Travel – A Ski Holiday and Wellness Retreat in One at Nozawa Onsen
By Alex Parsons
The hot spring waters of Nozawa Onsen are said to have special healing properties. From quelling mental stress to soothing aches and pains, the steaming bath houses are beacons of wellness, frequented by Japanese locals and curious tourists alike.
Nozawa Onsen also happens to be a ski town with some of the world’s best powder snow, modern facilities and a village full of Japanese culture and tradition. Rarely do you equate ski resorts with the Zen feeling of a day spa or wellness retreat – yet that is precisely what the Japanese ski town of Nozawa Onsen offers.
The hot springs of Nozawa Onsen
The word onsen means hot spring and to have it included in a town’s name is a great honour in Japan. Nozawa Onsen gained its name due to the natural hot spring water that runs underground from the mountain, down to the steaming canals of the village. It is a winter dream to walk about the town in December, January, February and March. The roofs of local inns are heavy with snow, the temples dusted with icing sugar. And everywhere the sound of running water, winding its way to the beautiful hot spring buildings that are dotted around town.
There are 13 public hot spring buildings in Nozawa Onsen. These are maintained by the villagers and are free to use, although donations are always welcome. Each hot spring bath is different, with unique architecture ranging from the small, traditional wooden buildings to newer concrete affairs. Everyone has slightly different coloured water, from opaque white to clear green, often with floating sediments in the water. This is testament to the mix of minerals that each underground spring picks up on its way down from the mountains.
No trip to Nozawa Onsen is complete without experiencing the hot springs after a big day of skiing and snowboarding. It is tradition to bathe naked in the public onsen, with men and women separated. However, if you’d prefer to go with your family or are uncomfortable with nudity then the Sparena complex is a great alternative. There’s an outdoor heated bath and upstairs onsen where families, couples and friends can all relax together in their swimwear. Sparena also has extensive indoor bath and shower facilities (these are again gender separated and clothes not needed), as well as a restaurant with excellent pizza and brilliant sunset views of the mountains.
Traditional and modern accommodation
One of the best things about Nozawa Onsen is that everything is within walking distance. There are over 200 different accommodation options, all within a short distance of restaurants, ski lifts and hot springs.
Nozawa’s hotels are predominantly Japanese ryokans with tatami mats, futons and delicious multi-course meals prepared daily by the families that run them. You’ll likely get a chance to try the locally grown vegetable, Nozawana, as part of these dishes. It’s a leafy green vegetable usually served pickled with salt, and occasionally on pizza. Staying at these ryokans is a great way to learn about Japanese culture and interact with the locals.
Increasingly, there are more self-contained apartments in Nozawa Onsen. These tend to be run by Australian companies where all the staff speak English and the experience is more familiar. There are no high-rise buildings or chain hotels in Nozawa Onsen, ensuring that the village holds on to its traditional Japanese charm.
Nozawa Onsen is a living, breathing Japanese town with plenty of things to do other than skiing. This is a real plus when you (or the kids) need a rest day or the weather is getting stormy. Just walking down the main street is a treat as you explore the shops. You’ll see steamed buns cooking, the famous Nagano apples, ski shops, cafes full of local produce and plenty of fun souvenirs to delight your friends and family back home.
Nozawa Onsen is proud of its traditional crafts so you can take part in workshops like soba noodle making or vine weaving. Soba noodles are a specialty of the Nagano area and the great thing about this workshop is that you get to eat what you make! The weaving workshop focuses on the Akebi vine that grows in the nearby mountains and is soaked in the hot spring water in order to make baskets and little toys.
If you’re after something more adventurous, try snow shoe walking tours or a snow cat tour on the mountain. Around town, the local tourism office provides a stamp book that can be used to do rubbings at each of the hot spring baths and you receive a free gift for completing them all. This is a great way to see the entire town as Nozawa Onsen is full of little nooks and crannies. You’ll likely discover a new favourite restaurant, a hidden temple or the brilliant Shin Yu chairlift designed for foot passengers.
