Nozawa Onsen is well-known as a quaint and charming onsen (hot spring) resort in Nagano, Japan. My interest was piqued and I was curious how the ski experience would be in a traditional Japanese village.
The reality is, Nozawa Onsen is very popular amongst foreigners and our ski holiday here was not too different from being at Hakuba or Yuzawa.
Home to Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort, which is large resort with a variety of terrain, Nozawa Onsen is a charming little village littered with traditional Japanese architecture and public bath houses. The town has 15 public onsens and nestled in the narrow cobblestone streets at the main Onsen street “O-Yu”, amidst traditional ryokan, restaurants and shops.
Nozawa Onsen is about a 5.5 hour direct bus away from Narita Airport (via Nagano Snow Shuttle). Alternatively, you can also take the Shinkansen to Iiyama and then take a bus to Nozawa Onsen. There is a free ski bus in town that takes you to the different ski lifts of Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort.
Accommodations at Nozawa Onsen
Nozawa Onsen is quite a popular spot for foreigners and as such, accommodations are in high demand here. We tried to book our accommodation in November, for our trip in early February and found most of the popular places fully booked.
As an onsen village, if you are booking a ryokan, be prepared to see more options available for traditional Japanese rooms – where you get futons rather than Western beds and no private shower facilities in your room. Most of the ryokan has common bath facilities where you shower at the shower booths before soaking into the communal hot bath.
Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort
Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort has three main entrances: the Hikage Base which is nearest to the O-Yu (Onsen Street) area, the Nagasaka Base which is The Central part of the mountain; and the Karasawa Base, which is less crowded and boasts wide and gentle terrains for beginners.
The summit of the mountain – Mount Kenashi – is 1650 metres and there are a number of decent red and black on-piste trails for powder hounds. On a clear day, you may be able to see neighbouring mountains from the summit of Mount Kenashi.
Madarao Ski Resort
If you would like to take a break from Nozawa Onsen ski resort, Madarao Mountain Resort is an hour’s bus ride away via Notoma Bus. We dropped off at Madarao Kogen Hotel, which is a ski-in-ski-out resort spent a day there.
From the top of Mt Madarao, you will be able to spot the peak of Mt Myoko and the neighbouring mountains on a clear day.
Madarao Kogen Hotel also has their own hotel onsen, which would be a great idea to relax in the afternoon after some intensive ski action in the mountain!
Pro tip: Ask for the lift pass + lunch package when purchasing your lift ticket. The package deal gives you JPY1000 lunch voucher which can be used at selected resthouse on the slope.
Things to do other than skiing
Onsen hopping at Nozawa Onsen: Home to 13 public onsen, you could pick up at stamp collection booklet from the Nozawa Onsen Tourism Association office and go on an Onsen Trail and collect rubber stamps for your booklet at each checkpoint.
Jigokudani Yaen Koen (Snow Monkey Park): You can take a Notoma bus to the Snow Monkey Park, which is 65 minutes away from Nozawa Onsen. There is quite a bit of walking on slippery mountain slopes after the bus drop-off, so don’t forget to wear your boots for the extra grip. While a decent break away from skiing or snowboarding, I personally found the snow monkey park a tad overrated.
The monkeys can be quite wild, as I witnessed a trio got into an aggressive fight during my visit there. The environment was not as relaxed as you see on social media and in reality, it resembled like a natural zoo that is crowded by tourists.
Temples or attraction sites: If you are driving, you could consider visiting Zenkoji Temple or Matsutomo Castle. These attractions provide a good respite and some cultural immersion on Japan. I have visited Matsutomo Castle previously when at Hakuba and thoroughly enjoyed learning about the history of the castle and enjoying a scenic day away from the powdery snow.
Recommended Restaurants at Nozawa Onsen
There are quite a number of eateries in Nozawa Onsen, all within walking distance. However, as these eateries tend to have small seating capacity, it is advised that you plan and make your reservation a day earlier to avoid disappointment.
- Sobadokoro Daimon: This soba place is wildly popular and always attract long queues outside the restaurant. The soba was decent although to be honest, we have had better ones in Nagano.
- Minato: This Izakaya place is very popular and requires reservation. They are famous for their enormous hot pot full of fresh ingredients – crab, prawn, fresh vegetables, chicken etc. Definitely a must-go when you are at Nozawa Onsen!
- Akebi Tei: This is one of the few okonomiyaki places in Nozawa Onsen with a good selection in their menu. Your Okonomiyaki or Yakisoba made by the friendly chef.
- Tonkichi: Another eatery which is famous for their okonomiyaki as well as other selection – requires an advance booking or it would be hard to get a table.
- Haus St Anton: A cozy little cafe cum shop that sells coffee, gelato and home-made jam. The main draw to Haus St Anton is their Apple Cinnamon Oyaki (steamed buns)! Don’t bother with the other flavours, as we have discovered that the Apple Cinnamon one is the best.
- 治作 Izakaya: A tiny and unassuming izakaya that serves delicious dishes that reminds you of homecooked food.
- Resthouse Yamabiko: Indeed, this is just a resthouse on Yamabiko station of Nozawa Onsen. However, we highly recommend the Nozawana Teriyaki Chicken pizza here, which is an interesting combination of the local produce Nozawana pickled vegetables and Teriyaki Chicken bits.
- Book your accommodation early, as Nozawa Onsen is popular amongst foreigners. Try to book somewhere within walking distance from the ski lift.
- You may not need to rent a car here as shops are within walking distance. We rented our ski gear daily at the rental shop near the ski lift and returned them at the end of day before heading back to ryokan.
- If you are interested in supermarket shopping (like me!) and Japanese beauty/drugstore shopping, there are two large shops near Iiyama station – Tsuruya and American Drug. About 5-10 mins walk away is Delicia, which is a mega-mart.