Nothing beats onsen and for ski onsen Manza, Zao and Nozawa are all excellent. Let’s face it, most of us have never been so clean as on our snow trips to Japan. The ritual cleansing and hot bath plunge that follow are something special, nowhere better than at resorts which combine superb skiing with magnificent natural onsen.
We are counting them down here, starting with our #3 Manza.
Manza is Japan’s highest onsen resort, once one of their most chic ski areas, formerly favoured by their fashion and film star icons. But as new mega resorts developed it fell off the local radar, and never registered with western visitors at all, so it remains an idyllic getaway, especially for couples.
The Prince Hotel Manza sits mid-mountain at 1800m in the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, offering ski in/ski out convenience to a small but varied area – 7 lifts accessing a 362m vertical that includes plenty of easily accessed trees and side-country which if you are competent enough they don’t seem to mind you skiing. The views are spectacular from the top, and pretty nice from the outdoor onsen pools too.
The altitude ensures quality snow, and the 7m average season snowfall sounds a bit low by ridiculous Japanese standards but would be the envy of most places in Europe and North America.
We enjoyed boot to knee deep fresh snow, and minimal competition for it – the head of ski patrol came out for a look with us (presumably to see if we could look after ourselves) on the first run, then we had the out of bounds under an old chair lift line and beyond, to ourselves.
There’s actually a second smaller area here that only opens on Sundays and holidays, so we got lucky with first shot at that too. A bit of hiking/skinning would extend your options, but the frontside is mostly easy cruising.
Fun as the skiing is, it’s not the main reason you would go. The onsen are. Sulphurous steam rises from the valley behind the hotel, a clear indication this is the real deal in the thermal water department. The hotel’s use of it confirms that fact. You can choose from a whole selection of different temperatures and mineral compositions; indoors or outdoors; his, hers or family mixed. In total the Prince has 10 onsen, with another 10 in the Manza Kogen hotel next door.
For my money nothing beats an outdoor onsen or several after skiing , and they don’t get any better than at Manza with magnificent views across to the surrounding 2,000m peaks and the 3,000m Japan Alps.
Next there’s the included mega buffet dinner to look forward to, and likely an early night – after skiing and soaking and eating the fact that there is no aprés at all doesn’t really matter that much.
You are unlikely to run into too many other western guests – we were the only western faces in the whole hotel, or on the hill, all weekend during our visit, which was a nice change. Obviously that also means it’s the sort of place where coming as a couple, family or at least a group of friends is the best idea unless your Japanese is up to scratch.
A two or three night stay here combines easily with anywhere accessed via Nagano using a JR East Rail Pass – just get on/off at Karuizawa and continue on to your Nagano area destination or back to Tokyo/the airport depending whether you do it first or last.
There’s a more adventurous option, ski touring over with a guide service from Shiga Kogen – you ski while the guide’s pick up takes your luggage around. This is of course weather dependent, and we lucked out, but you can check it out with Big Cloud Back Country Guiding & Shop which operates out of the Shiga Kogen Prince Hotel (west building). The tour cost is @ ¥15,000 per person for a minimum of 2 people, book via email@example.com
Getting to Manza Onsen
If you are booked to stay at the Prince or Manza Kogen Hotel it’s easy to get to, take the Nagano shinkansen to Karuizawa (1 hour) then a 90 minute free shuttle ride – 2 services daily, at 8.30am & 1.30pm to the resort, returning to the station 10.30am & 3.30pm, reservations required. Otherwise it’s 105 minutes from Karuizawa on the Seibu Kogen bus services.
More info/bookings: www.princehotels.com/en/ski/manzaonsen/index.html