Tag Archives: Japan

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.

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

Recipe for Japow: the Japanese snow machine explained

Japan is one of the hottest skiing tickets in the world right now, and why wouldn’t it be? It’s got great culture, delicious food, friendly people and colossal amounts of the lightest and driest snow found anywhere in the world.

Japan’s snow quality, reliability and proximity to Australia is why more and more Aussies are turning to Japan as an alternative and very affordable destination to more traditional haunts of Europe and North America.  Ask the average snow-going Aussie why Japan(?), and they respond ‘snow quantity and snow quality’, every time.

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Deep in the white room

Japan is a veritable snow machine which every year produces some 12 to 18 m of snow, with most falling on the western mountain ranges of Honshu and the northern Island of Hokkaido. It’s no coincidence that Sapporo, Hokkaido’s biggest city holds the title as the 2nd snowiest city in the world.

The Japanese snow machine exists due to a special combination of climate and prevailing weather conditions, which every year combine to create the ‘perfect storm’ scenario.

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Enjoying the Japanese snow machine

Without getting too technical, Japan’s snow results when the frigid Siberian winds blow across the warm Japanese Sea, sucking up moisture as they go. This results in the formation of moisture laden clouds which inevitably collide with the western Japanese coastline, producing snow – and lots of it.

The real kicker is not just the temperature differential between the atmosphere and the sea, but the ‘baffling’ effect which results when the clouds ‘bunch up’ over the mountains before rising and cooling under the ‘orographic effect’. It is these conditions which create the perfect storm scenario, producing whopping amounts of dry powder snow.

Topographic Japan Diagram
Cold winds blast across the warm Sea of Japan, producing consistent cloud and copious snow falls over the Japanese Alps

In simple terms, the mountains which run north to south down the centre of Honshu and Hokkaido act like super absorbent sponges, squeezing out every last drop of moisture from the clouds that stream in from the north-west (Grasshopper, 2017).

While this explains the volume of snow it does nothing to explain the dry qualities of the Japanese snow. ‘Dryness’ is about the snow’s moisture content; under warmer conditions, snow flakes cannot freeze entirely, meaning some of the flake’s structure is icy, while the rest is watery (with an average ratio of water to ice of 1:10). Dry snow forms under very cold conditions. Snow forming under these conditions has more air pockets (and is thus lighter) and a water to ice ratio as high as 1:30. The more air pockets it has, the lighter and drier it is.

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Japan’s tree skiing is sublime

Dry snow is more prevalent in Japan owing to the freezing winds which blast down from the northwest. Moisture absorbed form the Sea of Japan is picked up and tossed around in the ‘troposphere‘ where it is super-cooled. It then floats gently back down to earth, generally landing in or near one of the Japan’s 600 odd ski areas.

This year promises to be no different in Japan. With the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in a neutral set up, and only a slight chance of a La Nina event, the Japanese season is looking spot on about average, or slightly above average (depending on the arrival of our lady-friend La Nina).

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It’s all a bit crystal ball at this stage but at the end of the day a bad season in Japan is better than a good season is most other parts of the world! If you’ve never been to Japan, or have been contemplating a Japanese ski/snowboard holiday, we urge you to bite the bullet. One thing’s for sure, the snow quality in Japan is one thing you won’t need to worry about.

Images courtesy Madarao Resort, Japan.

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Subscribers to Snowriders Australia receive special discounts at Madarao, Japan. PM us for details.

Diary of a snow-bound parent: two weeks in Hokkaido with kids

Guest reporter, Di McLean from Perth, Western Australia recently traveled through the beautiful Hokkaido mountains, with hubby and two children aged 4 and 6.   Here she writes about her experience.

My hubby, Steve, and I hadn’t snowboarded for nine years and we were itching to hit the slopes in Japan and introduce our girls aged 4 and 6 to snow for the first time. We decided to visit Hokkaido (the northern Island of) Japan, in late January. The timing coincided with the Western Australian school holidays and the period of reliable snow fall. Our schedule included 7 nights in Niseko, 3 in Sapporo and 4 in Furano.

