Category Archives: Trip reviews

Nozawa Onsen: from the inside looking out

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!

Alex in her natural habitat

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:

The culture on offer at Nozawa is second-to-none
Its called Nozawa ‘Onsen’ for a reason!

The mountain

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.

Snow

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.

Apres

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.

Accommodation

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.

Highlights

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.

Japanese onsens are a pure delight and a cultural must do

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.

Getting there

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.

The famous Shinkansen

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.

First time JaPOW: the only question is Hakuba or Madarao? Why not both?

Our legion of followers have been very busy recently, traveling the world, experiencing some of the best snow on offer.   Here, guest reporter, Hamish Macphee, gives us the low down on his first trip to Japan, taking in the popular resort of Hakuba and up-and-coming ski area, Madarao (or MadaPOW as it’s known affectionately).

Madarao has been hitting the media a lot in 2018, with articles from Powderhounds, Miss Snow it All and the Snow Gauge, to name a few.  As a matter of interest, we too visited Madarao in late February 2018 with the kids in tow.  Find our review of this fantastic family destination here.

So you’ve been hearing a lot about skiing in Japan? There’s good reason for that. You’ve heard about the powder, so light, so dry. You’ve heard about forbidden tree skiing. And yes…..you’ve heard about the snow monkeys. Perhaps you have already done the Canada thing……bloody long flight! You’ve probably tried New Zealand when the Aussie snow is not at it’s peak. The next step has got to be the now famed Japow!

Let me give you a snapshot of what it means to have a snow holiday in Japan:

1. One to Two-hour time difference = no jetlag

2. Nine-to thirteen hour flight time versus 16-20 for Canada/US = fresh arrival

3. Easy public transport Bullet-trains = WOW!

4. Affordable accommodation walking distance from chairlifts, shops and restaurants.

5. Lift tickets for less than half what it cost back home

6. The BEST snow you will see in your entire life!, and

7. Accessible (and legal) tree-sking (yes, they’ve lightened up in many resorts)

Great food, great people, great ski-schools, beer from vending machines, noodles noodles noodles and a real taste of a very different culture. Oh yeah…and whisky!

Now that you’ve decided Japan is for you, the hard choices need to be made. Which resort(s) do you visit?

For us there are two great options for the first time trip to Japan’s snowfields: Hakuba or Madarao. If you have the time then, porque no los dos? Give both a try! Access is simple. From Tokyo get the Narita Express from the airport to Tokyo Station for about $50 return $25 for kids 6-11 years old. From Tokyo Station you get the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Nagano in approx. 1 hour, or to Iiyama, a short 10-20 mins further along.

Hakuba

If Hakuba is your chosen destination then a bus will take you the remaining hour in to the Hakuba Valley and the 9 resorts it has to offer. Goryu, 47, Happo-one (oohhh-ney), Iwatake, Tsugiake, Norikura, Cortina being the larger areas as well as Kashimayari and Jiigatake for the less adventurous. There is so much terrain that you need a month to see everything.

28081108_869151637509_1822642466_o
Some of the accommodation options in Hakuba, Cortina

Families coming to Hakuba for the first time will love the Goryu/Hakuba47/Iimori area. With ski school at Iimori for the little ones, Hakuba’s best terrain park at 47 and some super groomers at Goryu, this little pocket of the valley represents exceptional value for both money (with the Hakuba Valley Pass) and time with everything so close.

For an introduction to tree skiing Hakuba 47 has done it right. Some resorts are known to outlaw tree skiing and take your pass if you are caught in the trees. At 47 they allow it, but safety comes first.

In order to access the “tree zones” skiers and boarders need to do a short induction, sign a waiver and collect a bib to be worn over the ski jacket. These bibs are then to be returned by 3pm to the office. Failure to do so will result in a search party being sent out to look for you. There are significant hazards like cliffs and tree-wells so this safety procedure puts the mind at ease somewhat. Just don’t forget to return the bib when you duck in for a quick beer at day’s end!

While the youngest is making new mates in ski school and the teenager is honing park skills and progressing to bigger jumps, mum and dad are cruising the groomers and enjoying the breathtaking views of Happo-one and the vast valley below. After lunch and lessons the more advanced in the family might check out some bibs are explore the trees.

After the days snow action and perhaps a relaxing onsen Hakuba has many dining options. Booking is highly recommended and waiting for a table is commonplace.

For those with the Epic Australia Pass (Perisher) the Hakuba Valley Pass is included. If not, a 7-day (out of 11) ticket will cost about $450 for Adults and $250 for 6 to 12 years old. This pass also includes shuttle bus to any of the 9 resorts.

