A Complete Guide To A Nozawa Onsen Snow Holiday
Japan is famous for its powder. In 2010 and 2013 we visited Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture, and were graced with many powder days. It was time to visit the Land of the Rising Sun once again in search of powder and we chose Nozawa Onsen as our destination. If you haven't already, check out Jen's handy photo guide of Nozawa Onsen.
Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort is located approx. 350km northwest of Tokyo, and can be easily reached from Narita airport via direct coach or the High-Speed Bullet Train (Shinkansen). The Nozawa Onsen village is located at the resort base and the snow season runs from late November to early May. With annual snowfall around 8-10 metres, the base at the top of Mt Kenashi (elevation 1650 metres) is often 4-5 metres!
Getting To Nozawa Onsen
Unlike the Hokkaido resorts, there is no need to fly from Tokyo to the Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort. Catching a bus from Narita is easy and about $AUD130 each way. We used Nagano Snow Shuttle and it was hassle free, direct from Narita to our accommodation. It does take a while though – waiting at the airport until departure (our flight arrived 5:00pm and the shuttle didn’t leave until 7:00pm) plus transfer, meant we didn’t arrive in Nozawa until midnight. If you’d like to experience the Bullet Train, that’s a good option too and takes around 90 mins less. A little more planning required and slightly more expensive at around $AUD145 to Iiyama and then a bus from Iiyama to Nozawa Onsen ($AUD7).
Nozawa Onsen Village
The first thing you notice when arriving in Nozawa Onsen is how traditional it feels compared to places like Niseko. This place was a Japanese mountain village first, snow resort second. We found it really refreshing and as a tourist you feel like you’re getting a better taste of traditional Japanese culture. We do love ‘resort’ towns too but this was a welcome change.
A note on language
English is definitely the second language in Nozawa Onsen so be prepared to learn a few rudimentary Japanese phrases and download the Google Translate app. The locals will be beaming if you at least have a go at greeting them in the morning with an “ohayo gozaimasu”, pronounced “oh-high-yoh go-zah-ee-moss”, or thanking them with an “arigatou gozaimasu”. We entered many places to eat with no more than a few phrases, and although the staff couldn’t speak any English, we got on just fine. And most restaurants will either have the food on display or pictures, so pointing and nodding often work! The Japanese are polite and accommodating so you’ll never feel like you’re not welcome. It actually adds to the experience so don’t let the language put you off because it’s not a barrier.
Nozawa Onsen Accommodation
Traditional doesn’t mean you’re missing out on anything and as a starter, we found our accommodation comfortable and affordable. We ended up booking with Nozawa Onsen Holidays which have a few properties scattered around the village. We stayed in Villa Nozawa. A well-run operation, with English speaking hosts, it made our transition from transit to bed very easy. As part of our deal, we got a hearty breakfast included every day which set us up perfectly for a day on the mountain.
Want a Nozawa Onsen ski package? Well, Nozawa Onsen Holidays also helped us with our transfers to and from Narita with Nagano Snow Shuttles. They also have in-house ski and snowboard rental available so your gear is delivered to your door. A much easier solution than dealing with multiple parties.
Food and Going Out in Nozawa Onsen
Wow. Can I say that again, wow! It’s not only the powder which keeps us coming back to Japan, it’s the food. Whether on-hill or in the village, you won’t be disappointed with the culinary delights on offer. Great value too compared to eating on the mountain in Western snow resorts.
We discovered places to eat talking to other guests, the hosts at the accommodation and doing some online research. Nozawa Onsen Holidays were really helpful, each staff member having their favourites. No kickbacks to them so it’s just their honest opinion. Check out the handy Restaurant and Bar Guide.
On-mountain, you could do a lot worse than eating at the base of Hikage gondola. A few places to choose from but our favourite was Uchida Shokudo offering nice big rice or noodle bowls for $AUD10-12.
A handy tip
During the snow season, restaurants can get quite busy during the peak 6-9pm eating times. If you’re travelling in a group larger than two, our suggestion is to book in advance. We found an easy solution – once we finished dinner, we’d walk to where we wanted to eat the next evening, and book. Simple but effective. And a nice way to explore the village, walk off our evening meal and find a place to have a drink!
Oh, and one thing we discovered, restaurants would often serve you complimentary Nozawana (pickled vegetable) as a starter. Nozawana is famous to the area, depicted by the large green inflatable vege at the base of Hikage gondola. They are proud of their Nozawana, so paying a compliment on their version of the vegetable will earning you plenty of kudos!
