the biggest addition is a new 10-person gondola that can whisk 4000 people an hour from the Upper Village base area to the summit of Blackcomb. From there, you can take the spectacular 4.4-kilometre-long Peak 2 Peak gondola across to the summit of Whistler, which in turn is served by its own eight-person gondola from the Main Village base. Together they comprise the world's first interconnected three-gondola network.
We're staying at the Four Seasons, which – true to the brand – delivers four days of flawless pampering.
The 273-room property is a five-minute walk from the Upper Village where there's a dedicated Four Seasons ski concierge. When we finish skiing for the day, we hand in our skis, boots and poles, grab a complimentary hot chocolate and a freshly baked cookie and stroll back to the hotel. The next day all our gear is ready and waiting – skis arranged alphabetically on the rack outside; boots pre-warmed in the changing area.
Whistler's apres scene is legendary – particularly at venues such as Longhorn in the Main Village, which has live bands and DJs every night. For a more sophisticated vibe, the recently renovated Garibaldi Lift Company serves classy cocktails and comfort food on an elevated balcony with cosy fire pits.
Perhaps the only thing more challenging than exploring all of the resort's extraordinary variety of terrain is deciding where to eat. There's a dizzying range of choice, from high-end steakhouses, such as Sidecut at the Four Seasons, to Swiss-inspired fondue joints, such as The Chalet at The Fairmont. The same applies on mountain, where there's everything from cavernous food halls to fancy fine-dining.
Whistler's proximity to the coast (it's only 120 kilometres from Vancouver) means it doesn't get Japan's blow-off-your-hand powder. Nevertheless, it still gets 11 metres of snow a year and we're blessed with a good dump during our stay. Following our instructor Max, we slalom between snow-covered fir trees, drop into yawning bowls and finish with an exhilarating, thigh-testing dash down the 11-kilometre-long Peak to Creek.
Like many of the resort's ski instructors (and what feels like every guide, chairlift operator and server I speak to), Max is from Australia. The resort is a magnet for Aussie skiers and workers. Depending on your outlook, this will either be a comforting dose of familiarity or an unwelcome reminder of home.
Either way, you'll never be far from a decent flat white.
Skiing Hakuba and Whistler back-to-back has been an interesting lesson in contrasts. It's hard to imagine two more different resorts. And, of course, that's the appeal. Both are compelling destinations in their own right; together they showcase the diversity that makes travel so intriguing.
FIVE MORE RESORTS TO TRY
Known for its tree skiing and incredible powder snow, Rusutsu is a quieter alternative to Niseko. See ski-rusutsu.com
Want to ski in Nevada one day and California the next? Heavenly straddles both states, offering glorious tree skiing and sublime views of Lake Tahoe. See skiheavenly.com
Vail Resorts snapped up this Colorado resort last year so Epic Australia Pass holders can now enjoy its challenging terrain and quaint Victorian town. See skicb.com
Want to stay closer to home? Victoria's Falls Creek has the best ski-in/ski-out accommodation in Australia, making it ideal for families and beginners. See fallscreek.com.au
Located in the north of Vermont, this upscale, family-friendly resort has 70 kilometres of runs, including plenty of cruisers for intermediates. See stowe.com
The Epic Australia Pass provides unlimited access to Perisher, Falls Creek and Hotham (subject to approval) plus use of another 17 resorts, including 10 days combined at Whistler, Vail and Beaver Creek, and five consecutive days at Hakuba and Rusutsu. See epicaustraliapass.com.au
Ski Max has 12-night packages to Whistler and Hakuba including flights, accommodation and an Epic Local ski pass from $4599 per person. See skimax.com.au
Rob McFarland was a guest of Vail Resorts.