Madarao

If Madarao is your choice you can get the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station all the way to Iiyama. From the Iiyama station the bus up to the resort (20mins) will cost you less than $10 per person.

2018-02-26 13.07.25
Beautiful Iiyama

Madarao is the sleepy cousin of Hakuba. There are many resorts within an hour including Myoko Kogen, Shiga Kogen, and Nozawa Onsen. If you are coming for your first Japanese snow holiday, Madarao and neighbour Tangram Ski Circus (yes, that’s really what they call it) is all you need. At $60 for a day lift ticket for both resorts…what more could you ask for?

To say that Madarao was untouched by Aussies would be a lie. The last 10 real-estate acquisitions on the mountain were purchased by Australians…but you wouldn’t know it. Unlike places like Niseko and Hakuba, the Australians have moved in quietly and respectfully. They are creating a family friendly resort that is easy for Australian guests to navigate.

We stayed at Aya Lodge. This well renovated guest house offers comfortable rooms and great amenities within few hundred metres of the slopes. The beds are comfy (not always a given in Japan) and the included breakfast goes well above the expected. There are also other great options in the Active Life choice of hotels, Active Life Madarao and Hakken by Active Life (both really kid friendly).

Once out on the slopes the resort and it’s network of 15 lifts opens up in front of you. Mt Madarao looms above and attracts great snowfall (Between 10m and 14m per season). On a good vis day views across to Mt Myoko set a magical backdrop…but the foreground is what you come for.

Madarao is building a reputation as THE resort for tree skiing. On a day when MadaPOW delivers the goods, there is nowhere else you want to be. The trees at the top of the resort are perfectly spaced and the pitch is perfectly steep to satisfy the cautious thrill seeker.

For the daredevils the trees between Madarao and Tangram Ski Circus (known by the seasoners as Tangram Trees) offer untracked lines through steep terrain after the bowls like Powderwave I and II have been skied out. There are gates to enter the tree area between the two resorts and ski patrol are around. Having said that there are many opportunities for those who dare…enough said.

If you are very lucky you may come across a Kamoshika or Japanese Serow while skiing the trees. The most accurate description I have heard is that Kamoshika looks like a snow bear goat dog…having seen one myself……I totally agree. But, please keep your distance as they are wild animals.

If you need a a few lessons, or are seeking adventure beyond the resort boundary, try Action Snow Sports, run by Aussie Peter  Hillman, or Nagano Outdoor Sports run by local legend Aki (who also has a great pizza joint on the slopes).  Otherwise, the Active Life Group of Hotels offer complimentary lessons for guests.  All offer English speaking instructors.  For a short hike the back of Mt Madarao offers endless lines of superb skiing days after the in-bounds pow has been smashed.

2018-03-04 13.51.04
The pizza at Aki’s

We recommend the Hotel Tangram for lunch with a great view of just about all the smaller resort has to offer. Plan your next laps while chowing down your ramen or katsu-don. For dinner this small town is bustling with options: burgers at Unjaune, or try the devine Okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake) at Sakura. The top of the must-do list for food and drinks in Madarao is the Lazy Yak. This oversized tent (Yurt actually) plays host to a restaurant and bar that also sells and hires snowboards and backcountry equipment. The fried  chicken (Karage) is amazing and the tofu is like no tofu you have ever had before. They have a great selection of whisky and some cool gin cocktails, as well as a fine collection of hand-made jewellery…of course.

On the way home it is well worth spending few nights exploring the amazing metropolis that is Tokyo. There are endless options for shopping and dining limited only by your budget. For electronics head to Akihabara, Ueno Zoo, or for toys, you cant go past the Hakuhinkan Toy Park in Ginza, a 5 story specialist toy store (the kids will love it). Shibuya Crossing is a right of passage, especially at night. You can give the statue of Hachi the most loyal dog a pat. The Government Building’s South Tower offers amazing views of the city all the way to Mt Fuji on a clear day. The North Tower is not a good.

If you want to get a bit closer to Mt Fuji there are tours available with Tokyo Hotel pickup or you can just get the Shinkansen and local train independently. We opted for the guided option and included a tour and tasting at the Hakushu Whisky Distillery. Any whisky drinker will have heard of Suntory’s Hakushu and Yamazaki whiskys. A trip to the serine mountain environment of the Hakushu distillery means the opportunity to sample many different blends like Hibiki up to 30 years old ($30 per 15ml for a $5000 bottle). As well as recognisable labels the tasting room offers samples of the component barrel whiskys that become Hakushu, Yamazaki, and Hibiki.