Many of the restaurants are small and their signage is not prominent. Often it looks like you’re walking into someone’s lounge room - on one or two occasions we had to double check we were actually in a restaurant! Get the town map at your accommodation which will show the restaurants with a corresponding number. This number is often displayed at the front door making it easier to distinguish.
There are a few little bars and karaoke places scattered around the place but the nightlife won’t compare to places like Niseko. If you want to party hard every night, Nozawa Onsen is probably not the place for you. Check out nearby Hakuba or as previously mentioned, Niseko. We dropped into Tanuki Bar (under their accommodation and restaurant), which is not a locals place but still has a cool vibe none-the-less. Most locals will congregate in karaoke bars once they finish their evening meal.
For a little après, head to Neo bar which overlooks the Olympic ski jump. We grabbed a crepe and a rum hot chocolate as we relived the day on the slopes!
Talking of crepes, we visited a little hole-in-the-wall more than once on our post-meal evening strolls. Amazing, tasty and all for around $AUD5-7. You’ll find it on the main road (38) between the bus terminal and Ikemitsu Shokudo.
Nozawa Onsen Coffee
Coffee snobs will be satisfied with the availability of Allpress Espresso at St Anton's, either in the heart of town or at the base of Hikage gondola.
There is one large-ish supermarket coming into town from the south-west (from Iiyama) along the main road (38). You’ll also find a butcher nearby, also on the 38 but closer to town. Otherwise, you’ll find convenience stores around town which will supply your basic needs.
When I think of Japan, I often think of technology so it’s kinda hard to believe there are only two international ATM’s in town! One is in the post office and one down near the tourist office/bus terminal. The daily limit is 50,000 Yen (approx. $AUD580) and hours are 08:00 to 18:00 (post office) or 20:00 (tourist office). It’s best to plan ahead and pre-pay stuff like accommodation and use your credit/debit card to pay for lift tickets, etc. Most restaurants are cash only so taking some Yen from home is probably a good idea. For tips on getting the most out of your foreign currency, check out my recommendations here.
Hot Springs in Nozawa Onsen
Long before Nozawa Onsen was famous for its snow resort, people came from far and wide for the onsens. Fed by natural hot springs, each onsen is unique and cared for by members of the local community. As a volcanically active island, Japan has thousands of onsens and they’re a big part of the Japanese culture. In Nowaza Onsen, there are 13 soto no yu (public hot spring baths) as well as a foot onsen (a must do) and many cooking onsens. Make sure you check out the cooking onsens up the top end of town, near the Hikage travellator. The in-shell poached eggs were one of Jen’s favourites!
Will I have to get naked? Yes!
It may seem a little confronting at first but locals are indifferent to their (and your) nakedness. Jen put together an onsen etiquette guide recently which helps break down the cultural barrier. If you still can’t do it, visit Sparena which is unisex and bathers are worn. Apart from Sparena, which costs $AUD7, the other onsens are free and sex-segregated.
Whatever you decide, drop into the hot water as the natural minerals and high temps will provide a welcome relief after a day of hard riding on the mountain.
The temperature of the different onsens vary, depending on the distance from the source and how many people have visited during the day. You’ll find a cold water tap in each bath so if it’s scalding, go sit near the tap and turn it on. Many locals will top up the onsen with the tap to bring the temps down so if you’re heading to a busy one at the end of the day the temp will be fine.
The Mountain at Nozawa Onsen
Nowaza Onsen Ski Resort is located adjacent to the village so it’s easily accessible by foot from most places in town. You can get onto the mountain at 3 different areas, namely Hikage Station, Nagasaka Station and Utopia. Be sure to ride the covered travellator, which runs from the top of the village to Hikage Station – it is long! We were staying near Utopia so we’d take the 5 min walk up to the lift and then transfer over to Nagasaka Station, catching the gondola to the top.
In terms of size, the resort is 297 hectares and offers 1085 metres of vert. Although the max elevation is only 1650m at Mt Kenashi, the northern latitude and cold Siberian air streaming south over the Sea of Japan ensures good quality snow. Well, at least most of the time. We came chasing the powder, gave ourselves 10 days to enjoy the white fluffy stuff but were graced with unseasonally warm weather for the whole time we were there (late Feb to early Mar). How warm? Try 14-15 ºC in the village on some days! The freeze/thaw, and the overnight sprinkling of snow which would often happen, led to dust-on-crust. We were still lucky enough to get two powder days but we were hoping for more.
It snowed before we got there and once again after we left, which can sometimes happen on snow holidays. Mother Nature, she’s a fickle beast! We did have quite a bit of fun on the spring slush in the afternoon, and with a 2m+ base, we weren’t worried about hitting any hidden obstacles.
