First class skiing in a quirky spa town


Nozawa Onsen

Number of lifts (Incl. gondolas): 20
Number of runs: 20
Longest run: 10,000m
Maximum elevation: 1650m
Steepest slope: 39 degrees
Terrain: Beginner 40%, Intermediate 30%, Advanced 30%
Night skiing: Yes, until 20:00
Season: Mid November until early May
Other: Park facilities include, kickers, rails, boxes and walls.

poder skiing

Powder Skiing

The skiing is world-class, but the star of the show is the village, a hot spring town now 1000 years old. Traditional wooden buildings in subdued colours give a peaceful, timeless atmosphere.

Surprises are built into the multi-layered, winding architecture of the village. Is that really a Jetson’s style escalator taking us comfortably up to the snow slopes? Are the polite village ladies really cooking cabbage in the….gutter? ‘The Cauldron’, the hottest spring in the village, is so hot that only the townspeople dare use it.

Hot water is everywhere. There are little hot water spots for boiling eggs and rest for stops where people can sit and soak their cold feet. I even saw a parking lot covered in a layer of steaming water.

The people who create the thoughtful buildings, the year-round festivals and events, even the eccentric snowmen, do it because this is their home and they want to enjoy it. There are no corporations running or shaping this town. It’s a village tiny enough to walk though in 20 minutes, yet it has produced eight Olympic medalists. “What’s Nozawa’s secret?” I ask Mr. Akira, the owner of the hotel I’m staying in.

“Nothing else to do here,” he teases. It’s early and the only other guests at the hotel’s lounge is a group of eight Australians all typing away on their Apple computers. Mysterious.

It’s theatrically lit, with a bar like an altar and a garden window which provides a living backdrop. I ask who the designer was.

“Me!” says Akira. The food is Japanese modern. It’s excellent.

Our rooms however are nothing like downstairs.

They must be 30 years out of date.

But I love this town already, so I just think it’s funny. I forgive the baffling heater with its Japanese buttons and the awkward bathroom. I set up camp in a pile of blankets and move the furniture around.

Akira showed me a video of the Dousajin fire festival, a tradition of Nozawa which inspired the opening ceremony of the ‘98 Nagano Winter Olympics. A gang of local men perch on a towering wood and straw pyre, fighting off a fiery siege by the rest of the town, bare hands against flaming torches. They fight with everything they’ve got, knowing full well that this year, like every year, it’s all going to go up in flames.

About one fourth of the guests are international, and come evening, you find them mingling in the many small, owner run bars. My favourite was one with the graceful sign that read “Request from a shop. We can talk only in Japanese. Are you okay?” Inside, the dishes served to me included candied soy grasshoppers and sake infused whole grilled river fish.

Just don’t go breaking the rules and ski in those tempting trees without police permission, a survival kit, and a written plan. I had a chance to go for a snowmobile tour, plowing through three meter high drifts of snow in this noisy army-like vehicle.

According to my crusty, backcountry guide on this tour, 30 people go off the track each year and need a search party.

Approximately half of them are rule flouting Australians. Being Australian and speaking Japanese, I got scolded for it. So just stick to the slopes.

The high point of my trip was the impeccably crafted hot spring bath at the Sakaya. I was hypnotised, never wanting to leave.

life on the slopes

Life on the Slopes

nozawa scenes