Before leaving home make sure to get your International Driving Permit. Not for a car silly…for a go-cart! Maricar offer tours of Tokyo driving on the roads in go-carts, dressed up in costumes -like Ninja Turtles and Mario characters. This is an experience not for the feint-hearted, but not to be missed.

30698417_879923600409_8795386547332448256_n
Mario Carting in Tokyo

Now is the perfect time to start planning your first trip to Japan. Make 2019 your year of JaPOW. With a little research and some handy Japanese phrases your holiday can be stress-free.

Snow Riders Xplore Column Ad_1115x902
Xplore by Active Life are offering Snowriders Australia followers 20% off accommodation, with no blackout periods.  Accommodation includes free lessons and access to a complimentary inter-0resort shuttle bus. PM us for details.

Charlotte Pass: The search for Australia’s best value snow experience ends here

By Hamish Macphee

Finding value in the Aussie ski fields can often be a fool’s task. With lift tickets over $130 at most resorts and a pie and Gatorade for lunch over $15 you could be forgiven for giving up the search.

Enter Charlotte Pass – a quiet place to learn to ski or just hone your skills without the pressure of the crowds. Australia’s Highest Ski Resort is small…..but it offers great variety for a wide range of terrain from wide groomers to steep rock patches and perfect cruising treed areas.

The ‘DayTripper’ Pass costs $109 for adults, $68 for children, and $87 for seniors…let’s break it down.

20180919_110533

Transport
Park at Perisher Valley for the day and take a scenic trip on the over-snow (the road is closed during winter) which takes just over half an hour. When you arrive you will be greeted by friendly locals at the Kosciuszko Chalet Hotel who will talk you through the ins and outs of the area including where to go for lunch.

Lift Pass
Kosciuszko Triple Chair (the resort’s only chairlift) takes you from the village up to the ridge line. From here the views out into the Main Range are spectacular. With good visibility Mt Kosciuszko all the way to Mt Twynam can be spotted.

For beginners you can get your snow legs on Basin Poma. For those wanting things a little steeper you can hit up Pulpit T-Bar. Those keen on the most challenging terrain should check out Guthries High Speed Poma. Just a sort hike from the top opens up Guthries Chutes, a steep and rocky section to satisfy the adrenaline seekers.

20180919_104448

Lunch
Included in the DayTripper Pass is lunch at China King, Australia’s Highest Chinese Restaurant at Lucy Lodge. A selected 2-course menu awaits and will be gratefully consumed after a morning spent exploring.

20180919_124125

For those wanting to head out into the backcountry Charlotte’s offers a great entry point with Club Lake and Curruther’s Peak not far away.

My favourite area was looker’s left of the chairlift and above the village where the trees are perfectly spaced and the terrain isn’t too steep (just look out for the pond on the way down).

Over-snow transport back to Perisher can be booked at a variety of times depending how the legs are feeling (and how far the drive back home is). A well-deserved Kosciuszko Pale Ale at the Chalet Hotel is a great way to spend the time waiting for your chariot to arrive.

Charlotte Pass is a small resort but sometimes that is perfect. The price is certainly right…a welcome surprise in the otherwise expensive pastime of skiing in Australia.

20180919_122805

Bill Barker: on skiing with penguins and leopard seals in Antarctica

From ski patrol director to northern hemisphere back country guide, to one of the most photographed skiers in the country, Bill Barker is undoubtedly one of Australia’s most respected and recognisable skiers.

In the Australian summer, Bill runs big mountain adventures to Kashmir on the border of India and Pakistan, and – amazingly – the northern tip of Antarctica. Yep. Skiing in Antarctica is actually a thing! Continue reading Bill Barker: on skiing with penguins and leopard seals in Antarctica

10 reasons to take your kids skiing in Madarao, Japan, this summer

In late February 2018, my family and I travelled to Madarao, a small but emerging resort in the Nagano Prefecture, where we took our kids skiing for the first time. The kids aged 6 and 8 took to skiing like ducks to water, loved the culture and generally just loved the entire experience; from the trains to the food, to the endless amount of snow. 

Our holiday to Madarao in the Nagano Prefecture was seriously awesome – perfect even – and if you were to ask me should take their kids to Japan, my answer is a resounding YES. Here are my reasons why, with just a few tips and tricks thrown in… Continue reading 10 reasons to take your kids skiing in Madarao, Japan, this summer

Niseko Weiss Powder CATS: first tracks guaranteed

There’s no doubt that CAT skiing offers great value to riders looking for a new riding experience. It offers easy access to untracked powder, without hiking and without the risks normally presented by back-country skiing. It’s perhaps these qualities that have earnt it the tag ‘poor man’s heli-skiing’.

