January 16, 2022


The Trip Encyclopedia

Nozawa Onsen, Japan – By Louise Hudson

Skiing Japan is on every dedicated downhiller’s bucket list but with so many resorts to choose from, such a long journey, a vibrant but bewildering culture, and obvious language barriers, what is the easiest way to do it? Scout (www.scoutski.com) is a customizable tour operator, which takes out the inherent hassles and potential for faux pas. As well as tailoring the trip with accommodation scouting and reservations, travel, skiing and other activities and attractions, Scout’s Sarah Plaskitt provides a thorough etiquette guide (http://scoutski.com/staying-in-a-japanese-hotel) to ease the transition into the complex culture. One of her top resorts is Nozawa Onsen, Japan’s first ever ski resort in the Nagano prefecture, where the 1998 Olympic Games were held. Twinned with St Anton, Austria, here are some hedonistic highlights from the Honshu Region’s foremost ski resort.

1. Snowy ski scene from Nozawa Onsen

[rel_attraction_big_picture title=”Snowy ski scene from Nozawa Onsen”]
It’s all about the snow quality in Japan’s Eastern Alps, not to mention the quantity. It is so light that you literally scythe through it with skis or boards, making it the fluffiest hero snow you’ve ever experienced. Signage around Nozawa Onsen’s three interlinked areas is in English so don’t worry in a whiteout, you can still make your way around. At an elevation of 1085 metres, there are over 50km of trails over 297 hectares.

2. Nozawa Onsen’s long moving walkway takes out the trudging

[rel_attraction_big_picture title=”Nozawa Onsen’s long moving walkway takes out the trudging”]
Saving Energy: Because Nozawa Onsen is set on magnificent mountain sides, there is quite a lot of uphill schlepping, both to the ski station and around town. But they have come up with a few innovative solutions. One is the really long moving walkway (Yu-road), which means you can relax en route to and from the ski lifts. It’s also covered so you don’t get soaked or cold, and gives a good opportunity to chat with locals.

3. St Anton Rentals for renting clothing as well as equipment

[rel_attraction_big_picture title=”St Anton Rentals for renting clothing as well as equipment”]
If you’re traveling to Japan for a long, multi-centre, multi-activity vacation, you might not want to bring your skis and boots with you. Solution: St Anton Rentals (http://st-anton.jp/rental/), which is right at the Hikage ski hill base. Here you can rent the entire ski outfit – including ski pants, jackets, gloves, helmets, skis, poles, snowboards and boots. Great quality equipment including Rossignol skis and very colourful ski outfits so you won’t lose each other on the snowy slopes. Remember to bring your own socks and thermals, otherwise you’ll have to buy those or improvise!

4. Dosojin Shrine at Nozawa Onsen

[rel_attraction_big_picture title=”Dosojin Shrine at Nozawa Onsen”]
With history dating back to the 8th century, a visit to Nozawa Onsen would not be complete without a cultural appreciation. Since the Edo period, the town at the foot of the Kenashi-yama Mountain has been famous for hot springs, traditional inns, temples, shrines and festivals. If you go in mid January, you’ll be able to attend one of Japan’s top events, the celebrated Dosoujin Fire Festival. Dosojin are the deities of roads and borders, so you’ll see their stone statues enshrined at the village borders.

5. Chairlift at Nozawa Onsen

[rel_attraction_big_picture title=”Chairlift at Nozawa Onsen”]
Although the culture of Japan can seem exotic and strange, the ski area is a cozy comfort zone for every skier and snowboarder. Everything suddenly seems familiar, including the lengthy lift system, ski school, kids’ day care, rental shops, mountain eateries, groomed runs, tree lines, mogul runs, terrain park, and general ski hill layout. There are 21 lifts which start mid December and run until early May. Slopes are 40 % beginner, 30 % intermediate and 30 % expert.

6. Buna Mountain Restaurant, Nozawa Onsen

[rel_attraction_big_picture title=”Buna Mountain Restaurant, Nozawa Onsen”]
Just like its European counterpart, Nozawa Onsen has embraced the on-mountain eatery concept and there are myriad choices, with both Japanese and Western fare at more than 20 outlets. On the side of Paradise run from the Hikage Gondola, Buna is a cute, hexagonal-shaped cabin with an Alpine feel, complete with drying racks for coats and accessories and roaring fire and panoramic windows for onslope people-watching. Here you’ll see people eating anything from sushi to noodle dishes to chocolate fudge cake at any time of the day. Touting a hearty ski food menu, the Ueno family has run Buna for many years and their three sons are top skiers in Japan.

