Skiing in Japan with Kids: Nozawa Onsen
“Planning skiing holidays for families can be fraught – when I find a location that works I am keen to stick to the proven formula. Having experienced a superb ‘skiing in Japan with Kids’ holiday in Hakuba, I could see no reason not to return. Yet my husband has other ideas – friends report that Nozawa Onsen is the place to ski next…”
Our group is bleary eyed, five fabulous days exploring Tokyo preceed this early morning start – a Chuo Taxi driver arrives at our hotel precisely at 7.00am, and we settle for the 5.5 hour drive to the Ski Resort town of Nozawa Onsen.
The journey takes us through the outskirts of Tokyo (views of Mt Fuji on a clear day), before beginning the climb through the mountains. Stopping mid-way at a petrol station for a superb homemade bowl of steaming noodles – and the largest vending machine coffee selection (it’s surprisingly good…).
Skiing in Japan with Kids: Where is Nozawa Onsen Located
About Nozawa Onsen Village
Located one hour’s drive from Nagano City in the northern part of Nagano Prefecture – Nozawa Onsen is a charming hot spring Alpine village. Located at the foot of Kenashi-yama Mountain (population 4,000) and said to date back to 8th century – renowned for it’s hot springs and traditional inns since the Edo period.
The ski resort opened over seventy years ago. With over fifty kilometres of trails or pistes beginning at an elevation of 1085 meters, it has 2 gondolas and around 15 other chairlifts which carry you all over the resort.
We arrive early in the Season (December 19th) to a snow cover looking less than promising.
The village without a coating of powdery white looks bleak, the Husband averts his gaze as I furtively google current snow conditions in Hakuba – discovering they are also suffering similar conditions I focus instead on the narrowing road, becoming small cobblestone lanes which wind through the village.
Day two of the holiday and snow arrives – a sigh of relief breathes throughout the village.
Getting to Nozawa Onsen
Chuo Taxi Service (they collect us from our Tokyo hotel or the Airport) – the transfer takes about 5-6 hours from Tokyo. A scenic drive with lunch/bathroom stops along the way (Costs from Tokyo is 12,900 yen per person each way).
The Shinkansen (Bullet Train) departs from Tokyo Station to Iiyama (via Nagano), taking about 1 hour 50 minutes. Then it is a 20 mins shuttle bus to Nozawa Village.
Where to Stay in Nozawa Onsen
Traditional Japanese accommodation – Ryokan – didn’t sound like my cup of (green) tea. I love soft down pillows, comfy mattresses and snuggly doonas – visions of tossing and turning on a tatami mat (with no pillow) held no appeal.
However Nozawa Onsen is notoriously short on western style accommodation during busy periods, so Ryokan Jon Nobi it was. Described as a ‘modern Japanese Ryokan’ – beds are indeed on the floor, yet I am relieved to find thick mattress with a stack of ‘real’ pillows. I have to be clever with tucking all our clothes and ski gear into all available cupboards, because space is tight for the four of us (especially with the addition of xmas pressies and decorations).
Nevertheless the experience is one we embrace.
TIP: I suggest contacting Nozawa Holidays, they are an Australian company who know the region very well and can assist with all details from transfers to accommodation to equipment hire. Their site has a great variety of local knowledge (inclusive of a video on correct etiquette for using the Onsen)!
TIP Language: English in some form is spoken at many accommodation places, however local shop owners & more traditional restaurants are strictly Japanese speaking. That said, we have very few ‘lost in translation’ moments – take your time and arrive armed with a few basic Japanese phrases (the Lonely Planet Japanese phrasebook is invaluable). Also look out for the Nozawa Onsen ‘guide’ pictured further below.
We relax into the swing of things; its only 24 hours before we appear for breakfast (western & Japanese selections) in our Yukata robes, and enjoy daily private Onsen (a sublime experience when it snows).