One of the highlights of each winter, Dosojin Fire Festival, which is held on January 15 each year. It has been a significant fixture in Nozawa’s cultural life since 1863 where prayers are offered up to the deity Dosojin, gods that protect villagers from harm and bring them happiness and healthy children. On the night of January 15 male villagers light torches from a bonfire and set fire to the festivals shaden a large wooden shrine which has been endowed with the spirit of Dosojin by a local priest. The shadenis defended by the 25-year-old and 42-year-old males of the village, the “unlucky” ages in Japanese superstition, in a mock battle that is one of the most impressive spectacles you may ever witness.
For a deeper understanding of Nozawa’s ski history, head to the Japan Ski Museum. It has equipment and memorabilia from 100 years ago, including when Hannes Schneider brought the Arlberg skiing technique to Nozawa Onsen in the 1930s. The village was also a venue for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, so there’s lots to learn.
Apres – bars and restaurants
Nozawa Onsen has well over 30 restaurants to choose from. These are all within walking distance of most accommodation options, although there are some restaurants on the mountain itself. The Japanese food is made by the local families, many of whom have lived in the village for generations. There’s delicious ramen, sushi, nabe, okonomiyaki, udon, soba and more. Meanwhile, some convenient western options like pizza, burgers and Mexican have cropped up recently. There are frequently vegetarian and even vegan friendly options now. Nozawa’s village caters mostly to family-friendly cheap and intermediate budgets, with a few high-class options available.
When it comes to bars, Nozawa Onsen specialises in tiny, charming bars. There are plenty of karaoke options and the odd bar with a nightclub feel. Bar hopping in Nozawa Onsen is great fun because everything is within walking distance. You can dart between different drinking dens with your mates, marvelling at the powder snow illuminated in the street lights as you go.
Nozawa Onsen has a new gondola that opened for the 2020/21 season. This engineering feat takes people to the upper reaches of the mountain in just eight minutes, all in the sheltered comfort of a gondola cabin that seats 10.
One of the great things about Nozawa Onsen as a ski resort is that is has terrain for all abilities. With 36 runs in total, 40% of them are for beginners, while the rest of the terrain is split between intermediate and advanced runs. Nozawa’s terrain doesn’t limit beginners to the bottom of the mountain either, with two of the widest green runs accessible from the top of the gondolas. It’s a great pleasure for beginners to get the full mountain experience with a fun gondola ride, stunning views of the Nagano Alps and easy runs among the snow-covered trees.
Nozawa has great progression from beginner to intermediate runs and safe terrain without any sudden cliffs or rocks. Intermediate skiers and riders can enjoy the Mt Kenashi area right at the top of the mountain at 1650m.Then there’s the 4.5km Sky Line run, a real leg burner with excellent views of the town.
If you’re looking to progress your skills, there is a dedicated English-speaking ski school with highly qualified instructors at Nozawa Ski School. Plus, that powder is great for learning on! Nozawa has a real focus on looking after kids so there’s a brilliant kid’s park at the Hikage base that can be used for free. It includes a jumping castle, slide, tubing, a zip line and day care all in one place. The Nozawa Ski School also runs out of this area, so everything is conveniently in one location.
For the more advanced skiers and riders, Nozawa offers 300 hectares of terrain and 1,085 metres in vertical drop with tree runs, bumps and amazing untracked backcountry options. The Ski School runs excellent backcountry tours to suit different abilities, including easier chairlift-accessed backcountry or big adventure days that promise untracked powder and a car pickup at the end.
Nozawa Onsen needs to be on your skiing bucket list. Few places in the world make you feel so utterly full of awe with how beautiful they are. That’s the charm of Nozawa Onsen. A town with adventure, bucket loads of powder snow, traditional Japanese culture and a vibe that makes you feel like you’re miles away from the stresses of daily life.
Nozawa Onsen is easily accessible from Tokyo. You can fly into either Haneda or Narita International Airports in Tokyo and then you have a few options for making your way to Nozawa. You can take a direct coach transfer, private shuttle or the famous Shinkansen bullet train to liyama station for a connection with the Nozawa Onsen Liner Bus.
JR EAST (East Japan Railway Company) offers a convenient train pass which can be booked in a package with Liquid Snow Tours. The train map can be found here.