7. Ryokan Sakaya

[rel_attraction_big_picture title=”Ryokan Sakaya”]
Luxurious and laid back, the Ryokan Sakaya (http://scoutski.com/ryokan-sakaya) is a prime example of a traditional Japanese inn, complete with spa-like onsens (communal hot baths). The onsens are inside the resort’s ritziest ryokan, exclusive for guests, and feature several indoor and decadent outdoor pools: all steamy, sultry and relaxing, especially after a long day’s skiing. There’s also a private onsen that can be reserved for couples or families. Overlooking a peaceful, snowy Japanese garden, the lobby is thoughtfully equipped with slippers as well as an array of rubber boots, outdoor footwear and umbrellas for après ski comfort. Outdoors and inside there are dozens of Japanese artifacts, ceramics and artwork and the ryokan is just a three-minute walk to the Kenmei-ji Temple. The authentic bedrooms feature futon beds with rice-filled pillows, tatami mat floors, wooden ceilings, paper screen doors, and tiny but well-equipped en suite bathrooms (complete with specific bathroom slippers). Guests, who are greeted with a private in-room tea ceremony, are provided with yukatas (kimono-like his and her robes) to wear around the hotel and to the onsens, sauna and full-service spa. Other features include green tea maker, safe, internet, communal washer/dryer, and free parking. And there are Western bedrooms for those who can’t fathom a futon! Food is top quality with a full Japanese and western breakfast included and an award-winning, signature banquet dinner served in the Chabo Chanmero dining room by reservation only.

8. Kaiseki banquet

[rel_attraction_big_picture title=”Kaiseki banquet”]
Originally built as a sake factory in the Edo period, Sakaya Ryokan is now famous for rich food ideal for pairing with sake. The Kaiseki(multi-course) banquet is the best way to sample a wide selection of local traditional fare. Scout (www.scoutski.com) recommends choosing its dinner-inclusive package in order to experience what is considered the best food in town. Originally a vegetarian feast, a Kaiseki meal today can include meat (such as Japanese hot pot) and grilled fish as well as appetizers, soup, simmered vegetables, Japanese pickles, rice and dessert. In order not to miss out on this culinary highlight, another Scout (www.scoutski.com) advisory is ‘Book Early’! Most Japanese accommodation is booked out by the previous June, so make plans a good six to 12 months ahead of time if you want to experience Nozawa Onsen to the full.

9. Oyaki Dumplings in Nozawa Onsen

[rel_attraction_big_picture title=”Oyaki Dumplings in Nozawa Onsen”]
Although conventional après ski bars, serving drinks and food, are dotted around town, much après ski munching happens at al fresco eateries which front many of the stores. Expect to find lots of steaming boxes of Nagano Prefecture delicacy, oyaki, which is a fermented buckwheatdumpling stuffed with vegetables, fruit, or anko bean paste and roasted on an iron pan. In the centre of town, there’s Ogama Onsen, a 90 degree Celsius outdoor hot spring (reserved for locals, but visitors can watch) for boiling vegetables, eggs and local specialities.

10. Clean Streets in Nozawa Onsen

[rel_attraction_big_picture title=”Clean Streets in Nozawa Onsen”]
The same natural hot water is also used in a recycling system to keep streets clear of snow, making it much easier to walk around after skiing. Local residents and business owners pipe the water from the springs which border each side of the tiny, hillside streets and then hose it onto their forecourts. So, even when the roofs sport considerable cornices, the streets below are ice and snow-free.

11. Outdoor foot bath

[rel_attraction_big_picture title=”Outdoor foot bath”]
Diagonally opposite Oyu, Nozawa’s top public onsen, is one of the town’s famous foot baths. Bring a towel in your backpack after skiing so you can take advantage of it to salve sore or icy feet en route to your hotel. There’s another one outside the Ryokan Sakaya. And there are dozens of onsens open to the public scattered around town. Also, many ryokans open their onsens to non-residents for a fee. The gritty minerals in the natural hot-springs water have many health benefits, making the onsens even more valuable after an arduous day’s skiing or riding.

12. Snow Monkeys

[rel_attraction_big_picture title=”Snow Monkeys”]
No stay in Nozawa Onsen is complete without a side trip to see the Snow Monkeys luxuriating in their own natural onsens at Jigokudani Monkey Park. Guided tours, to the snow-dusted indigenous environment of wild Macaque Monkeys, reveal simian siblings bathing in the steamy pools and cavorting on the surrounding rocks. There are mothers nursing babies, spouses grooming each other and all sorts of splashing and squabbles while others tranquilly soak up the heat. The tours are typically combined with a visit to nearby Shibu Onsen Village where the mischievous macaques often forage for food.