Nozawa Onsen is located in Nagano and is a very small hot spring village. It is not touristy like Niseko, and actually has a very authentic Japanese village feel to it. It is roughly a 4hr train from Tokyo, so the weekends are filled with Tokyoites. The Japanese tourists far outweighs the foreigners and it’s evident from the number of English ski instructors (there was only 1 when I was there).
We spent the Christmas of 2011 in Nozawa Onsen and it felt like any other day (Christmas is not a holiday in Japan). We walked around with our santa hats and only exchange Christmas greetings with the foreign tourist. The season started in mid Dec so by the time we got there on the 23rd Dec all the lifts were open. Very heavy snow with poor visibility on a few days and on a couple of days the higher lifts were closed due to strong winds. Some of the chair lifts are quite old and without the safety bar, so just have to be careful if you have young children. Snow quality is perfect powder – soft and fluffy, and it comes down by the buckets! The town also has a TV channel that show the live weather conditions on the different slopes so it is quite useful to check before heading out for the day.
It is not that complicated to get to Nozawa Onsen by JR, but we chose the lazier way, booking a Chuo taxi to take us from Narita airport direct to the hotel. It cost ¥12,000/person from Narita to our hotel’s doorstep and it took about 6 hours. Compared to the taking the JR from Narita, it is about the same time in total time (got to factor in the additional hour plus from Narita to Tokyo), and it does not cost that much more.
On the way back, we took the JR as we spent a few days in Tokyo. We took a highway bus from Nozawa Onsen to Nagano (~ 1hr 20 mins, ¥1,400) and then a Shinkansen from Nagano to Tokyo (~ 1 hour46mins, ¥7,970). The bus stops at a few places along the main road at Nozawa Onsen, we got the bus at the terminal which was a 5min walk from our hotel. At the terminal, there are some posters in English, but realistically there’s no one speaking English. You buy the ticket from the bus driver when you get on.
There are 13 public (free) onsens dotted around the village. It is a common sight to see the Japanese people scurrying to the onsen in their slippers and bath robe and walking back casually from it. I tried to go, but the sight of so many naked women after I pushed through the door was overwhelming. These communal baths must be a cultural thing, I don’t think I could get used to it. If you do go, bring your own soap and shampoo to clean yourself before going into the onsen. A small face towel is acceptable in the water, and I find that is useful to cover my face (Shy lah!)
The best place to rent the skis are at St Antons at the base of the mountain. They have a locker service where you can leave your boots and skis overnight. There are not many ski-in ski-out options in Nozawa Onsen, so this is the next best option. It was a 5min walk up to the Yu road (moving walkway) but it can be quite slippery even with normal shoes.
This was really really good, I think we ate there a couple of times and even came down from the slopes to have it 1 day for lunch. I had udon and soba both hot and cold and with tempura and onsen egg… (onsen egg is like soft boiled egg). The soup is really good after a cold day on the slopes. *must try*
The restaurant has a big menu and the tonkatsu was really good.
3) St Anton
The ski shop is in the basement and the 1st and 2nd floors of the cottage is a café which serves pretty decent food for lunch.I like the beef bowl with onsen egg or the curry
4) Buna on the Slopes
We tried the curry for lunch… it was just soso in my opinion, and more expensive than the places at the bottom of the slopes.
Where we stayed:
9535 Nozawa Onsen, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano 389-2502
This ryokan was refurbished in 2011 to a modern style so it was very new when we stayed. We stayed in their Deluxe Studio which had a small pantry, dining area and ensuite. We had the opening offer of ¥20,160 yen per night including a daily continental breakfast pack (¥25,200 the usual price). Eggs, ham, sausages, bread, jam, fruit, and juices were provided in the mini fridge but you do have to cook your own breakfast. Abit of a bummer since you are on holiday but was still manageable. There is an onsen in the basement in case you don’t feel like walking around the village in your bathrobe. The ryokan is close to all the 2 restaurants listed above and a 5 min walk to the Yu road.