The weather was dismal when I got off the bus at Nozawa. It was raining/snowing, I couldn’t tell which; I had enough on my hands battling strong gusts of wind that threatened to veer me off the uneven slope.
While Zao had been bright, cheerful and calm, Nozawa was like a lady directing a tempest. And having a whale of a time doing it. But this tempest was necessary (more on this later).
Thankfully, Ryokan Sakaya wasn’t too far. With the help of a friendly local who braved the weather to explain directions to me, I found the hotel without much trouble.
Nozawa had long been on my agenda. It was renowned for its hotsprings and ski resort – a perfect combination. And I’d always wanted to take up skiing. A few of years back, I made plans to visit Nozawa but had to abandon them eventually, due to time constraint and poor accessibility.
Nowadays, access to Nozawa Onsen 野沢温泉 has been made much easier with the extension of the Hokuriku Shinkansen 北陸新幹線 (lit. northern regions) from March 15.
From Tokyo, take a Shinkansen to Iiyama Station 飯山駅 (100 minutes) then transfer to the Nozawa bus liner. That will bring you to Nozawa Onsen in 20-25 minutes for 600 yen (bus stop #4, buy the ticket on the spot).
You also can make a brief stop @ Nagano Station to pay a visit to the lovely Zenkoji 善光寺 (temple) – which i did.
Note that H stands for the Hakutaka Shinkansen はくたか (lit. white hawk) and K stands for the Kagayaki Shinkansen かがやき (lit. glitter). Only the Hakutaka makes a stop at Iiyama Station (Kagayaki will bypass it). Both services, however, stop at Nagano, which is a major transit station.
For other travel options, refer here.
After soaking myself warm in the hotel onsen, I ventured out to check on the public baths. There were 13 public baths (also known as soto-no-yu) scattered about town. Most were small, enough to accommodate maybe a family. Sometimes I’d meet locals taking their baths there; a pair of grannies, a mum and her girls. All of them readily made room for me and even taught me how to use the facilities.
Toiletries were strictly b.y.o. It wasn’t uncommon to see locals walking around town with a small bucket tucked under their arms – their soap, shampoo etc. For visitors, it might be best to bathe in the the hotel first, before doing the onsen-hop.
The biggest of them all was of course the one known as big hotspring, oyu大湯, next to Ryokan Sakaya. The cavernous interior boosted a large rack of shelves (for belongings) and 2 very very hot baths.
I began to realise thatNozawa was really a small, intimate ski town built tightly around the base of Mt Kenashi 毛無山 (lit. bald mountain). Only 5000 people lives in Nozawa. Part of its charm comes from the uneven pathways that duck around corners and that entice you to explore them further. No 2 paths were the same.
Then there’s those buildings. Each of them seemed to exude its own unique character. Especially on a moon-lit night.
The shop engulfed in mist next to the Ogama hotspring (open-air hotspring next to the shrine but was under renovation), the snow-covered shrine, the lights from the shops lighting up the street, all lent a very atmospheric vibe to the town.
Of course, no ryokan stay could be complete without the Kaiseki 懐石 dinner. Dinner at Sakaya exceeded my expectations. Every dish, including the crockery used was exquisite, a piece of art. Plus I had complete privacy in my own private dining room and personal server – a very attentive lady (Uehara) who hailed from Liaoning China. She’s quite a rarity in Nozawa, possibly the only Chinese resident there. I didn’t meet a single Chinese tourist in Nozawa too.
The next morning, I was all prepared for my ski lesson. The weather was perfect and the snow was thick on the ground. Everyone was going like how it’s a perfect day for skiing because yesterday’s storm deposited a lot of fresh snow (yes, thanks to the lady who directed the tempest).
I could see why Nozawa was a top ski destination. Just a few minutes of walking from my hotel, I came upon the yu 游 road, a travellator that brings skiers directly up to the ski resort at Hikage station. So skiers could dress for their ski outing in the comfort of the hotel, and just walk onto the yu road to get to the base for their adventure. I imagine it must be at least 2km long because it seemed to go on forever.
The ski school was super foreigner friendly because staff there spoke excellent English and there were actually many Caucasian ski instructors. Since it was the lull season, I was the only one who signed up for basic ski lessons that day. Eventually, I took a private ski lesson at a discounted price. The 2 hour private session set me back 10,000 yen but it was very worth it. I was assigned a very amiable young instructor, 22-year old Tom Sinclair? from London.
Most of the foreign instructors were young – in their early twenties – eager to see the world. All worked on a free lance basis. Accommodation and meals were provided, and they get a cut from the lessons they taught. It might not have been much but at least they were doing something they enjoyed, having an adventure in a new, exotic place and mingling with like-minded people.
Tom said, when the season’s over, he was going to head to Okinawa with his friend and camp on the beach. I hope he did that and more.
We took the ropeway to paradise, a piste run for beginners. Tom made me show him what I could manage (with what little I knew) and corrected me from there. For someone so young, he was very patient and understanding. I guess it helped that he only picked up skiing when he was quite old so he could understand the struggles of old people like me.
After he was satisfied with my techniques, we took the ski lift to Uenotaira for more practice. I skied through a series of bumps, skied without using the poles, and zipped down a very steep slope with my heart in the mouth all the while hoping my skis wouldn’t suddenly twist around on their own accord.
I was glad I had Tom. It helped to have an instructor who could explain each skill very technically, and also for me to be able to understand the instructor perfectly.
After lesson was over, I did a few more runs on my own before finally skiing down from paradise to Hikage station, all 5 km of it just because Tom said it would be a piece of cake. It was scary as hell because the course was narrow and I worried about skiing off the slope or worse, bumping someone else off by mistake. But I survived.
I really envy those experts who could nonchalantly ski off a steep incline to take a short cut. Some day, I hope to muster enough skills and courage to do that.
You’d think I’d be quite spent (which I was) but still I had to roam around in town just because it was sunset time. It was good as expected but was I glad to be able to ease into my chair in the dining room and just focus on my food. I could stop worrying about breaking my leg or arm or something and finally relax.
Dinner was of course sumptuous as usual. This time, horse sashimi was on the menu. Not unusual because Nagano was famed for its horse meat. It was soft, it was sweet, it simply melted in the mouth. And not a single trace of gamey taste. Anyway, nothing I write here could do it justice (that’s why I don’t blog about food).
For my last morning meal in Nozawa, I’d requested for Japanese breakfast.
The day before, I was ushered together with the other foreigners (mostly Caucasians) to a western style breakfast buffet that was, disappointingly insipid. It was strange that they assumed all foreigners preferred western-style breakfast (someone must have given feedback). So, if you prefer an authentic Japanese experience, please tell them.
Breakfast was simpler, but no less elaborate.
After breakfast, because there was still time, I was out on the streets again. Some shops were already open and selling the onsen manju. I was craving for coffee then so imagine my joy when i saw the quaint Cafe St Anton (St Anton is a premier ski resort in Austria, supposedly the sister resort of Nozawa).
It was a god-send and as good as touted. Plus it was a good place to people-watch (lots of foreigners stop by).
Soon, it was time to bid farewell to Nozawa Onsen. It was all blue sky and white snow but to the locals, it was not as good a day for skiing (because the melting snow hardened the ski runs). Well. I must have been darn lucky. and glad to have accomplished what I set out to do.