Nozawa Onsen offers an amazing combination of great snow, great mountain and great real Japanese onsen town. No wonder it’s in the top 3 resorts for Aussie visitors to Japan. Getting so popular does mean it’s a little harder to find first tracks. So we asked our gun photographer Shaun Mittwollen for the local insider’s lowdown on where to find the best powder at Nozawa Onsen.
The pre dawn glow illuminates a heavy atmosphere. Flakes descend at such density that the sounds of village life are soft and distant. Next door, scrapes of shovel on concrete, the morning alarm clock takes on an unfamiliar tone as an old man battles the daily inundation. A brief glance out the frosted window reveals a true winter wonderland scene. Giant pillows of snow engulf cars, houses and even people.
“Forty centimetres and counting since last lifts!” Yet another powder day. The monotony of winter in Nozawa Onsen.
Tips for a deep day at Nozawa Onsen
Schlepping through snow to the first lift the trickle of hot onsen streams are ever-present Nozawa Onsen soundtrack. Arrival at the gondola bottom station sets an eager scene. Snow brushed off shoulders and heads cake the rubber matting floors. A plethora of wide bodied craft festoon the ground in some form of a line, surrounded by growing numbers of excited punters. The crowd murmurs vague intentions for the day, probing yet secretive. No one wants to give up their secret stash. But it is no secret, many of these people will be headed for the obvious, the top lifts, Yamabiko.
It is true that Yamabiko offers some of the classiest inbound tree skiing in Nozawa Onsen. The intrinsically patterned birch trees are widely spaced and the gradient moderate enough to both learn the art of riding powder or blast through kicking up wafts of crystalline spray. Here the snow remains so dry that it clings to the trees forming a photogenic backdrop of frozen floral skeletons. Beneath the Yamabiko C lift two gullies meander downhill offering playful and flowing natural features of hips, lips and rolls for the athletically inclined. Being both the highest point of the resort and a designated off piste area, Yamabiko tends to attract the largest congregations of frothing powder hounds. As a result, it is the fastest area to become tracked out. Worth the early rush but by mid morning its time to move further afield.
Towards the lower elevations can be found the steepest gradients in Nozawa Onsen, often in excess of thirty five degrees. One such area is the Challenge slopes. North facing, the snow quality here is top notch. The protected nature of the slopes often sees even greater accumulations during storm events. On good days it isn’t uncommon to see riders buried up to their necks just meters off the slopes. Access is easiest via the Challenge pair lift, one of the fastest and least crowded lifts in Nozawa. The alternate Hikage Gondola takes in a slower but more scenic approach, bridging gaps over deep snow clad valleys. Not called Challenge without a reason, the trees either sides of the pistes here are tighter than Yamabiko, requiring a more precise approach. But they can reward you with untracked lines for most if not all of the day.
“Thirty centimetres, the magic foot!”
In Nozawa Onsen the phrase is integral vocabulary. Thirty centimetres of fresh overnight powder is the perfect amount considering the resorts terrain. Deep enough to paint a blank canvas whilst providing copious entries into a bottomless white room. Anything more and the difficulty can exponentially increase as steeper and steeper gradients are required to maintain momentum without bogging down. The Challenge area and lower Skyline blacks are excellent starters on such deeper days. Many make the mistake of heading to Yamabiko, where the moderate gradient is only just enough to straight line through the trees. One error and the hapless skier, or more often boarder, is stuck fast and floundering for an escape back to the pistes. Much to the comedic relief of those passing on lifts overhead!
Perhaps the most forgotten area for powder skiing in Nozawa Onsen is the Kandahar course. Often Utilised as a downhill raceway, the trees splitting West and East course offer playful open tree skiing with moderate steepness and plenty of rollers. Near the top station a buried summer road winds back around the ridge top and its possible to follow the road along before dropping back down into the valley through open pine forest, eventually reaching the Forest Trail. Care must be taken to avoid the creek near the valley floor. The skiing here isn’t especially steep but the isolation, pine forest and abundant pillows make for a very unique experience.
Off-piste powder options at Nozawa Onsen
Beyond the boundaries of Nozawa Onsen lie some of the finest tree skiing in all of Japan. Steep, uninterrupted vertical of at least half a kilometre complete with pristine powder snow and constantly shifting natural features. Prone to avalanches the open gullies and vegetated ridges fan out into huge deposits of debris near the base. These faces present great risk to the inexperienced and ski patrol have become increasingly vigilant monitoring the boundary ropes over the past few years. Avalanche beacons and training are an absolute necessity.
On fine days backcountry touring is surging in popularity. For the very well prepared an excellent day tour can be had by following sky top ridges South West from Yamabiko leading down towards the tiny onsen town of Maguse. Stable weather and a guide are requirements for this route as many people have become lost and disorientated in the complex terrain. But what better way to finish a day’s adventure than with a cheap vending machine Asahi and a hot soak in an open air onsen surrounded by the soaring Japanese Alps. – Shaun Mittwollen
For more variety take a day bus trip to nearby Madarao.
Nozawa Onsen getting there/more info
Take the Hokuriku shinkansen to Iiyama, only 25 mins bus or taxi ride from Nozawa.
Nozawa Onsen packages and accommodation
Nozawa Holidays own & operate 6 great properties in Nozawa, and act as agent for many other accommodations in the village for all budgets, with 23 years experience – check their Villa Nozawa property here