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Northern Shinshu’s Secret Stash

A weak yen, revenge travel and epic ski conditions mean popular resorts like Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen are mostly booked out this year in high and peak season. However savvy powder seekers, fear not, as Japan has countless small, charming ski villages, like Togari Onsen—a snowball’s throw across the valley from Nozawa Onsen and just down the road from Madarao. 

Togari Onsen has long hidden in the shadows of its neighboring resorts in northern Shinshu, but as winter travelers start looking beyond the more prominent ski towns, lesser-known ski areas are seeing a resurgence of guests as well as people looking to reside in Japan’s countryside.

Togari Onsen Snow Resort is nestled in the Sekita Mountains bordering Nagano and Niigata prefectures. Lying on the outskirts of Iiyama on the other side of the Chikuma River from Nozawa Onsen, it’s not as crowded as its more famous neighbors, but it is easily accessible, just 30 minutes by bus from Iiyama Station. Like many resorts nearby, it’s blessed with natural onsen (hot springs) and plenty of snow in January and February.

Togari Onsen is an ancient farming village where some locals can trace their genealogy back 1,000 years. It’s one of the snowiest regions in Japan and the ski hill at Togari Onsen was funded, planned and built by locals wanting to create a sustainable business for the community year round.

It is a medium-sized resort with four lifts, thirteen courses and 650 meters of vertical descent. The mountain is south-facing, so on sunny days the snow will melt quicker and there is less powder compared to other north-facing resorts. However when the snow is deep, you’ll often have the powder stashes all to yourself.

Togari is recommended for intermediate riders as there are friendly tree runs good for leveling up, and there is a great selection of terrain for beginners as well as some expert runs. There is also an all-season banked slalom course, with an annual competition Mar. 9-10. On Mar. 2, there is a fireworks and taiko drumming festival on the slopes. 

togari onsen outdoor japan

The ski resort is roughly divided into “Pegasus” on the left side (if you’re facing the mountain) and “Tonpei” at the top. The base of the Pegasus slope is where Akatsuki no Yu (hot spring) is located, as well as a rest house and kids’ room. Tonpei, further up, has courses for all levels and offers bird’s eye views of the valley below and Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort on the other side of the valley. If you’re lucky, you might even see unkai—the sea of clouds, below.

The Snow Vacance area (originally the Orion Lift) is on the right side of the mountain if you are looking up. After budget cutbacks in 2021, the two lifts here were closed and this area was repurposed for various snow-related activities. However, you can still access it from the top and it makes for a great ungroomed run. There is a free shuttle bus that goes between here and the main Pegasus Base. It doesn’t run on a timetable, rather it goes whenever someone gets on.

togari onsen outdoor japan

Compared to surrounding resorts, Togari Onsen is a steal at ¥4,500 for a full-day adult pass. You can even rent out the whole resort for a night for just ¥50,000!

WINTER ACTIVITIES GALORE

Togari Onsen is also home to Japan’s first downhill fatbike park. Cyclists can put their fat bikes on the lift (Pegasus area) and enjoy a 2,000-meter course and two or three laps during the resort’s half-day tours. The tour includes bike and helmet rentals, lift fee and insurance for ¥5,000. There are also strider snow bikes for small children.

After an active day out on the slopes, unwind at Akatsuki no Yu (Pegasus area) or Nozomi no Yu hot spring (Snow Vacance area). The slightly alkaline waters are said to beautify skin and there is even a scenic rotenburo (outdoor bath) at Akatsuki no Yu. Both hot springs are ¥650 per adult and a minute-walk from the base.

A ten-minute drive from the resort is Kamakura Village—a pop-up igloo-style restaurant in Shinano-daira. Every year for a limited time from the end of January to February, 20 frozen huts are open for a unique dining experience. There is also a sledding area for kids. At night, lanterns illuminate the igloos. 

togari onsen outdoor japan

Warm up inside with noroshi nabe, a hot pot made with a Nagano miso base, locally grown vegetables and mushrooms—and Iiyama Town’s special Miyuki pork. The hot pot’s name originates from the Sengoku Period (1467-1603) when a feudal lord established noroshi (signal fires) on the nearby Mt. Kuroiwa. Today, the fire theme carries on with a Narazawa Daitengu (mythical big-nosed goblin) fire dance which closes the pop-up igloo event on the last Saturday of their opening period.

Bookings start in December; lunch costs ¥5,500 and dinner ¥6,000 for adults. There is a shuttle service to and from the Kamakura Village if you book the accommodation plan. For more information, visit their website here.

DINE AND STAY

Togari Onsen Snow Resort has six dining options offering your typical Japanese ski resort fare, such as curry rice, ramen and more. Keep in mind Togari Onsen is a small village, so while not plentiful, you can also find eateries around town serving soba noodles, Thai food and yakitori (chicken skewers), as well as several cafes, bars and a grocery.

togari onsen outdoor japan

You can also sign up for a cooking class with a local family and make soba noodles or sasazushi (local vegetarian sushi) using pickled ginger, walnuts and mushrooms served on a bamboo sasa leaf. In the green season, you can even harvest ingredients with locals.

togari onsen outdoor japan

The snowmelt also provides abundant natural spring water, excellent for brewing sake. Kadoguchi Sake Brewery produces Hokko Masamune sake, which locals enjoy using for atsukan (hot sake). Their rival brewery, Tanakaya Sake Brewery located in Iiyama City is known for its chilled Mizuo sake. You can sign up for the cooking class and brewery tour through MTN Holidays, an accommodation and tour company run by Lianne (from the U.K.) and Sam (U.S.) Buchanan. 

togari onsen outdoor japan

Originally teachers in the area, the couple fell in love with skiing here. While they first looked into moving to Nozawa Onsen, they settled in Togari as it offered quieter lift lines and bigger properties suited to their dream—a farm to grow vegetables, raise chickens and goats. While they provide property consulting and management services, they also help the local community attract new guests while focusing on rural regeneration. They offer ski lessons and guiding services in English at Togari Onsen, Madarao and Nozawa Onsen. During the green season, Lianne is a tour guide and offers e-bike tours.

There are affordable accommodation options including the homely Hoshi no Shuku, which is located right at the base of the Pegasus slope and costs ¥4,000 per adult. For families and bigger groups, MTN Holidays run year-round vacation rentals. The cozy Togari Cabin has two bedrooms and is fully electric and fossil fuel free. Hunters Gate comfortably fits up to 24 people and is on its way to becoming fossil free by 2025. Slopeside Bekkan sleeps 10 people and Togari Inn is a seven-bedroom apartment for 20 people. To find out more, visit Togari Onsen’s website.

GETTING THERE

Togari Onsen takes less than 30 minutes by bus from Iiyama Station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line. The bus stops at Pegasus, then the Snow Vacance area. You can also take a local train from Iiyama Station to Togari-Nozawaonsen Station and then bus or taxi. If you’re staying at Nozawa Onsen, there are buses running twice a day between the two resorts. The ski resort is open from the end of December to Mar. 24. For more information, visit Togari Onsen’s website.

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