A unique blend of traditional hot spring village atmosphere and modern ski facilities make Nozawa Onsen the quintessential Japanese ski experience.
Travelers revel in stumbling across a secret gem. Nozawa Onsen, quietly tucked away in a picturesque valley in northern Nagano (formerly known as Shinshu), is definitely one of those special places.
Water in all forms is at the heart of this quaint village, from floating steam rising from the village’s natural hot springs (there are 13 free onsen in town) to the soothing sound of fresh mountain streams flowing beside cobblestone streets that lead to the snow-covered slopes.
There are plenty of slopes to enjoy, too. Nozawa Onsen is one of Japan’s original alpine resorts and is still one of the largest (actually the largest single resort in Japan, since many other mountains are shared by different companies). Unlike a lot of ski resorts in Japan, it has a real village atmosphere with a quaint, traditional mountain charm.
The discovery of Nozawa Onsen remains a bit of a mystery. One story tells of a wounded bear revealing them to a hunter. Another claims a monk found the hot springs in 724.
Whichever the case, it was in the Edo Period when Nozawa became famous as a hot spring retreat. There are more than 30 hot springs scattered across the village, all housed in traditional Japanese buildings. They are mostly free to use and are cleaned and maintained by locals who live nearby; most don’t even build baths in their houses, as meeting their neighbors in the local onsen is a daily ritual.
The closer you get to the source at the foot of the temples, the hotter they become. Oyu, on the main street, is the most famous, and it really tests your courage; you can literally boil an egg while you take a soak! It’s the perfect way to recharge the body and soothe the soul after a hard day on the slopes.
The ski resort lies at the foot of Mt. Kenashi (1,650 meters) and receives some of the best snowfall in Honshu with a great mix of powder dumps and sunny days. It’s also one Japan’s oldest resorts.
Austrian Maj. Theodor von Lerch was credited for introducing skiing to Japan in 1911. He visited Nozawa Onsen the following year, yet the ski hill wasn’t established until 1924. Since then Nozawa has been a trailblazer on the Japanese snow scene. The resort was the first in the country to install ski lifts and hosted the biathlon events during the Winter Olympics in 1998.
Before the bubble burst, skiing and snowboarding were booming in Japan, and there were lift lines more than one kilometer long to get on the main gondola at Nozawa. A great deal was invested in infrastructure to cope with the masses of enthusiastic weekend skiers.
As Japan’s economy began to decline, so did the ski population which has since struggled, along with companies who invested during the boom. The good news for guests today is terrific facilities with high-speed chairlifts and gondolas to whisk you up the mountain—and short lift lines as well.
There are two main gondolas at Nozawa (Nagasaka and Hikage), which quickly get skiers and boarders up the hill. The sheer size and variety of terrain, coupled with beautiful scenery, make Nozawa special. There is even a professional ski school with English-speaking instructors and a kid’s crèche. Lift ticket prices are reasonable, and rental equipment is readily available.
While there are some terrific groomed runs, recently people have discovered the great off-piste at Nozawa. There are some easily accessible powder and tree runs, most ending back at a lift where you can do it all again. There is also the option to do some hiking to discover some untouched powder stashes. If you are lucky, you may get a peek of some of the local wildlife including kamushika (like a mountain deer), tanuki (looks like a raccoon) and maybe even a small black bear.
Festivals and Events
Until recently, the resort was owned by the town. All the locals worked as farmers and carpenters in the summer and on the mountain in winter. It has a real community feel, and the people are very genuine and friendly. Although you may at first come for the snow and the onsen, it is the fabulous people who will keep you coming back; they have great pride in their village and traditions. This is reflected in the many unique festivals held in Nozawa Onsen, the most famous being the Dosojin Matsuri (Fire Festival).
This crazy spectacle takes place on the evening of Jan. 15, but the preparation begins long before. Traditionally it’s held to pray for a plentiful harvest, health and good fortune in the year ahead—and hopefully a great ski season. The locals head deep into the forest to drag huge trees down the slopes, singing and sipping on sake along the way.
The trees form the base for the shrine (or shaden) constructed in the village, and a priest then performs a ceremony to endow it with a god. Along with the main shrine there are also an average of five tôrô (dedicatory lantern poles) erected each year. These poles are made by families in the village to celebrate the birth of the first son.