The traveling

Our checked baggage included three large suitcases, one snowboard bag (which took both our boards and boots) and a couple of toboggans that we strapped together. These as we found out later doubled as sleds for dragging the kids around when they were too tired to walk! Our carry on was filled to the brim with bulky jackets, beanies and gloves plus changes of clothes for the kids. In case of accidents.

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To get from Perth to Niseko took approximately 20 hours (airport to welcome centre). The kids were very excited on the way over and didn’t sleep well, so were ratty (irritable) for a good portion of the travel time. Our four year old also likes to be carried. A lot. If I’m honest, there were some very challenging times! The journey home was much smoother when they knew what they were in for.

Niseko

The last time we were in Niseko was in January 2008. Since then, both my husband and I couldn’t believe how much it had changed. It is much more developed, much more westernised, busier and more expensive. But still awesome.

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We stayed in a 2 bedroom apartment in lower Hirafu, a five minute walk (15 mins with kids) from the main intersection. We were fortunate enough to have both my sisters (best Aunties ever) along for the Niseko part of the trip which reduced accommodation costs and helped immensely with the kids.

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There are so many bars, restaurants, shops etc. that it was impossible to visit them all. We were advised to book restaurants in advance, which we did, but still could not get in to several despite asking a full month prior. Its that busy in Niseko during peak periods. Once in Niseko, however, we found that because we were generally eating at 6 pm, we could get into most restaurants. Seicomart on the main road was a good source of snacks, cheap meals, alcohol and the basics for cooking breakfast in our apartment.

Sapporo

We stayed 3 nights in a Hotel in Susukino but in hindsight would have only stayed 2 as this was ample time to explore the main shopping arcades and fish market. The kids loved the pet shop and the amusement arcades best. We also took the kids to Nakajima Park which is very scenic and you can rent nordic skis for free and use them to scoot around the park.

sapporofishmarket

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 Furano

Our last 4 nights were spent in Furano – an easy 2 ¼ hour train ride north from Sapporo. We really loved it there. We stayed in a Pension on a hill overlooking a vineyard just out of town where the owners cooked us amazing breakfasts and dinners and drove us to and from the slopes each day. Furano was very different to Niseko, for two primary reasons:  (1) it was next level cold and (2) it has a quiet, local feel.

We woke to -29 degrees on our first morning (-35 on the mountain) but generally it was between -10 to -15. There were therefore no drying rooms (as things don’t get wet) and no icy patches on the slopes as it’s too cold for the snow to melt, rather it just gets shifted around and then groomed. While the snow was amazing, on the coldest of days the kids couldn’t handle more than 1 ½ hours on the mountain at a time before they were too cold, usually on their faces.

The mountain is smaller than Niseko, with two main sides, the Furano Zone and the Kitanomine Zone. There were good off-piste areas but being our first time here, we didn’t have time to sufficiently explore them. There were no crowds and there is a ‘local’ feel to the mountain. The kids especially loved it in Furano with a huge range of beginner and intermediate, very scenic, long runs. Note that they do not offer group ski lessons for children under 6.

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The New Prince Hotel is at the base of the Furano Zone which has toilets, ski schools and ski hire gear on its ground floor. Beside the hotel there is a bakery and a forest area within which there are a scattering of 15 wooden cottages each selling beautiful and unique homemade crafts. Next to this area there was a kid wonderland area. Open from 4 pm there was tubing and husky sleds, igloos, ice sculptures all lit with fairy lights. We will definitely be returning to Furano and hoping that it has not changed too much before we do.

kidzone

 

 

Madarao Kogen: An untapped Tree-Skiing Powder Paradise

Skiing and snowboarding in Japan is the hottest winter sports ticket in the world at the moment, and why wouldn’t it be: it consistently records the lightest and driest snow on earth, and it falls in quantities that’ll make your head spin – every time! Continue reading Madarao Kogen: An untapped Tree-Skiing Powder Paradise

Ten things to remember when planning your Japanese snow holiday

So you’re ready to take your first overseas holiday to Japan. We’re genuinely excited for you. But, let’s be clear; Japan is not Australia, and it’s very easy to arrive completely unprepared.  Here’s a few snippets of advice to help you along the way: Continue reading Ten things to remember when planning your Japanese snow holiday