Our accommodation is centrally located, a 5 minute walk up hill to the moving carpet (escalator) – taking another 10 minutes to the base of the lifts and ski hire/tickets/ski school.
There are two ‘hubs’ – one closer to Hikage Station Gondola (we are here – my preference as it is closer to the main street and village action); the other Nagasaka Station Gondola. You can stay on-snow, however moving up and down to the village to eat (especially with kids in tow) would not be my recommendation.
Skiing Information for Nozawa Onsen
Buy these at the top of the escalator, we opt for a weekly pass to save queuing daily in lines that are long (although they generally move with swift Japanese efficiency). At time of writing a 6+ day lift pass is 4300 Yen per day per adult (AUD $50); for 3+ days, kids are 2000 Yen per day per child (AUD $25) – children 5-15yrs (under 5 yrs free).
St Anton at the top of the escalator is recommended; we find Australian staff who are great in fitting our family of six in record time for the basics (skis, poles, boots, helmets – our large teens have no problem with sizing). The equipment is comfortable – we are at the beginning of the season so it is generally in good condition; the adults choose Performance Skis which are great. It is a huge bonus to be able to store our equipment here each evening.
We do not use the ski school, however I note Nozawa Onsen Ski School has an information area at Hikage gondola and at the Nagasaka gondola – infants (4-6yrs), kids (7-14yrs) and adults (15yrs+), offering group lessons for beginner to intermediate skiers and snowboarders or private lessons for all levels. They have full day courses or morning or afternoon lessons (10-12noon and 1:30-3:30pm).
The other option for ski and snowboard lessons is with Nozawa Holidays. They run private lessons only with a maximum of 4 per group.
There is a daycare facility for younger children, located at the Hikage Gondola centre.
What About the Onsen
Throughout the village there are about 30 different type of hot springs and 13 public hot spring baths. Whilst the baths are free of charge, there is a box outside each one for visitors to provide a donation for upkeep. You will also need to take your own towel and soap.
It is not unusual to spot skiers soothing tired feet in the ‘foot bath Onsen’ dotted around the village (and indeed some Onsen are used for cooking vegetables, best to check before you dip your toes).
Where to Eat in Nozawa Onsen
Tip: book restaurants as soon as you arrive in the village (our conceirge did this for us). They fill up quickly and there are some great options you will not want to miss.
On the Mountain
A vast number of good eateries to choose from, we are thrilled to see many cook from scratch…steaming hot bowls of noodles warm even the weariest skiier.
Our favourite; a distinctive hexagonal shaped building with big glass windows, sit out the front on a sunny day – you should try the Katsu curry and naan bread (The Urban Mum may or may not have sampled several cakes…verdict – excellent).
In the Village
We discover the quaint and small Café Napa after taking an alternate stroll back to the village one afternoon (turn right after you descend from the escalator) – look carefully for the sign as at first glance it appears to be someone’s home. Inside is cosy – chock a block with kitsch retro. Supreme coffee, excellent lunch – lovely views back over the village.
On another afternoon walk I stumble upon this Patisserie – the baker & his wife produce magnificent sweet treats from a ‘hole in the wall’ location. My lack of Japanese mean I can’t extract the business name, however the map image below should help you locate this secret spot – just keep looking left as you walk the main street out of town. Cash only (calculating my excessive purchases is via an Abacus…).
Coffee St Anton
In the main street – good takeaway coffee, and after dinner gelato.
Ryokan Jon Nobi
A cosy bar delivers Apres Ski in the evenings (try a Lemon Sour cocktail – Shochu/Soda/Flavouring) – we are filmed for a TV Christmas segment (must have been our outfits…). One evening I opt to dine in-house for the set meal (the heathens in our family took off for a burger). Dining alone was a magnificent way to savour the flavours – the image does not do justice to the ‘food art’.
Steambox Dumplings (Oyaki)
The equivalent of street food, steaming wooden boxes dotted along the main street, our favourite outside Coffee St Anton.