Then, when it comes to the big day, all the 42-year-olds in the village climb to the top of the tower, while the 25-year-olds take their places at the base. The younger men are supposed to defend their elders atop the tower as everyone else in the village charges in with burning sticks.
It is an amazing spectacle, made even wilder by the never ending flow of sake. If you celebrate correctly, you not only get a mighty hangover but also some souvenirs in the form of burned clothing and random body parts. After some fierce battles, the tower eventually goes up in flames, along with the tôrô, as an offering to the gods. The elders from above make their way to safety, and everyone celebrates the coming of age and another successful Dosojin.
The Local Fare
The village atmosphere is a big part of what makes Nozawa Onsen special. At heart, it’s just a laid back farming community (of just 5,000 people). This translates into some delicious local restaurants that cater to locals year round, so prices are reasonable. There are too many eateries to mention all by name, but here are a few personal favorites.
Wan Ryu Ramen: This ramen shop is a great place to relax for a cheap, hearty meal. Ramen is perfect after a hard day skiing, and make sure you try the gyoza (fried dumplings) – best enjoyed with a cold beer!
Akibitei Okonomiyaki: You can’t beat this place for value if you want something that is really going to fill you up. The owner is a super nice guy and he cooks a mean okonmiyaki (Japanese Style pancake) on a hot plate right in front of you. If you feel the need to surf, there’s even a wireless connection.
Kaze no Iie: This is a favorite of those looking for a Western fix. Great Pizza and pasta with a European touch. The owner, Kono-san, is well traveled and always happy to see overseas guests. It’s on the second floor right in the center of town, opposite Oyu, so good for a bit of people watching too.
Nozawa Onsen is located in central Honshu, in northern Nagano. It is a bit tucked away, but well worth the journey. A couple from Tokyo rode their bikes to Nozawa this summer, but there are easier ways to get here.
By Train: From Tokyo, the Shinkansen takes you to Nagano Station in 90 minutes. From Nagano, take the Iiyama Line to Togari Nozawa Onsen Station (55 minutes). It is a 10-minute bus ride from there.
By Bus: There are a number of overnight and day buses from most major Japanese cities for about ¥4,000 per person. From Tokyo, check out http://travel.rakuten.co.jp or from Osaka or Kyoto: www.mywaytours.co.jp.
By Shuttle Bus: There is a great shuttle bus service from Tokyo and Nagoya airports which picks you up at the airport and drops you off at your accommodation in Nozawa. It takes about five hours. Contact Chou Taxi (www.chuotaxi.co.jp/air/mail_nr.html).
By Car: Exit the Joshinetsu Expressway at Iiyama, take Route 17 and follow signs toward Nozawa Onsen. About 4 hours from Tokyo and Nagoya.
After the snow melts, there are plenty of cool things to see and do in Nozawa Onsen. During the Green Season, you can enjoy some beautiful trekking or grab your mountain bike and hit the trails. The hill is a popular take-off point for paragliding as well, and there’s even some exhilarating kayaking below the rapids in the Chikuma River and campground and golf range at Lake Sutaka.
If you want to swim, Arena has an indoor pool with water slides and whirlpools. You might try a hashigozaki (or pub crawl) through town, or better yet an onsen crawl! There are 13 free onsen around town all with different designs, healing powers and temperatures.
Nozawa is also full of little bars and izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) with fun atmosphere and colorful characters. Some favorites include Stay, a bourbon bar on the main street that plays sweet tunes and sometimes has live music. Next door, The Foot can also be fun. If karaoke is your thing, Himecho or Heaven have a good choice of songs. There is also a new bar under Lodge Kouhei with a mellow vibe. It’s a good place discuss the best wipeouts of the day or perhaps hear about some of the elusive powder runs such as the amazing Tanuki Shoot.
NOZAWA SKI RESORT
By the Numbers
Vertical Drop 1,085 meters (3,561 ft.)
Top Elevation 1650 meters (5,415 ft)
Ski able Acres 734
Terrain Beginner 40% / Intermediate 30% / Advanced 30%
Lifts 25 (23 chair lifts / 0 surface lifts)
Cable cars 2
Half Pipe 1
Terrain Park 1
Longest Run Skyline is over 6 km long
Restaurants (on slopes) 25
1-day Ticket ¥4,600 (Child ¥2,100)
Half Day Ticket ¥3,500 (Child ¥1,500)
Nighter (until 8 p.m.) ¥1,500 (Child ¥800)
For more information visit www.nozawaski.com.