This tiny ski village near Nagano gave us an authentic taste of Japan along with some amazing food, hot springs, and skiing at a fraction of the price of skiing in Australia. Also, our first experience sleeping in a ryokan on the floor…
Skiing in Nozawa Onsen
It has been over 10 years since either of us have skied, but given that our cruise (or “voyage” as Cunard like to refer to it) on the Queen Elizabeth ended in Japan and snow was still falling on the mountains, it didn’t take us long to decide we wanted to try it again! Friends had recommended Nozawa Onsen, so without doing too much research, we chose it out of over 500 ski resorts Japan has to offer.
We took the bullet train, called Shinkansen, from Tokyo. For two nights prior, we’d stayed in Shinjuku, and from there we took a local train to Omiya Station. It wasn’t too difficult getting a ticket at the ticket office anytime we used the trains, and there is an English option on the ticket machines.
Get a bento box each to take on the train trip. Unbelievably good food and can be purchased from any 7-Eleven or local shop at the train stations.
– Super tip
The bullet trains are super punctual, so try to get your bags up and into your seats pretty quickly before the train speeds off.
You can purchase an allocated seat or a sit-anywhere-carriage seat. We chose the allocated seats seeing as we had a lot of luggage with us (filled with gowns and suits from our Queen Elizabeth cruise).
Cobbled lanes sitting on the side of the mountain, with traditional ryokans, shops, restaurants, and onsens were all covered in beautiful soft powdery snow. Within an hour of arriving at our ryokan, which is traditional Japanese style lodging, little snowflakes started falling from the sky – we were wide-eyed and full of smiles.
Over the next few days, it snowed a few times, coating the rooftops in thicker soft snow. But the tiny roads and laneways remained easily walkable with underground heating systems utilizing the natural hot springs of the area. The springs are also used for soaking away aches and pains gained from a day skiing, and cooking – the “onsen egg” being a specialty of the area.
We highly recommend that you try at least one onsen. This is a hot spring that has been built around, creating a large spa-like pool inside a building. In Nozawa-Onsen we saw around 5 public onsens within 3 minutes walk of our ryokan, but there are many more public onsens marked on the map, and many more private onsens that are attached to hotels. Even though there are always a his and hers sitting side by side and with separate entrances, it was out of our comfort zone to be naked while sharing a small hot pool with strangers. So I couldn’t believe my luck when I ventured in with my towel, ready to undress, in finding that I was the only person in there. Mark however had 4 other Japanese men to share his experience. He had a nice chat, he said. And the benefits of this extremely hot mineral water after skiing were immense! We hobbled into one after our first day on the slopes and almost skipped out 15 minutes later, glowing and pain-free.
There are some rules that need to be followed when using the onsens:
- Greet people when you enter the onsen – hello works, but konnichiwa is better, and smiles always go a long way.
- No clothes in the onsen, take them all off and store in the cubbyholes provided.
- Before entering the water, use the bucket provided to wash your body with the onsen water, and let that water run off into the drain beside the pool.
- Not a rule, but was a necessity for us – sit near the cold water tap if you can and keep it running for as long as you need – these onsens are HOT. Turn the tap off when you leave or are finished with it.
- Bring a towel with you to dry.
We ate THE BEST SUSHI WE HAVE EVER EATEN in Nozawa Onsen. We loved it so much we went twice. Hamachozushi is rated number 3 restaurant on tripadvisor for the area, but we would rate it as one of our top 3 restaurants for food anywhere. Let me start by saying the ‘restaurant’ is tiny, seating around 12 people, including 5 up at the counter, and it’s popular, so if you don’t get in the first time we highly recommend trying until you do. They don’t take bookings, you just turn up and hope you get in.
An older local man makes all of the dishes to order, right in front of you. Real crab sushi was delicate, sweet and a first for us. I am salivating just thinking of all of the sashimi and sushi we ate at this restaurant. It was as fresh as could be, and full of delicate flavours, and perfectly cooked round, polished sushi rice. Truly heavenly! When our bill came we could hardly believe it was under $AUD35 (2700 Yen) for both of us, including sake and plum wine.
Other places we ate were Kaze No Le, which we had to go to twice because the pizza was out of this world good, Shichirohei Coffee which was right next door to us and had a fantastic risotto and pretty good coffee (for Japanese coffee), and Mama’s Kitchen, where we met the most animated, happy Mama and her daughter who made you feel like you were in their house, eating their home cooked meal.
