Travel Story Enchanting retreat for winter fun

Photo of Vanessa Williams

Japan's winter snow season is having something of an Indian summer.

My heart sinks as I trudge through the slushy, melting snow trickling down the main road that meanders through the quaint Japanese ski village of Nozawa Onsen, on the northern mountainous terrain of the Nagano Prefecture about five hours from Tokyo.

For any avid skier or snowboarder, arriving on the first day to such a sight during peak ski season is disappointing to say the least.

Given January is when Nozawa is most famous for its gloriously soft, powdery slopes, it’s unusual to be met by such a lacklustre start.

With scattered December snowfall barely covering the village let alone producing the mounds of powder we plan to ski down during our stay, I quietly pray for a snow storm to sweep through overnight and replenish Nozawa’s ailing snow levels. 

Somehow, we got lucky.

The next morning, reports stream in that Nozawa has received a whopping 45cm of snow overnight, more than enough powder for a bumper day on the slopes. 

Arriving at the base of the mountain, the powder is fresh and aplenty; the once melting snow that had trickled down the slushy web of roads that weave through the village are now heaped with snow, so much in fact that locals have been out all morning grooming the excess mounds from their driveways.

Dubbed the birthplace of skiing in Japan, the popular alpine sport was introduced to Nozawa in 1912 by Austrian ski pioneer Theodor von Lerch. Today the snow-covered village is bustling with tourists from December through to March.

The mountain peak that looms large over the village rises to a height of 1650m, with the ski area itself lying on the Kenashi-yama, which means “mount no hair”.

Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced skier or snowboarder, Nozawa’s web of predominantly wide, groomed ski trails (with the exception of the narrow and windy Rinkan home run) caters to all levels.

In fact, 40 per cent of Nozawa’s ski trails are green (beginner) runs, with the remaining 60 per cent equally divided between red (intermediate) and black (advanced) runs.

There are two gondolas at the base of the mountain — Hikage and Nagasaka — which take you up to the Uenotaira and Yunomine stations, which again take you higher via a series of different chairlifts. 

Surrounding the Hikage gondola are several eateries and places for ski/board hire, a children’s play area including a small slope for sledding (sleds can be hired for free), a ski school and, for those who’ve got little ones too young to hit the slopes, there is also a daycare centre at the Hikage Information Centre (this must be booked in advance as spots fill up fast).

Being a traditional Japanese ski village from the Edo period, accommodation in Nozawa is dominated by Ryokans or Japanese Inns which offer cosy tatami-matted rooms. 

Our accommodation, Resort Inn Toemu, is owned and run by an elderly Japanese couple who, despite speaking little English, are extremely hospitable. 

Toemu’srooms are small but comfortable and there is a communal onsen for guests which may be a little confronting for some but is common among the Ryokans. 

Only three rooms on Toemu’s upper level offer private bathrooms and, for obvious reasons, these book out fast. 

Western-style hotels in Nozawa are rare, as are a handful of private self-contained apartments that can be booked at a cost, some going for as much as $3000 a night.

Second to skiing, Nozawa is also famous for its namesake — the onsens.

There are more than 30 natural hot springs dotted around the village which the 13 soto-yus (public bath houses) and Ryokan onsens draw from.

Entry to the soto-yus is free but, given they are maintained by locals, a small donation is gratefully received. 

Those seeking an authentic onsen experience will be charmed by Nozawa’s most popular soto-yu, O-yu, a traditional wooden bath house situated along the village’s lively cobbled street, Oyu Doru.

If, like me, you don’t want to be seen as a hapless tourist, acquainting yourself with onsen etiquette is a must.

Before you hop into a hot spring, I’m told you must wash yourself thoroughly at the adjacent showers (make sure to bring your own soap and a towel, most of which are provided by your hotel).

And don’t even think about wearing your underwear into an onsen, I’m told this is a big no-no and is often frowned upon by locals.

While some onsens around Japan have relaxed their rules when it comes to tattoos, for the most part, inked markings on the skin are banned at onsens and soto-yus in Nozawa, as it’s seen as a physical link to the Yakuza aka the Japanese mafia.

Another thing to check before taking a dip in the hot springs is the temperature. 

In some soto-yus, temperatures can reach up to a scalding 60C, so it’s best to test the water before you head in. Most soto-yus are equipped with a tap, so the temperature can be adjusted accordingly. 

That said, if you’re not quite comfortable with hopping into the hot springs in your birthday suit, there is a western-style public onsen, Sparina, which is roughly a 300m walk from the Nagasaka skilift. 

Popular among the more reserved tourists who want to enjoy the onsen experience without stripping off, entry costs 700yen (about $8) and gives you access to two open-air onsens. It’s a magical experience during the winter and is particularly therapeutic as you soak your body in a pleasant 37C pool while feeling the icy snow flakes fall against your face. 

Nozawa is also renowned for its food. There are more than 50 restaurants scattered across the village, some of which offer English menus. 

For the most part, you can expect to feast on traditional Japanese fare, from the tasty onsen manju steamed dumplings which are cooked on the street using steam from Nozawa’s hot springs, don buri rice bowls, teppanyaki and udon and ramen noodles  to gyoza, takoyaki, sashimi and bashami (raw horse meat, which is a delicacy across Japan, so don’t knock it until you try it).

One tip when it comes to dining out in Nozawa — book ahead. Most restaurants and bars are small with fewer than a dozen tables, so come 6pm, you’ll struggle to find a seat.

While it may be tempting to dine off Oyu Doru street, venturing a little further afoot is worthwhile as you’re bound to stumble on an abundance of charming restaurants tucked away from the main strip of the village.

A few noteworthy mentions — Kazeroie Pasta, an Italian restaurant owned and run by a Japanese chef who learnt the art of Italian cooking while living in Italy; Jisaku, a cosy restaurant with around six tables that offers a tapas-style Japanese menu; and Akibitei, a humble eatery that serves probably the best okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake) I’ve ever had.

Whether it’s for the food, the onsens, the skiing or simply soaking up Japan’s vibrant, hospitable culture and charming traditions, Nozawa Onsen offers an idyllic retreat for those seeking an enchanting winter escape.

Basic Japanese

Familiarise yourself with these basic Japanese phrases, which will come in handy while staying in Nozawa.

Sumimasen (excuse me)

Gomennasai (I'm sorry)

Wakarimasu (I understand)

Wakarimasen (I don't understand)

Wakarimashita? (Do you understand?)

Eigo ga hanasemasuka? (Do you speak English?)

Chotto (a little —y ou can say this if they ask if you can speak Japanese or nihongo)

Kore wa nan desu ka? (What is this?)

Watashi wa ... ni itikai desu (I'd like to go to ....)

Watashi wa ... ni ikimasu  (I am going to ....)

.... wa doko desu ka? (Where is ....?)

Genki desuka? (How are you?)

Ikura desu ka? (How much is it?)

Yoyaku shimashita (I made a booking) 

Kore ga watashi no jusho desu (This is my address) 

Ohayo gozaimasu (good morning)

Konbanwa (good evening)

Oyasuminasai (good night)

Hai, genki desu, anatawa? (Yes I’m fine, and you?)

Tabe ru tai (want to eat)

Picture at top: Blinded by the white - heavy snow dumps have fallen at the right time. Picture: Vanessa Williams  

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