This guide shares the top 5 things to do in the Japanese hot springs and ski resort town of Nozawa Onsen.
Japan’s Niseko has found worldwide acclaim as a premier ski destination, but just a train ride away from Tokyo, another, more unassuming ski town finds visitors falling in love: Nozawa Onsen. Located in the northern part of Nagano Prefecture, the hot springs and ski town of 5,000 draws both Tokyo weekenders and a small, in-the-know crowd of international visitors. Here's my list of top things to do during your visit to Nozawa Onsen.
1. Ski fresh powder at Nozawa Onsen resort.
Though it's not a big power player, Nozawa Onsen's ski resort boasts a vertical drop of 1,085 meters and wonderfully soft powder. With the terrain pretty evenly divvied up among advanced, intermediate, and beginner, there's something for everyone here.
The resort feels like an intimate, family run joint with two gondola lifts and 18 ski lifts. It's very much polar opposite of the super-commercial ski resorts of Tahoe or Colorado. Lift tickets are a fraction of the cost of a Colorado mountain (a one-day adult pass is 4,300 yen - or $43 USD!), so you can ski a couple of days guilt-free. Japan doesn't really have a strong apres ski culture, but you can definitely get some cold Asahis on the mountain. Snow season runs from December until May.
2. Bathe in one of the public hot springs.
Off the slopes, visitors love enjoying good soak in a soto no yu, or public hot springs bath. Relax in one of the 13 public baths, which are open from 6:00 am to 11:00 pm. There are typically areas for changing, storing your clothes, and rinsing off before you get in the bath, but bring your own towel from your ryokan. The mineral water in Nozawa is nearly scaldingly hot, so be careful getting in.
The baths are a deeply rooted part of the village and are open to all, free of charge. Outside the onsens, there are little boxes for donations. Locals clean and maintain the baths, so be sure to study up on onsen etiquette.
3. Stay at a traditional ryokan.
Stay a night or two at a ryokan—a traditional Japanese inn, commonly found near scenic areas away from the city. Typical ryokans are a little pricier than a western hotel room, but often include dinner and/or breakfast in the price.
Ryokan rooms have tatami floors and futons for sleeping; usually, there's a common bathing area that pipes in hot springs water. (Many also offer western-style beds, though, if you're not comfortable sleeping on the floor.)
During our time in Nozawa, we stayed at the Kawamotoya Ryokan for about $160 USD a night. I try to include a ryokan stay on every trip to Japan—there's something about them that's so peaceful and meditative.
Location : 8955 Toyosato, Nozawa Onsen Mura, Shimo Takai Gun 389-2502
4. See the Jigokudani snow monkeys.
Humans aren't the only ones who love a hot bath. Over 160 Macaque monkeys live in Jigokudani, which means "Hell's Valley." You'll take a short hike up to their habitat, where you'll find snow monkeys playing, tussling, and bathing blissfully in the natural hot springs.
There are also some human-friendly baths and shower facilities on-site, plus a toasty little soba shop. If you aren't driving yourself, most ryokans in the area can help you organize a trip.
Jigokudani Yaen-Koen Snow Monkey Park
Location : 6845 Heion, Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun 381-0401, Nagano Prefecture
Price : ¥800/adult, ¥400/child (up to age 17)
5. Eat an onsen tamago, a hot springs egg.
It turns out temperature-stable geothermal hot spring waters have the exact level of heat needed to make wonderfully soft-cooked eggs. You'll come across spots around town where shell-on eggs are cooking in hot spring water. They make for the silkiest eggs!
Several of the onsens have little boxes located outside with hot springs running through them. You can drop the eggs in before you get in, and they'll be perfectly done when you emerge.