In early April, we went to ski for the very first time. We gathered up our courage, brought all our excitement, and drove a bit under 4 hours from Tokyo to the town (technically a village) of Nozawa Onsen (sometimes written as nozawaonsen), in Nagano prefecture, north-west of Tokyo.
Nozawa Onsen is a village located just nearby the Nozawa Onsen Ski resort, which is considered one of Japan’s best ski resorts. The town itself seems somehow stuck in the 1980s, but does have its share of pubs and restaurants, mainly to serve the visiting skiers and snowboarders. As a result, it’s very international, and most of those who live there are fluent in English, which is rare in Japan.
WHERE IS NOZAWA ONSEN?
Nozawa Onsen is about an hour north of Nagano city by car, and sits between 300 m below sea level at its lowest, 600 m around the village center, and 1500 m at its highest point.
GETTING TO NOZAWA ONSEN
Getting to Nozawa Onsen by car is pretty easy, however, most people do not have cars. Luckily, Japanese public transportation is here to the rescue. Here is how to get to Nozawa Onsen.
From Tokyo (and the rest of Japan, in fact), grab a shinkansen going towards Nagano Station. From Tokyo it’s the Hokuriku Shinkansen. From there, get a train to Iiyama Station, and then you can either take a cab for 20 min, or take the Nozawaonsen Liner bus to Nozawa Onsen.
NOZAWA ONSEN SKI RESORT IS ONE OF THE BEST IN JAPAN
The location of some of the Nagano Winter Olympics competitions. This region has a lot of snow in winter, and thanks to its geography, this snow is extremely pure and fluffy. As a result, Nozawa Onsen is well known by ski lovers thanks to its deep layers of powder snow. During the ski season, Nozawa is packed with ski and snowboard aficionados, foreigners and Japanese alike. Unfortunately, during off seasons, the city and most of its services die down, as its economy is entirely dependent on ski and snowboard tourism. We’ve actually been told by locals that going there outside of winter is not a great idea, as there isn’t anything to do. If you’re interested in skiing in Japan, check out our article “All You Need to Know Before Skiing And Snowboarding in Japan”
HOTELS IN NOZAWA ONSEN
As it is a ski resort town, Nozawa Onsen has many forms of accommodation, including lodges, hostels, and other rental options for visitors. Naturally, Nozawa Onsen also has ryokan, for those looking for the fully Japanese experience. Those tend to peak in customers, and in price during the ski season, especially from December to late February. Those going to ski in early spring will find less people, and cheaper prices. We had a very good experience in our hotel. The staff was very international, and everyone speaks English. Which seemed to be the case in other hotels/hostels because of the percentage of foreign workers and visitors.
This is where we stayed when we went to Nozawa Onsen. Tanuki has a few different lodging options, ranging from a regular lodge, shared rooms, and luxury apartments. Tanuki has a feel of old school traditional Japanese with modern amenities, free wifi, etc.
Tanuki also has a bar, a teppanyaki, and a café. While we have not tried the teppanyaki, we’ve been to the bar and the café for breakfast (which was offered with the room). The bar had a nice vibe to it, probably because of the karaoke. It had a lot of international people, and some of the workers also there to have fun after their shifts.
WHAT TO DO IN NOZAWA ONSEN
While you probably won’t want to stay in Nozawa for a whole week, a couple days there is the perfect amount of time to stay, and experience what the village has to offer. By the way, if you never tried onsen in Japan, check out the article “Japanese Hot Springs: All You Need to Know to Onsen Like a Pro“!
GOING TO FREE PUBLIC ONSEN (JAPANESE NATURAL HOT SPRINGS)
As the name Nozawa Onsen would suggest, there are onsen there. That’s not the best part. The best part is they are free. This is very unusual in Japan. Bathhouses are scattered around the village and you can just go ahead and have a dip, for no cost at all.
I’ll give you a warning though, the water is SUPER hot. I, the scaretty cat that I am, accustomed to near body temperature water, and unable to bear neither too cold, nor too hot, was unable to get in. However, there is a tap which pours relatively colder water so you can regulate the temperature. Others took some time, and courage, and made it, but universal belief was that the water there is warmer than what you normally find. To know more about proper onsen etiquette, check out our article on the subject.
