In 2015, it was blizzarding when we stepped off the Nagaden bus after our 1.5 hour ride from Nagano Station to the central parking area of Nozawa Onsen. While the ski season had not officially started, the Nagaden was packed and we were lucky to have managed to squeeze ourselves into the back row seats. Sinking into ankle-deep powder snow would have been a super fun experience for the critters and us but when one had to tow along a couple of hardy (read: heavy) Samsonites, the snow just made the going painful.
|On the Nagaden bus from Nagano to Nozawa|
Trusting in Google Maps, we eventually collapsed into the Kawaichiya (河一屋) Ryokan, where we would spend four nights rolling around in a traditional Japanese room. Kono-san (“the younger brother,” so he pointed out) who was behind the desk to greet us and with fluent English, gave us a detailed introduction to the town and its attractions and restaurants. “20 minutes,” he declared, was all we needed to cover the whole village. He neglected to mention that it was 20 minutes in good weather.
So the four reasons to make Nozawa Onsen a winter holiday destination for the family:-
1. Hotspring Heaven
Nozawa Onsen is so-called because it has been offering steamy palliative natural hot springs to ease weary muscles since the 8th century. Yup, you could be sitting in the same pool as some wandering samurai of old. There are 13 public hot springs to choose from and mostly free; you can give a small voluntary contribution in a box outside and if there are some friendly locals having a soak too, they will likely strike up casual conversation with you.
The most famous of all the hotsprings there has to be the Oyu (大湯) and after getting lost for the umpteenth time in the 20-minute walkable town, Oyu became a familiar sight for us to get our bearings. We also went in search of the legendary Ogama hotspring which at 90 degrees celsius, was off-limits to unknowing non-villlagers who might try to dip their toes in. Villagers use this hotspring to boil eggs, veggies and other stuff so it really is a hotpot of sorts ….
Most ryokan and hotels there will have their own private onsen so if getting naked with the locals is not really your cup of tea, chances are you will manage to have some private onsen time in your accommodation of choice.
|The stuff that goes into the Ogama!|
2. Awesome Slopes
|Hiking up to the Yu Road|
The main reason for us to bring the critters here to Nozawa was because of the raving reviews about the slopes and the snow quality. And we were quite literally blown away! Firstly because the first 2 days we were there in mid December, it was dumping quite out of season so much so that only the Hikage was opened. Just struggling to get to Hikage via the Yu Road (an impressively long travelator) from the Kawaichiya was a monumental task. Just to highlight that the roads in Nozawa have thermal heating underneath so while it does help to keep the main thoroughfare for vehicles from being snowed up, it also means that you will be sloshing around up to your ankles in running water. Sometimes, like I found out, it also means grovelling on hands and knees in warm puddles when you do some ungainly slip-ups.
|When the skies cleared … Awesomeness!|
The second reason why we were blown away was that when the weather eventually cleared up and we got onto the lifts at Nagasaka up to Uenotaira, it was 2 km of awesome powder on wide gentle slopes, flanked by icing coated trees. Simply breath-taking! If you continue on from Nagasaka to Paradise and do the windy Rinkan route all the way to Hikage, that would amount to some 8km! If your critters are more or less beginner to intermediate skiers, it is quite possible to bring them on this very scenic route.
We would definitely want to come back to Nozawa for the skiing which offers plenty of diverse courses and gentle enough for beginners not to worry too much about trying to pick themselves up in the snow. To be sure you can enjoy all the slopes fuly, it might be good to visit when the slopes officially open (in 2014 they opened on 21 December). It might be worth staying at least 4 to 5 nights in order to max out the slope experience.
|Long wide runs – perfect!|
3. The Grub
|Starting our days like this!|
OMG! We never had a bad meal in Nozawa and this was probably the reason why I never lost any weight despite all that trudging around and skiing. Even a simple scrambled egg on toast at a little mom and pop diner was “the best” according to one critter. From the lavish Japanese set breakfasts we started our days with in Kawaichiya to cafes, Izakayas and restaurants, you will be spoilt for choice. Prices were pretty decent too, averaging around 6000 to 8000 yen for dinner in a family restaurant for 2 adults and 2 kids.
If you like pickled veggies, Nozawa is big on those and you can pick up bottled assortments from any of the souvenir shops there. If you are there around year end, make sure to sink your teeth into a Nagano apple. Big, crunchy, sweet and juicy, it’s definitely a king of apples!
|See these apples? BUY!|
|Wholesome fare at Wakagiri Family Restaurant|
|Tiny local eatery Jisaku|
|With some of the best homestyle cooking ever!|
|Stingray fin at hip Tatsuya Izakaya|
|Super crispy sweet shrimp|
4. The Peeps
I guess being on the map for powder snow has seen a big influx of foreigners into the area but I think Nozawa firmly retains its charm as being very much a Japanese village still. There are NO Seven-11s, Family Marts or any of the other franchised combinis. We got our supplies from 1 main grocery shop run by a little old lady who gave a running commentary of whatever drama she was eyeballing on the TV behind her. We got ourselves some Sorel boots from the 1 Konami Sports shop there run by a very accommodating lady who had to dig through all her supplies for super large sizes for us.
|Our daily hangout with the folks at St Anton cafe|
Most of the retail and commerce there are all locally owned and run and the folks are more than happy to share travel tips and tales, while prepping your skis or getting you a manju, whipping up your hamburger steak or tallying up your souvenirs. Besides making us feel really welcomed, we were also moved by the sense of pride that these locals had, be it in their shops, their work or in their village. And I feel that it is this sense of pride in one’s vocation that is a laudable trait that we need to pick up and to cultivate in our critters, if we hope to make that important difference on the world map.
I always thought being an innkeeper in a ski village must be such a lovely laid-back experience. Never was I more wrong, judging from what I witnessed! Kono-san and his crew at Kawaichiya were either constantly tending to guest requests with patience of saints, or shovelling snow (so much snow!!) or doing whatever innkeepers do just to keep the place running like clock-work when the ski season set in.
|Shovelling snow is a constant preoccupation in winter!|
Would we recommend Nozawa Onsen as a winter family get-away? Absolutely. And if you do go, I am sure you will find more than 4 reasons to make a return trip to this little ski village.
Eating places we recommend:-
- Wakagiri 若ぎ里 – family restaurant with something for everyone
- Tatsuya Izakaya – basement restaurant with nice trendy ambience (meaning a bit dark); yummy bar food and yes, order some alcohol
- Jisaku 治作 – if you are into raw horse meat, they have it. Luckily, they also serve yummy yakitori and other homecooked fare which were excellent.
- Kaze no Ie 風の家 – bistro-style Italian serving hearty thin crust pizzas and pastas. Great for a non-Japanese dinner
- Nappa Cafe / 78 cafe – cos the signage facing outwards is 78 Cafe. Owner has a cat fetish so do wander in to explore all her knick knacks. Oh and the caramel latte is awesome 😉
- Cafe St Anton – our daily hangout for flat whites and steamed buns.