If you like culture to complement your carving, you might just have found 'the one' in Nozawa Onsen.
This is where the Japanese come to ski, and it really is about time we joined them. Located north of Tokyo at the foot of the charmingly named ‘Mount No Hair’, the village has been popular since the 8th Century thanks to its bounty of hot springs (onsen); the resulting steamy cobbled streets, historic inns, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and authentic vibe make it impossibly atmospheric. There’s still a healthy onsen culture today, and skiing has been very much at the heart of the village since it was introduced in 1912. As well as plenty of skiing there’s much more to discover, from ancient Shinto shrines and snow-laden temples to cheeky snow monkeys and traditional arts.
Skiing in Nozawa Onsen
Nozawa Onsen covers three ski areas presenting upwards of 50km of runs, and whilst popular with Japanese weekenders the slopes can be delightfully quiet on weekdays. The lift system is generally good, but a little old – it was last upgraded for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics – and there’s a pleasing distribution of slopes, from family-friendly blues to spine tingling tree runs and plenty of powder off-piste. Predominantly, the runs are wide sweepers which cut through forest to reveal stunning views. Night skiing is possible on Saturdays and during holiday periods, and due to the proximity of the Sea of Japan it is often possible to ski in Nozawa as late into the season as early April.
You can dip your skis in between the ski runs either side of the top lift (note the difference between ‘do not enter’ and ‘do not enter unless you are a good skier’ signs). There’s some fantastic tree skiing to be had up here, and for steeper terrain head to the Sky Line ridge. There’s no avalanche control in Nozawa, so the attitude to sidecountry and backcountry skiing is understandably cautious; if you’re well-equipped and experienced, you’ll find some thrilling long powder runs down to the village.
You’re never far from a steep challenge anywhere in Nozawa. The black runs are varied – generally either covered in moguls or bathed in oodles of powder. There are several testing runs from the Mukobayashi chair drop-off; we particularly like the steep, narrow Grand Prix, accessed from the ridge. Other favourites include Schneider, Utopia and Kurokura.
Only around a third of runs are rated orange (Japanese intermediate), but you’ll enjoy getting your speed up on wide, well-groomed pistes and challenging yourself with moguls, terrain park jumps and some off-piste. For enjoyable trails, we recommend Yamabiko at the summit, and there are a few shorter intermediates which peel away from beginners' runs if you don’t mind a combination. The long ‘Sky Line’ trail is a good challenge, even if the journey back up is painfully slow!
Large areas of gentle terrain make Nozawa a good choice for newbies. All three of the main areas accommodate beginners, with often-busy Hikage the central point for lessons. Karasawa is a more peaceful alternative. You don’t need to stay low: The Uenotiara and Rinkan runs up top are lovely, long sweepers with fabulous views.
The last of the old-fashioned restrictions were lifted in 2001, and today boarders make up half of Nozawa’s visitors. The main draw is bucket loads of powder, meaning it’s never difficult to make fresh tracks – particularly during the week when you’ll feel free as a bird as you slide down the mountain with refreshingly little competition. There’s also a board park and half pipe.
Nozawa has a great evening buzz – in the Japanese sense of the term. On the whole that means delicious dinners instead of a belly full of beer, and relaxed bars in place of clubs. The locals are trying hard to preserve this ancient retreat, so respectful visitors are much appreciated. Though the Japanese will often choose to dine in, eating out is a real highlight, with fabulous Japanese and Western food at good prices. If you’re peckish when you come off the slopes, try an onsen-cooked egg or the local delicacy Nozawa-na – a tasty spinach-like vegetable made into a variety of pickles or mixed with other ingredients to fill delicious steamed dumplings.
Vast areas of Nozawa are dedicated to beginners, and there is a superb ski school with English-speaking guides. Children also receive a healthy discount on lift passes. For us, Nozawa is a winning combination of immersive and accommodating; facilities for children include the Aqua Dome with children’s pool, Nozawa Onsen Arena’s wave pool and large slide, Nozawa Kids Park at Hikage base, and tobogganing by the ski slopes. Young children will be well looked after at Yumin Day Nursery in Hikage Information Centre – though it’s small so book early – or, alternatively, qualified English-speaking babysitters are on hand.