The great thing about dining out in Japan, is that even the cheapest eats are cooked in perfectly clean kitchens with high standards of hygiene. This is one of the beauties of the Japanese people – they are meticulous about cleanliness. Be prepared to take your shoes off when you enter ryokans, people’s homes and sometimes even restaurants. Slippers are often offered once inside. We were pleasantly surprised by how clean everything was, we didn’t even see a car on the road that hadn’t been recently washed. There is a real calm in living in this dust-free and dirt-free environment.
Each morning we ate in the communal dining room of our ryokan. Our traditional breakfast always included some smoked fish, a bowl of rice, pickles, cooked egg, a bowl of miso soup, and other (sometimes unidentifiable) foods, all presented on separate little dishes. Quite the spread!
Had we wanted a Western style breakfast, we could have easily walked next door to the café for eggs, toast, cereals and coffee, but we stuck with our traditional ryokan breakfast which was always tasty and included in the cost of our accommodation. We did however venture into the café each morning on our way to the slopes for a pretty good coffee. We even taught them to make a piccolo, which they were happy to do.
A short uphill walk took us past the little shops and onsens to a moving walkway, which took us higher up the mountain to one of the two gondolas. It was there we swapped our walking boots for ski boots and prepared to set out on our first ski in over 10 years.
Hiring our gear was all super easy. We received a 30% discount because the ryokan we were staying in also owned one of the ski hire shops at the base of the gondola. We hired everything except goggles and gloves, which we bought pretty cheaply in the village.
Plenty of fresh powdery snow made our first run down smooth and easy as we found our ski-legs and confidence on the slopes. The lifts at this time of year were almost deserted and it was only on the long weekend that we had to wait for up to 5 minutes at any of them. Mostly we skied up and got straight on a lift. And the slopes were mostly just as people-free.
The runs were long, the snow real and fresh (we didn’t see a snow-maker anywhere), and the runs were well groomed each morning. By around 3pm, some of the lower slopes were getting a bit gluggy, but we chose to finish skiing around that time each day anyway, so it didn’t present a problem for us. We felt like we were in a ski and snow boarding heaven. Pretty blue skies, lots of fresh powder, and plenty of fun tree-lined trails and wide runs, without many people.
We saw some amazing sights on the mountain, not least of all people skiing with their dogs – either running on a lead beside them, or being carried in a backpack.
- Plan your runs – it’s not always clear which direction a run takes and if you’re average skiers or boarders like us, you don’t want to find yourself at the top of a double black run, having to walk uphill to escape certain death.
- The intermediate runs are red in Japan, not blue as we had been accustomed to.
- Decide on a meeting point when you get to the mountain, in case you get split up at some stage. Most sensible people would do this, but we didn’t and with no phone on the mountain, we had one occasion when we accidently went different ways down a run and weren’t sure where the other had ended up.
- Store your hired gear each day on the mountain – it saves having to carry it uphill each morning while walking in ski or boarding boots.
We stayed in a traditional ryokan called Shirakaba that we found on booking.com. It had pretty good reviews, offered breakfast and wifi, and was reasonably priced. It was also half a short block to restaurants, had a café next door, and offered a 30% discount on ski and ski-clothing hire.
Many of the traditional accommodation offerings in Nozawa Onsen only provided futon bedding and often shared bathrooms. We chose to pay a little extra for a private bathroom, but slept on futons on tatami mats. It was a new experience, and at first we found it difficult to find a comfortable position to sleep, however, perhaps from the busy days on the slopes that followed, we slept soundly on them every other night and even came to enjoy their firmness.
- If you plan to bring your own ski or snow board gear with you – drop it off at the airport in Tokyo at a Black Cat counter. For $25 they will deliver it direct to your accommodation at your ski resort, guaranteed next day, but we have heard they often deliver same day. The company is called Yomato Transport and their logo is black cats in a yellow circle. So if you want to be luggage free as soon as you arrive, perhaps to look around Tokyo or take the train without hassle, this service is fantastic.
- The Japanese people are so honest and trust-worthy that in Tokyo alone, people handed in over $US32million in CASH to lost and found last year. So when Mark lost his trusty and much-needed beanie on the way back from an onsen bathe, we found it again the next day sitting on a post, saved from the snow burying it. Wonderful, wonderful Japanese people.