Discovering Nozawa Onsen In Winter - A Photo Guide
This year's northern hemisphere snowboarding holiday was to Nozawa Onsen (also Nozawaonsen) in Japan. Nozawa Onsen is located in the Shimotakai District in the northeast Nagano Prefecture in the Chubu region of Japan.
We loved our time there and although we didn't get the massive dumps of daily powder which we were hoping for, it gave us time to really explore the area which is something we don't always get a chance to do because...well you know, when the powder calls!
Nozawa Onsen is easy to explore by foot and has a very traditional feel to it, even though the number of overseas visitors is growing. For example, at breakfast time in the villa we were staying at, you could have easily forgotten that you were in Japan, aside from the fact that we were sitting on the ground! I'd say that the guests staying at this particular spot were 80% Australian. But despite this, as you wander the streets, Nozawa Onsen still feels authentic, traditional and full of Japanese culture.
Nozawa Onsen as you can probably guess is known for its onsens. There are 13 free onsens as well as private onsens throughout the town. These natural hot spring baths are filled with minerals which are therapeutic and great for soothing sore muscles. Aside from a facility called Spa Arena, these bathing houses are single sex only and bathing suits cannot be worn. I highly recommend experiencing the traditional onsen if you get a chance, but before you do, make sure you read our post on Japanese onsen etiquette so you know exactly what to do.
The Ogama Onsen is a cooking onsen which can only be used by locals. Impressive, functional and beautiful, the locals use the onsen to cook their food with one of the most popular items being the onsen egg. I am so in love and fascinated with the onsen egg! Presented complete in its shell, you crack the egg open and out pops an egg which is very similar to a poached egg. Although the white part looks soft and slightly translucent, I promise you, it is definitely cooked. Sooo...good!
There are also mini cooking onsens scattered around town which can be used by anyone. It took me a while to realise what they were and I forgot to get a photo, but they are steaming wooden boxes and you'll normally find them in the front of an onsen. Give cooking your own onsen egg a go!
Skiing & Snowboarding At Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort
Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort is the main reason that people come to Nozawa Onsen in winter. Extending from Mt. Kenashi, the highest point is at 1,650m, with a vertical drop of 1,085m. The total skiable terrain is 297 hectares (734 acres). The longest run is 10km and it's a pretty even split between beginner, intermediate and advanced terrain.
We found it to be a really fun mountain with fantastic tree runs and natural gullies. Stay tuned for our comprehensive guide to Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort.
One of the things we look forward to when we snowboard in Japan is mountain food. Usually, we try to avoid having lunch on the mountain because we are faced with dirty burgers and dried out pies. Not in Japan! In Japan, I get excited about lunch as soon as I've finished breakfast. The quality and variety of food is amazing. There are plenty of options on the mountain itself otherwise check out the base of Nagasaka Gondola or Hikage Gondola.
As you cruise down the main street of town, be sure to check out the Japanese dumplings (Oyaki). You'll find them out by the road either in a street cart of in front of a store. Some vendors will only sell one type whilst others will have a selection.
At dinner time you're going to be spoilt for choice! After two weeks of eating out every night, we honestly felt like we had only just scratched the surface. Every single meal was sensational. Nozawa Holidays has put out an excellent restaurant and bar guide so check that out if you want some guidance but otherwise pop in to anywhere that takes your fancy, I highly doubt you will be disappointed. Some of our best dining experiences were places that didn't even look like restaurants. Look for the red lanterns or curtains at the entrance.
One of our favourite dining experiences was at a small restaurant which we were told had the best gyoza in town. When we arrived there was nothing around the restaurant to suggest they were famous for gyoza. In fact, the menu just showed one type. But apparently that's all you need - true to the rumours they were amazing! We also ordered 2 beers and 2 sakes. We ended up with 4 sakes and no beer but it was the most delicious sake we have ever had.
The area is famous for its Nozawana - a pickled vegetable. Most restaurants will serve it as a free starter before your meal and each establishment will have their own version of it. Tell them that their Nozawana is Oishi (meaning delicious) and they will be super chuffed. They even have their own Nozawana mascot in the form of a blow up slide in the kid's village. It took us a while to figure out what it was because it looks like a giant green tooth!
A note on eating out - reservations are recommended especially if you have a large group. Many of the restaurants are tiny so they fill up pretty quickly and you might find yourself having to wait an hour or so before you are seated. We had a pretty big group when we were there, so after dinner, we would walk around town, and make reservations for the next few nights. A lot of restaurants are only open at night so we found this was the best way to do it.
If you're looking for something to do on a down day, the nearby town of Nagano is definitely worth checking out. Catch the bus to Iiyama which takes about 30 minutes, then catch the 12 minute bullet train to Nagano.
A very different feel to Nozawa Onsen, Nagano is a bustling city, with shopping malls and big modern buildings. When we arrived at Nagano train station, we were hit with sensory overload at all the cool things around. We actually had to force ourselves out of the train station after a couple of hours in fear that we would spend our entire day there. We did get another couple of hours fix before the ride home though!
The town of Nagano was created around Zenko-ji (also Zenkoji), a Buddhist temple built in the 7th century. It is the largest temple in all of eastern Japan and in 1998, the bells rang as the start of the Winter Olympics with a wish for world peace.
The Zenko-ji temple is a really nice walk from Nagano Station and will take about 30 minutes. Give yourself longer though because if you're anything like us, you'll find yourself taking short detours as many things along the way will catch your eye.
A couple of other popular attractions that we weren't able to get to on this trip are:
- The Snow Monkeys - a day trip from Nozawa Onsen, the snow monkeys are a really popular attraction and considered a must do. Unfortunately, we didn't make it out to see them. In all honesty, we debated it amongst our group and due to the lack of snow in the area, we felt that it may not be the experience that we had in our minds so we've got that on the list of things to do for our next visit. Our buddies over at Snorkels To Snow had an amazing experience there the year before, so check out their excellent guide to visiting the Jigokundani Snow Monkey Park.
- Nozawa Fire Festival - this famous festival is held annually on the 15th January and is one of Japan's top three fire festivals. An 18 meter tower is built over a few days, with assistance from around 100 villagers, and then torched. Men who are of the ages 42 and 25 play a special role. These ages are considered to be unlucky, so the 42 year olds sit on top and the 25 year olds guard the base as the villagers try to break through and torch the tower. The battle goes on for about an hour. It sounds intense!
We loved visiting Nozawa Onsen! It was a town that was very comfortable with overseas tourists, yet still felt authentic and traditional. The streets were peaceful and quiet at night and the locals were incredibly welcoming. If you're looking for a party town, this isn't it. But if you're looking to experience some true Japanese culture, onsens and great snow, then Nozawa Onsen is definitely for you.
Nozawa Holidays have some great ski resort and town maps which can be downloaded here.
Let me know if you have any questions! And if you've been to Nozawa Onsen, let me know how you found it!
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