So, you’re lucky enough to have done Courchevel, Les Arcs and Morzine and you’re looking for your next ski adventure.
Alternatively, you’re new to skiing and the European “scene” seems a little overwhelming and trop cher.
Well, Nozawa Onsen in Japan’s central alps is the antidote and here are six reasons why…
1. The accommodation is super kawaii (cute)
We stayed at a welcoming Japanese guest house called “Elizabeth”, and despite its European name, this charming 20 bedroomed guest house in the centre of town made us feel like we were in a Japanese Wes Anderson movie. Like most accommodation in Japan, shoes are removed on entry, and we were given snuggly velvet slippers.
There’s a roaring fire, and blankets in the communal reception area where you can sit and watch the water flow down from the mountains and into the waterfall strategically positioned outside the window as you enjoy free tea and coffee. Zen.
Our traditional style room came complete with sliding doors, paper screens on the windows, Japanese art, and futon style mattresses low to the floor. Functional, simple, calming and comfortable.
2. The food is oiishi (delicious)
Who wouldn’t prefer a steaming bowl of ramen (noodle soup) at the top of the slopes over a crappy croque-monsieur and floppy frites. In some resorts in Europe you’ll be charged over 20 euros for the latter, whilst in Japan you’ll get the best quality ramen for around 900 yen (£6) plus cheap ice-cold beer and as much free green tea you can drink. We enjoyed a lifetime-best pork katsu curry, sitting outside in the sun at Hakugin Lodge on the Paradise run down the mountain for about £8 each.
We heartily recommend eating out an array of local restaurants – one particular highlight was family-run Sakai where we ate at the counter and watched the chefs at work. Cooking in Japan is an art form – no shouting, no sweating, no “Service!” – it makes the whole process a joy to watch. The style of food at Sakai was izakaya, which is like tapas or cicchetti; lots of small plates. We scoffed chicken yakitori (teriyaki skewers), gyoza (dumplings), grilled squid and tofu agadashi (fried in a sweet broth).
Whilst there isn’t the same apres-ski vibe here as in some European resorts, there are plenty of places to grab a post-ski drink. There’s The Craft Room at the bottom of Yagasowa lift where you’ll find Australians behind the bar and more of a Western feel (they do an excellent coffee and fruity Nozawa Summer Ale). Libushi Brewery just off the main street has an impressive menu of yummy beers ranging from 3.5-9% (no skiing after a couple of those!) and a Hackney vibe — and also Tanuki where the bar downstairs hosts live music.
3. Travelling is a doddle
None of that ‘extortionate flight to Geneva followed by a £100 bus transfer to your resort’ malarkey — in Japan they’ve got travel down. The shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Iiyama takes about one hour and 30 minutes, and runs almost every hour. You’ll need to get your Japanese Rail pass before you arrive in the country and that allows you unlimited travel across the network.
It’s a little pricey at £300 for two weeks, but if you’re travelling around Japan and covering hundreds of miles then it’s worth it for the efficiency and flexibility. You can also buy single shinkansen tickets too if you don’t need the pass.
For Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort, once you arrive at Iiyama station you jump on the bus, ready and waiting (so efficient) for 600yen (£4) for 25mins. Doddle.
4. The skiing is incredible value for money
Firstly, ski and boot hire and ski passes are WAY cheaper than in Europe — about £20 a day for ski and boot hire and about £27 a day for passes – with a generous discount because we were staying at “Elizabeth”.
Secondly, whilst there’s no denying there are more slopes to explore throughout the European resorts, the runs at Nozawa Onsen are ample and varied with plenty to explore over four days or so. You are also permitted to ski off-piste, within reason. The season tends to kick off around November and you’ll get decent ski until the end of March (when we visited). We were told some of the top slopes can stay open until May!
The top of the mountain is 1650m, and when we visited had almost 3m of snow to ski over. We were shown around by a charming French ski guide called Remi who helped us get our bearings, gave us some ski tips and the low down on the town.
5. Bath like the snow monkeys
ONSEN. Onsen everywhere.
Free natural hot baths that soothe your aching muscles before, or after a hard day’s ski. There’s something beautifully spiritual about this Japanese ritual of self-preservation. The onsen are quite small and split male / female. It’s vital you respect the local traditions here and wash yourself before submerging in the water (hot! even by Japanese standards at between 43-55 degs C, some are hotter, so it’s worth checking); removing all clothing (wearing a swimsuit would be judged as if you got in fully clothed) and being respectfully quiet.
You’ll see three generations of families peacefully taking time together. Everyone is courteous and you should smile, bow your head and say konnichiwa (hello) as you enter.
6. The Japanese have thought of everything!
The toilets are a joy – where else in the world can you say that? All loo seats we came across were heated – a pleasure when you’re skiing in -1 degrees and we challenge anyone not to make ahhhh sounds as your chilly buttocks hit the seats. There’s also numerous lol wash functions on most loos as well as a music button if you need some “privacy.”
The ingenious Japanese have come up with vending machines that deliver hot coffee in a can. Oishii. You’ll find these in cities and in the most remote parts of Japan, including up the mountains, for the equivalent of £1. You won’t find that in Europe.
The courier system in Japan is dope. We sent our ski stuff in a suitcase from Tokyo airport straight to our hotel and then back again, so that we didn’t need to lug it around with us as we explored other parts of Japan. This cost about £20 each way and once again, was super-efficient – have you spotted a theme?