by Greg Sadil
It’s 5 days before Christmas, the ski season is into its second week, and we are worried. Sweating on the snow reports prior to jumping on our plane to Tokyo, we are confronted with what every skier and boarder dreads, a ski holiday with no snow. Fortunately the white stuff is forecast but can you trust them?
In Japan you can, as they tend to underestimate the amount of snow that falls, probably because they get so much, they can sum it up in one word, dump. That is precisely what it did – 70cm in Nozawa Onsen the night we arrived.
The direct bus from Narita airport gets us into our lodge, Villa Nozawa, at 1.30am. The notice board directs us to our rooms with a simple message, “Powder day, see you in the morning for breakfast”.
Clear blue skies greet us and the sparkling fresh powder awaits, a perfect way to initiate and orientate yourself in this winter wonderland. A few of the runs haven’t yet opened, as the season is just beginning, but there is more than enough acreage and untracked snow to satisfy the most committed powder maniac.
A bow from the lifty, a ‘hai’ and we are on our way. We attempt to get off at mid station, thinking it’s the top, only to have our path blocked by another bowing attendant before we do a dogleg and ascend to the summit.
What’s missing? We ask. Besides the lack of people in the holiday period, it’s Westerners. Hardly an Aussie, European or American to be seen. Nozawa Onsen is becoming a preferred destination for Singaporeans, who don’t tend to battle for first tracks, and Japanese holiday makers. This is confirmed at lunchtime where we are the only non Asians, our menu is in Japanese and we have to point at pictures to get served. The tables are stunted, forcing us to kneel and fight for the limited wall space as a back rest. We are encouraged to take off our ski boots and put on slippers whilst our jackets and gloves are roasting by the furnace. In fact, you feel more like you are eating in somebody’s home than a restaurant, with the welcome bows and smiles accompanying a piping hot ramen and ice cold Asahi beer. There are six mountain restaurants abutting the Paradise run, others scattered around the mountain, and a huge choice at the base of the two gondolas, or as the Japanese spell it, gondoras.
Our afternoon is finished off with a thigh burning run down Skyline, a red, black, green run depending which route you choose (a few good options for off piste) to the base, where it’s a short downhill stroll home.
It’s then off to what Nozawa Onsen is famous for – onsens! This is onsen central, acknowledged as some of the finest thermal springs in Japan, and it’s been that way for centuries. Interspersed around the town are 13 free community onsens and a large number of private bath houses.
The men’s onsen is eerily quiet, whilst a mere brick wall away, the Japanese chatter from women’s onsen is relentless. Oyu is one of the more popular bathing onsens, while Ogama is close to the source of the springs and used for cooking your veggies and eggs!
There are a wide range of choices for dinner with the usual Japanese fare of tepenyaki, sushi, sashimi, okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes) and noodles, washed down with a beer or sake. For the less adventurous, pizzas and spaghetti. The Austrians with their ever present influence in the good ski resorts are well represented with schnitzels, dumplings, strudel and schnapps. In fact Nozawa Onsen is the sister town of the famous St Anton in the Alberg. This has a significant influence on the cuisine, some of the architecture and the ski school. Pension Schnee, Lodge Hahnenkamm, Schneider and Rest House St Anton are on snow lodges and restaurants that betray their heritage.
The cobblestoned roads and thoroughfares are naturally heated from the thermal water, another benefit of this quaint little town, as it means no snow or ice. You can get by without moonboots, and even walking in ski boots is almost bearable.
One of the oldest resorts in Japan, dating back to 8th century, Nozawa Onsen lays claim to being the birthplace of Japanese skiing (as do a couple of other towns too).
The village is celebrating 100 years of Japanese skiing. Its centre is a collection of ryokans (inns), minshuku (more rustic inns), shrines, souvenir shops, restaurants and bars. A few karaoke bars are dotted around the town reminding you of the fact that it is the 21st century, and it is modern Japan.
A day before Christmas and another meter of snow tumbles (thanks Santa san). Enough to open up the remaining runs, and provide knee to chest deep powder on the piste and through the trees and chutes. It’s an interesting resort as most of the challenging runs are at the top and bottom of the mountain. The mid areas cater more to the beginners and intermediates, but there is more than enough challenging terrain to satisfy the diehards. Boarders and skiers are equally represented, and satisfied, as the moisture free Japanese powder snow provides a winter playground unrivalled in other parts of the planet. Some covered bubble chairs and gondolas provide protection from the elements.
The boys found a tasty line under a chair, and managed to bail out of it on their last lap to avoid getting sprung by a patroller trap – off piste is on/off here, but with a bit of care you can grab plenty.
The Dosojin Fire Festival on January 15th is a season highlight. People are attracted from all over Japan to witness the burning of a huge wooden shrine where 42 year olds on top and 25 year olds at the bottom (both considered unlucky ages) attempt to engage in battle, the 25 year olds ‘defending’ the shrine from sake filled revellers. And to think, back home in nanny-state Canberra you can’t even light a firecracker once a year anymore. Too dangerous.
Fireworks, fire and sake provide a potent mix, and for the normally conservative locals, an excuse to ‘Kampai’ and party with the best of them.
Arigato Nozawa Onsen. Great town, great snow, great mountain and great holiday. Unreal ‘real Japan’.
[the ticket] nozawa onsen
snowfall 14m summit 1650m
base 565m vert 1085m
terrain 300ha • 30% adv/exp • 30% int • 40% beg
lifts 21 incl 2 gondolas, 2 bubble express quads
day pass ¥4600
where to stay Ryokan Sakaya is hard to beat – owned by the same family for centuries, offering the ultimate blend of old and new for a memorable stay www.ryokan-sakaya.co.jp
For great value lodges & houses, eg Villa Nozawa with twin rooms from ¥ 7000 per night including western breakfasts, or the 30 nights march/april super deal with unlimited ski pass, breakfasts, onsen
from ¥ 125000, with March many locals favourite month to ski, check www.nozawaholidays.com