There are 13 bathhouses throughout the village, the most famous, and symbol of the city being the O-yu bathhouse. They have the same opening hours: 5:00-23:00 from April to November and 6:00-23:00 from December to the following March.
As these are free and relatively small in size, they do not come with any amenities. Bring your own towels, soap and shampoo. Additionally, they do not have showers, so just use a bucket to get some water from the bath and use that to wash yourself.
SKIING AND SNOWBOARDING AT NOZAWA ONSEN SKI RESORT
By now I should not have to tell you. Chances are if you’ve decided to go to Nozawa Onsen, skiing is your main goal, and it should be. The resort is of excellent quality, and with a decent price. It’s one of the resorts with the longest opening periods, being open until Golden Week (late April, early May). We went in April, and the pass for a day was ¥2,700 (about $24), but it’s more expensive in winter. Renting a pair of skis, poles and boots, or alternatively a snowboard and boots at Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort will cost you about ¥3,800 ($34). During the season, there is a shuttle bus which runs from the village to the Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort which takes a few minutes only. On foot it would take you around 10-15 minutes. Check with your lodge if they provide transport to and from the ski resort. This is a good ski resort for beginers looking to ski in Japan, as it has a good number of beginner pistes. as well as flat areas which allow you to learn the basics before heading on to the slopes. Check this link for the status of the courses, lifts and the live cams of the Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort.
TASTING NOZAWANA, OYAKI AND ONSEN MANJU
Nozawana is a green leaf vegetable which has been cultivated in the area since the 18th century. The name, in fact, mean’s Nozawa’s vegetable. It’s actually of the same species as turnips, and is often eaten pickled. You might also find nozawana inside oyaki. Oyaki are dumplings made from fermented buckwheat dough and filled with any sort of thing, from anko bean paste, to fruits, and vegetables. Additionally, as is typical in Japan’s onsen resort towns, Nozawa Onsen also has stalls selling onsen manju, a traditionally sweet red bean filled steamed bun.
RECOMMENDED RESTAURANT: ATARASHIYA
Although most restaurants in Nozawa Onsen are attached to lodges and other areas catering tourists, there are a few mom and pop shops, which seem to cater more towards the local populace, or at least to Japanese tourists.
At Atarashiya (新屋), we had yakitori-don, which is simply a bowl of rice topped with skewered chicken, and a delicious sauce. The chicken was succulent and really tender, which is surprising for skewered chicken. The set meal came with the typical Japanese miso soup, and naturally, pickled nozawana.
11:00 – 13:30, 16:00-18:00. Open Everyday.
About ¥1,000 (~$9)
GOING TO BARS
Unfortunately, one cannot ski all night. At a certain time, the gondolas stop working, and it’s probably too dangerous to ski in the dark anyway. But there is still so much more of the day, and the night to do stuff. If you refuse to go to sleep early, head to one of the bars and have a drink, or sing your heart out at one of the karaoke bars which are all over the village. Tanuki, mentioned earlier had a fun bar, and there are many more around town, generally filled with people from all over, who all congregated to conquer the slope.
THE NOZAWA FIRE FESTIVAL
Every year, on January 15, Nozawa hosts the Nozawa Fire Festival (Nozawa Onsen Dosojin Matsuri), where a 100 men’s worth of man power cut down trees and build a wooden shrine, which is then set on fire, originally intended as an invocation for good harvest, health and fortune. Of course, as any self-respecting Japanese festivals, beyond the massive blaze, there is food, and quoting the official website “liberal servings of sake”. Fire and sake, good idea, right?
NOZAWA ONSEN: SKIING +
One of the advantages of skiing in Japan, is that most ski resorts are not just that. They are inherent parts of the country, have rich histories, are nearby other places of interest, and will always have amazing food because Japan. If you’re into skiing, consider going to Nozawa Onsen, it’s a great place for that, with great powder snow, and you get free onsen to go with it. In addition, if you’re going around Japan, it’s a great place because of its proximity to Tokyo. You can spend a couple days out of the many you’ll be spending in Japan.