Every year hordes of people write to us asking for insights or an ‘insiders’ guide to the Japanese resorts of Hokkaido and Honshu. While we’ve visited our fair share of the Japanese resorts, our time in these beautiful places is often too short. So although we’ve had a taste of what these resorts have to offer, nothing makes up for the experience of ‘living’ in the resort. ‘Seasonaires’, or those lucky enough to have lived in a resort know the lay of the land better than anyone; and are thus far more qualified than we are to write about them.
This year we were fortunate to meet Alex Parsons, professional snowboard instructor and blogger at “Big World, Little Cat“, who has spent several seasons living and working in Japan. Alex agreed to write this sweet little review of one of Japan’s most popular resorts: the quaint but awesome Nozawa Onsen.
We’ll leave it to Alex to explain the rest. Thanks Alex!
Review by Alex
As a snowboard instructor who has explored over a dozen ski resorts, I’m frequently asked, “What’s your favourite resort?” And every time my answer is the same: “Nozawa Onsen”.
Nozawa Onsen has the perfect mix of Japan’s famous powder snow, tree riding, a big enough village that has a traditional Japanese feel, and of course those free onsen. I love Nozawa so much that I once lived there for 9 months and was lucky to see it in autumn, winter and spring. This helped me to see how Nozawa is a living, breathing village that is run by Japanese farmers and local business people, instead of feeling like another slice of bogan pie in Japan.
With all that said, here’s a review of all things Nozawa Onsen:
Nozawa has a family-friendly mix of terrain with about 40% beginner, 30% intermediate and 30% advanced runs. Nozawa is well known for tree skiing at the top of the mountain in the Yamabiko area, which is surprisingly allowed by ski patrol. It receives plenty of dry powder at a height of 1,650m and has natural half pipes, jumps and tree jibs.
Nozawa is lesser known for its excellent sidecountry and backcountry, which is plentiful and best explored with a guide. Unlike a lot of Japanese resorts, Nozawa also has a decent park with boxes, the occasional rail, beginner and intermediate jumps and a small pipe. There are some nice long runs like Skyline, and awesome vertical of 1,085m but riding from top to bottom will always mean running into a cat track or flat green run somewhere.
For a more detailed article on Nozawa’s terrain for families, intermediates, advanced riders, powder hounds and park rats, check out this article on my blog.
Nozawa frequently gets over 10 metres of snow a season. The mountain gets storms full of precipitation from the Sea of Japan and you can sometimes wake up to the village covered in a metre of snow overnight. Being on the mainland of Japan, Honshu, means that the powder isn’t quite as dry as the Hokkaido resorts but on the plus side, you don’t need to endure the bitter cold to get into the white room.
Note that like many Japanese resorts, there are no snow making facilities at Nozawa. The snow at the bottom of the resort can be patchy in early and late season so January and February are your best bets for reliable snowfall. The top Yamabiko area is the best place for fresh tracks between the trees, while the lower slopes can get slushy at the end of the day. There is also night skiing on the lower slopes.
Food and drink
Nozawa has a fantastic mix of Japanese restaurants owned by long-time locals and varied western food run by Australians and international couples that have taken up residence in the town. My favourite Japanese spots are Wakagiri for unfaltering good food, Wanryu for classic ramen, and Biliken for their great range and the fact that you get to hang out with the owner’s cats.
When it comes to western food Genki Burger is an absolute must for burgers after riding, Junto’s Mexican is for delicious burritos and margaritas, and Gochisou is best for your pizza fix. When you need a good espresso coffee, you’ll need to head to Tanuki, Craft Room, Winterland or Mt Dock. If you’re after a comprehensive list of Nozawa’s breakfast options, check out this article I did for Nozawa Holidays.
Nozawa has plenty of good bars, both Japanese and western, and it’s often fun to wander around the town and see what you can find. Beer lovers will appreciate the craft beer at Winterland and Craft Room. Stay bar is an absolute classic and where all the seasonal staff hang out. Neo Bar is a super cool place to chill out with old school snowboarding paraphernalia, and Heaven is a solid choice run by a long-time local. If you’re looking for something very Japanese and off the beaten track (that may or may not involve karaoke) see if you can find my old workplace Minato bar.
Nozawa is blessed with no high rise buildings or chain hotels. It’s all family-owned ryokans, Japanese hotels and the odd self-contained apartment. Nozawa Holidays owns a number of properties and is one of the easiest choices because of the English-speaking staff and wide range of options, especially if you’re after self-contained rooms. If you’d like the traditional Japanese experience then Matsuya Lodge is well priced, while Kawaichiya is mid-range and Sakaya is luxury.
Traditional village: A large part of the reason that Nozawa is so popular is because it maintains a traditional Japanese village feel. There are still plenty of local-run businesses, traditional architecture and hidden temples and shrines dotted around the village. Going for a stroll through the winding, ramshackle streets of Nozawa is a true joy.
Free onsen: Nothing beats a hot spring bath (onsen) after a big day of riding. Most accommodations have their own onsens but it’s well worth having a go at one of the 13 free onsens around town to really immerse yourself in Japanese culture. Yes, you need to be naked and bring your own towel and soap, but it is an experience you’ll never forget.
Fire festival: The Dosojin Matsuri, Nozawa’s fire festival, has been drawing massive crowds for years. It’s held on January 15 annually and is an important festival for the villagers as the 42 and 25 year old men battle it out to help ensure health and good fortune. It also happens to involve a lot of sake, people getting hit by burning torches, and a massive wooden tower that is set on fire and burned to the ground. It simply must be seen to be believed.
Lift ticket prices
For such a popular resort, Nozawa’s lift tickets have remained reasonable.You can get an adult day pass for 4,800 yen, while kids under 15 are just 2,200 yen and seniors over 60 are 3,700 yen. You can see more options for lift tickets here.
Thanks to the beloved Shinkansen (bullet train), getting to Nozawa is relatively easy. From the airport, take a bus or train to Tokyo, then the Shinkansen to Iiyama and the Nozawa Onsen Liner bus up to Nozawa. The whole process should take less than 4 hours.
If you’re not a fan of dragging your luggage around public transport then opt for one of the shuttle bus services. Chuo Taxi and Nozawa Holidays both offer good shuttle services that you can read about here.
I am actually in Nozawa Onsen now, as I finish up writing this article. I’m sitting on my futon in my tatami mat room and it’s snowing outside. I’ve only got a few days left in this beautiful town but I know I will be back. No matter where I go in the world, I think Nozawa Onsen will always be my favourite resort.
Fancy a trip to Japan?
Snowriders Australia is this year (January 2019) running a group trip to the Island of Honshu, taking in resorts of Madarao, Nozawa and others in the Nagano Prefecture. Special discounts, free lessons and a free inter-resort shuttle bus are just some of the inclusions in our great package deal. Send us a message if interested. You will not be disappointed in Japan, it really is next level for snow, culture and value for money.