Our Favourite Runs at Nozawa Onsen
Due to the warmer weather, we usually headed to the top of Mt Kenashi and rode the Yamabiko area. Really nice terrain through the trees and a couple of gullies which felt like natural halfpipes. Get there early on a pow day as with all the best terrain on the mountain, it can get chewed up quickly.
We had a super fun day riding the Yunomine & Mizunash chairs on one of the powder days we had. The pair were only running on weekends while we were there but with most of the crowds heading up to the Yamabiko area, we discovered a welcome haven riding here. Not super steep and with the old-school fixed chairs, seemed to keep the crowds away. Or perhaps it was a bit harder to get to, accessed via a cat track. Either way, we were stoked we found it and were riding freshies well into the afternoon – pretty impressive considering it was a busy long weekend! Once you demolish the powder on the runs, head into the trees with gullies and drops – so much fun.
If you want speed and distance, head down Skyline into Kamoshika (or Tanuki) onto Karasawa. The top of Skyline is steep and opens up onto the super fun green run of Karasawa – carving heaven and uncrowded so you can get real playful without feeling like you’re going to take someone out. Top to bottom is around 7kms – now that’s a long run!
We would have liked to explore the steeper, ungroomed runs like Schneider, Utopia-A, Ushikubi and Kurokura but the lack of snow meant these runs were hard and full of moguls. We definitely saw the potential though.
Being quite a large mountain, with many wide, open runs Nozawa Onsen has something to offer everyone. I would say most of the terrain would suit beginner to intermediate/advanced intermediate. The advanced terrain we could ride due to the conditions was limited. The official break down is 40% beginner, 30% intermediate and 30% advanced. To make things more challenging, head for the trees. There are plenty around and often where you’ll find the powder pockets.
The park and other features are good fun, with nothing too extreme so you feel confident hitting most things. There’s also a half pipe too.
Apart from the (normally) powder, we love the lift ticket prices in Japan. How does less than $AUD60 for a full day sound? And talk about flexibility, they offer morning (08:30-13:00) or afternoon (12:30-17:00) passes for around $AUD45.
Things to do around Nozawa Onsen
A popular tourist attraction is the snow monkeys which are about an hour or so away from Nozawa Onsen. The warm weather meant most of the snow had disappeared around the hot springs which the snow monkeys swim in. Having seen the pictures of the hot springs without the snow, we decided to save visiting the monkeys for our next, hopefully snowier, visit.
The warm weather did make us venture further afield and we did a day trip to Nagano, the capital of the same-named prefecture. It was an easy journey there, catching the bus to Iiyama and then the bullet train to Nagano. So how quick is the bullet train? The bus ride from Iiyama to Nagano would’ve taken about an hour and the Shinkansen did it in 11 mins…
Nagano was a pleasant surprise. This is a modern Japanese city scattered with historical and cultural buildings. We visited the Buddhist temple, Zenkō-ji, walking up there via the beautiful street, Chuo Dori, from the main train station. Definitely worth a visit, the temple dates back to the 7th century. In fact, Nagano, established in 1897, was originally a town built around the temple.
By the way, Nagano train station was something else. I think we spent close to two hours in this mega-mall type complex. With so much great and varied food, along with unique (to us) shops, it took all our resolve to leave the place to explore outside!
There are quite a few other snow resorts in Nagano, some easily accessible as day trips from Nozawa Onsen. With more time and better conditions, the ones on our radar were Togari Onsen Ski Resort (20 mins), Madarao Kogen Ski Resort (40 mins), Shiga Kogen (60 mins) and Lotte Arai (65 mins). Further, but still in Nagano, are Hakuba and Cortina but these are 2hrs+ from Nozawa Onsen.
Visit Nozawa Onsen
If you’re wondering where to ski in Japan, Nozawa Onsen is a great snow destination to add to your list. Apart from the snow and terrain, we love visiting Japan for the cultural and food experience. And for this, Nozawa Onsen won’t let you down.
And there was something a little extra special about this trip as it was the first time we rode our custom Savage Panda snowboards. Read all about our experience riding the best snowboards we've ever ridden!
We plan to revisit soon but will head there a little earlier in the season, around late Jan or early Feb. I think the weather will provide a better chance of a few more powder days than later on in the season. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had awesome conditions in late winter and early spring previously but if you’ve only got 1-2 weeks, you need to stack the odds in your favour.
Have you been to Nozawa Onsen or would you like to hit us up for more information? If so, please leave a comment below.
And in the meantime, keep searching for pow!
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