After the hour and a half ride from Tokyo to Nagano on the Shinkansen bullet train, traveling by bus feels like being strapped to the back of a turtle. The rows that are typically four seats across with an aisle down the middle are now five across, the bus full enough to warrant use of the jump seats that otherwise fold up. Not my first choice of travel means, but Nozawa Onsen is special, and, isn’t there a saying about the longer the journey the greater the reward?
A tiny village of just over 3,600 residents in the Nagano prefecture of Japan’s main island, Nozawa Onsen got its claim to fame after being named one of the 1998 winter Olympic venues—but even before that, it was no stranger to tourists. The first recorded visitors to the area made their arrival way back in the year 1272, coming to soak in the mineral-rich hot springs. Our travel companion, Carlo Salmini (the Italian co-founder of Shred Optics), is married to a Japanese woman who grew up in Nozawa Onsen and is ready to give us the local experience.
Carlo’s decent Japanese is a game-changer for navigating off the beaten tourist path. His inside scoop also wins us a room at a local bed and breakfast for an über-authentic experience, which we finally arrive at too long after the sun has set. Snow is piled high outside as we carry jam-packed ski bags inside and swap our snow boots for traditional house slippers.
In the morning, we’re greeted by Carlo with an exasperated “Where have you been?!” He’s been ready since dawn, anxious to share the magic of Nozawa Onsen with us, and has arranged for us to ski with Kaz, a legendary local ski guide. We hastily slurp down the breakfast our host has provided (was that fish stew?) and boot up for a walk to the mountain. There are kids dressed in ski school vests adorned with a cartoon Nozawana, a vegetable unique to the region.
Ancient-looking stone walkways lead to a series of moving sidewalks which deliver us to the base of the mountain and Kaz, as promised, delivers us in turn to his favorite zones on the mountain. Terrain varies from a bit bushy (thanks to a low-tide year) to perfectly spaced trees, but regardless of where we are on the mountain, one thing is consistent: the snow is perfect. It’s light enough that at the apex of every turn you’re likely to lose sight of, well, everything, as the snow flies up and over your head. The amazing thing is that lift tickets only run 5,200 Yen, or about $50. The ratio of dollars spent on lift tickets to pow turns is not even worth comparing to home.
The day is epic—everything skiing in Japan is meant to be. But part of what makes skiing around the world so amazing is what happens before and after the pow shots. Face shots set the mood, everything else is icing on the cake, and Japan’s icing is just as unrivaled as its skiing. On our way back down to town we stop at the Ogama, an open-air communal kitchen that uses the hot springs as a means for preparing food, exclusively available for use by villagers. A Japanese man sits at a tiny stall next to a series of fenced-off hot spring pools selling fruits, vegetables, and the requisite unidentifiable snacks. He offers us tea and Carlo orders in Japanese. I’m handed a hard-boiled egg and corn on the cob that have just been pulled out of the hot springs where they were cooked, and I settle into the most unique après scene I’ve ever experienced.
At a small table covered in a plastic cloth at the back of our host’s booth, we make friends and take selfies with some local school girls enjoying their own eggs. The mineral quality of the water gives everything a distinct flavor, and the steam rising from the pools, combined with the fact that I can’t understand anything being said around me, makes for an ethereal experience. I feel as though I’ve been transported into another world. I’m blissed out from a full day of Japanese powder, my cultural cup filled with experiences I’ll hold near to my heart for a lifetime.
After a quick soak in one of the village’s many onsen (the water feels scalding hot and a few minutes is all I can manage), I’m ready for a solid night of sleep. Which is a good thing, because Kaz has another full itinerary for us tomorrow. He shows us steep pitches, playful airs, lovely tree skiing, fast groomed runs, and all of the powder. The whole mountain is a playground with something for everyone. The rewards in Nozawa Onsen are indeed worth the journey and I will gladly do it all over, when the world once again welcomes travel across oceans, mountains, and time zones.
Nozawa Onsen Powder Day Guide
Here’s your cheat sheet on where to beeline to when conditions require a snorkel.
Not the difficulty level but the name of the north-facing terrain on the lower slopes, Challenge comprises tight trees and requires a technical approach.
Also used as a downhill course, Kandahar offers widely spaced tree-skiing with a moderate pitch and fun rollers that make it a hoot to ski.
Skier’s left of the long, intermediate Skyline run, Grand Prix is narrow and steep, while Jumping is a mogul run that will put your skills on display.