Most ski resorts around the world are owned by the man, aka a faceless corporate entity usually lacking empathy with their customers, and Japan is mostly no different. But at Nozawa locals like 18th generation ryokan owner Akakiro Mori got together a few years back and bought out the lift company. these are people who love skiing, and their mountain.
It shows. The service levels are a cut above, and everything is done to make the visitors experience easier and better. Like the giant enclosed moving walkway to take you up the hill from the back of town (past a beautiful temple/cemetery site that’s well worth a quiet look around; a lot of ancestors are keeping an eye on the current generation) which saves what would be a stiff hike.
Step off the walkway and the main Hikage Station base area has everything you need from ski schools to hire to lockers (no need to lug gear back and forwards, leave it here) so you can get yourselves and kids if in tow sorted quickly.
The gondola gets you out of the base fast, and you can start discovering the variety and sheer scope of the skiing on offer – this is one of Japan’s biggest single mountain areas, offering nearly 1100m vertical from the Mt Kenashi peak at 1650m, on groomed runs up to 10km long along with a huge amount of accessible glade and tree skiing for the frequent pow days from December to April. Long term Aussie long term local Mark Baumann, who’s done over 20 seasons here, rates March his favourite time – longer days, still plenty of powder, and fewer people.
“We get 12 metres of snow a season on average, with dumps of 50cm or more not uncommon” he says, and it’s easy to believe – just ski past the summer road signs which the snowpack usually puts within touching distance by mid-season. If you are here for a week or more you will likely score some great days.
To get at it there are several designated powder zones, on cut trails and in the trees, like the Yamabiko zone between the main marked runs of the summit quad chair there. Get up here and it’s hard to tear yourself away: a 500 metre or so long natural half pipe gully is perfect for lip rolls and pops for starters, and being over 3000 vertical feet above the village base level you usually find top quality snow even days after a dump.
Apart from the designated pow zones, skiable at your own risk, there are a lot more areas where the attitudes toward skiing them appear to be changing from strict prohibition to laxer if you know what you are doing and stay out of trouble.
Skiing around with Mori San we dropped into a few of these are they/aren’t they skiable areas, and no one chased us. On a stormy, dumping day no one would see you anyway.
There are so many tasty, nicely pitched drop offs from the ridgeline spine runs that you could spend a long time before getting bored here. Hiking out a little opens up plenty more, with some incredible views over to surrounding areas like Madarao, with Shiga Kogen in the distance beyond that.
For the non-pow fiend the long, wide open perfectly groomed cruising runs along the top ridgeline provide as good beginner/progressive terrain to learn on as you’ll find anywhere, all serviced by fast bubble lifts. The lifts are well maintained and efficient – with more on the way soon according to Mori San.
No doubt the area gets busy peak weekends and holidays, but early February we hardly saw a liftline worthy of the name – a couple of minutes wait max. There’s enough terrain that everyone gets spread out, and as they tire a host of slopeside restaurants are waiting.
Serious carvers get steeper, faster action continuing down the spine lines to the bases, and for non stop trucking try the Skyline run.
For mixed ability groups, couples, or families, the layout means everyone can be high up on the mountain enjoying the best snow, views and restaurants and stay in touch through the day.
The total variety and quality of the skiing makes it one of the best all-round options in Japan. Here it’s all in one mountain too, though you can start at several different base areas and day trips to Madarao or Myoko are easy with cheap shuttle bus connections daily.
The local pro-active management is another huge plus; they are proud of their ski traditions and the local grommets are hot. The ski school is excellent, and the Salomon Station hire well stocked with new gear.
Good as the skiing is, the real clincher to make this a must ski destination is the town, functioning for centuries as an onsen destination, and for nearly a century as a winter sports one too.
Sure, no high rise hotels or mega all-in complexes like so many purpos built ski resorts here means so slopeside convenience, but a real town full of Japanese funkiness at every turn is a lot more fun anyway. Foot spas, street food stalls, and thirteen free public onsens which have been looked after by the Yu-nakama (friends of the hot spa) since the Edo era stamp Nozawa as the real deal. The onsen here are 100% natural, using fresh hot spring water.
Of course a lot of the hotels and ryokan have their own onsen, but the public onsen experience is not to be missed as well.
There are numerous restaurants, karaoke bars and izakaya pubs to be discovered strolling around the village in the evenings.
To stay you can go from simple budget pensions and apartments to the luxurious Ryokan Sakaya, which was awarded Japan’s Best Ski Boutique Hotel at the World Ski Awards in 2013 (joining Buller’s Pension Grimus which got the same award for Australia).
Some lodging is effectively slopeside, but it hardly matters and it’s nice to be in town in the heart of the action – storing your gear on slope just means a bit of an uphill walk before hopping on the moving walkway.
On the cultural front you have probably heard of the famous Dosojin fire festival every 15th of January, which we have written up previously. While the locals are used to mixing fire and alcohol in this context, lately crowds of daytrippers coming over from Hakuba have been getting a bit out of hand crowding in on the activities. If you do go keep your distance; it’s a local tradition handed down from father to son and, there is method and long experience in the apparent madness. Drunken Aussies blundering in trying to get involved are definitely not welcome, and could easily end up with a lot worse than a singed ski jacket if they don’t respect the locals and just watch.
From Tokyo take the Asama Shinkansen to Nagano, then out the East Exit to bus stop 4 for Nozawa buses, 1 hour 15 minutes. Or change to JR Iiyama line to Iiyama, 20 minutes taxi or bus from there to Nozawa.
From Osaka/Nagoya take the Shinkansen to Nagoya, then Chuo Line Shinano Limited Express train to Nagano Station (3 hours).