On a recent visit to Hokkaido (February 2017), we were lucky enough to give CAT skiing a try courtesy of Niseko Weiss Powder CATs. Niseko Weiss Powder CATs is an experienced adventure company operating out of the Hanazono Ski Area, in greater Niseko United. Although a lean season by Niseko United standards (they’d only received a lazy 8m of snow instead of 12m), the powder CATs adventure was an unforgettable experience and a great alternative to the hustle and bustle of the main Niseko skiing area, located just a few minutes away.

AA_Cat4 Continue reading Niseko Weiss Powder CATS: first tracks guaranteed

Review: 5 Days in Madarao, Japan

Small crowds, a ‘local’ feel, a variety of friendly lodges, lift tickets and food priced the way it should be and tonnes of snow, translates into epic powder days centred around a true Japanese cultural experience that visitors crave – all without those regretful stares from lift-queue’s, back up to quickly-disappearing fresh tracks.

Continue reading Review: 5 Days in Madarao, Japan

Sol Y Nieves is Spanish for ‘Sun and Snow’

Words and images by guest writer Richard Bumford.

This Christmas my wife and I decided to return to our home in Padul, Southern Spain, to spend time at our favourite resort, Sierra Nevada.  We very quickly remembered how incredible a resort it is.  Located just 30 min from Granada City and Airport it is certainly a great location with a very short commute to the mountains. With 117 trails, covering over 106km, spread over six skiiable areas and 32 lifts, it makes for a sizeable resort covering over 320 hectares.  Topping out at 3300m and with 1200m of vertical it is both the highest and steepest resort in Spain. Snow Making is achieved via 350 canons & 725 hydrants covering over 35 kms of piste on 44 runs. It is the most southerly resort in Europe which is why it is famous for both Sol Y Nieves or ‘sun and snow’.

IMG_5901

The resort has plenty of options for dining and Après Ski, as well as ski/snowboard hire and numerous outlets to purchase lift passes.  All of this makes for a very smooth transition from arriving to skiing.  Lift passes are reasonable at 42 Euros ($58) for a day pass.  Parking is also great at 11 Euros ($16) for the whole day and having over 4000 parking spaces, 2644 are underground,  also makes for a nice dry end to the day’s fun.

Other activities in the resort include a Cross Country Skiing circuit which is 5.8 Km long.  Night Skiing happens every Thursday and Saturday from 19.00 to 22.00hrs (subject to weather /snow conditions).  They also have a Freestyle Park: “SULAYR” which has a 165m long half-pipe, 1 Mini Park, Medium and Advanced Difficulty Areas covering 4 interlinked sectors complete with a full range of jumps & rails plus a small lift and Europe’s longest slope style run with the possibility of linking up to 46 different modules in one run.  This resort is so well noted for its freestyle facilities that in March 2017 they the area hosted the world winter freestyle championships.

We enjoyed a total of 22 days in Spain and spent a great deal of it skiing the Sierras both on and off Piste.  The days on the slopes were spent skiing challenging runs with the safety of wide open pistes.  Breaks and lunches were spent at numerous decked areas down the mountain sitting in t-shirts catching some sun.  All in all the resort is a magical and vibrant place which is not expensive to ski or dine at.  They have excellent facilities which are very reasonable and available to everyone.

IMG_5898

If anyone would like to experience the best resort in Europe we would love for you to stay at our home a link to which can be found at the bottom of this article. As a special offer, Snowriders Australia followers receive a 15% discount. All you have to do is contact Richard (richard.bumford@gmail.com) directly and mention that we sent you.

Casandra – In the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. Townhouse, Sleeps 8 http://abnb.me/EVmg/WNI0rtWboB

Review – Gulmarg, India

About Gulmarg

Nestled in the Pir Pajals, one of the six mountain ranges that make up the Himalayas, Gulmarg is a small town in Kashmir, in northern India. Gulmarg, which means “Meadow of Flowers”, sits on a 2,650 m plateau at the base of Mount Apharwat (4,124 m). The Pir Panjals receive up to 14m of snow annually, with regular snow-storms bringing several meters at a time. It is therefore no surprise that Skiing Magazine (USA) recently called Gulmarg the 7th snowiest ski resort in the world!

If you an advanced to expert skier or boarder, with a longing for adventure and a hankering for virgin powder, then Gulmarg in the Indian Himalayas could be the experience you’re looking for.  Our roving reporter, Matt Appleford, reports… Continue reading Review – Gulmarg, India