In the street parallel to the main street we find a takeaway Crepe shop, complete with adjoining game machine parlour – happy days for the kids!
Dining Bar Hakuna Matata
The cutest spot run by the cutest couple. Perfect for an evening we feel like a western style meal – as much as it shames me to admit, I judge a place by their hot chips – these are very, very good – made perfect with a side of Kewpie Mayonnaise.
Kaze no le
On a night when you crave pizza (or freshly made pasta), and a good glass of red.
Soba dokoro Daimon
A small one room restaurant run by a husband and wife, book this early in your trip – it is so good you may want to return. The menu offers a choice between udon and soba noodles, made from the local spring water.
The Corner Steakhouse
Our Christmas Dinner choice – excellent steak and burgers in a very groovy setting.
Nozawa Onsen does not offer many shopping opportunities, however search the laneways and you may stumble upon vintage kimono, pretty Japanese stationary and local crockery.
Stores along the main strip have shelves of different varieties of eclairs, biscuits, sponge and the traditional dumplings (gift giving in Japan is huge and these boxed treats make excellent presents).
TIP: In regional areas in Japan credit cards might not be accepted; we travel with some Yen for small purchases (Nozawa Onsen has an ATM).
Top Tips from The Urban Mum for Skiing Nozawa Onsen (with Kids)
Why is this your favourite ski place?
I thought Hakuba would be my favourite spot, however Nozawa Onsen easily usurped it (both Resorts mentioned are in Nagano Prefecture on the large island Honshu)…despite our visit coinciding with a lack of snow (20-29 December 2016), there is such a gorgeous village atmosphere we did not feel as if the trip was a wasted Alpine experience.
Why is it good for families?
We stayed in the heart of the Village in a Ryokan (Jon Nobi). This allowed for an authentic Japanese cultural experience (Onsen every day, going to breakfast wearing Yukata robes, Japanese food, sleeping on the floor, shoes off on tatami mats) – yet ‘western’ comforts were incorporated (TV’s in the rooms, thick mattresses, English speaking concierge, Apres Ski Bar).
Nozawa Onsen offers a plethora of dining options to suit families; during our 9-night stay we could easily have eaten in a different spot every night (Pizza, Tepenyaki, Ramen, street side dumplings, Japanese Pancake Palours, Burgers, Sushi). There are several well-priced Convenience Stores in the village and at least 3 superb Cafes.
On the mountain; it is a short walk from the village to the escalator which whisks you up to the base lifts. Most people elect to leave Ski Equipment at the base, making the ‘commute’ easier and managed easily by all ages. Ski Hire was streamlined and the equipment very good. As mentioned the season was light during our stay (and we arrived in the middle of the Japanese holidays), regardless of this the crowds were well managed and plenty of interesting, well priced restaurants were operating. Generally slopes were well groomed.
I would like to return for another season before I make the call as to the skier level I would recommend the Resort is best suited to as no Black Runs were open during our stay (my general feeling is beginner and intermediate skiers will be very satisfied).
Are there good things to do nearby in the ski season?
Snow Monkeys are accessible from Nozawa – a must do. Temple tours can also be arranged – although I would not use a skiing day for this trip, rather save the temples for Kyoto.
Is it hard to get there?
As our Australian flights (overnight) have tended to arrive early morning we have always taken the easy option of a Private Transfer from Narita (could organize similar from Haneda). Otherwise it is a train to Tokyo Station, then Shinkansen, then taxi transfer.
We have skied Australia, NZ, France, Vail & now Japan (2x) with kids in tow – Japan wins on all counts – short flight from Australia, barely any time difference, lower altitudes (less chance of altitude sickness & warmer temps), excellent cultural experiences, when it snows it is the best there is!
Skiing In Japan with Kids
Reposted with the permission of Monique van Tulder of The Urban Mum, making it easier for families to travel in style.
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