Skiing in Nagano: Nozawa Onsen (600m-1600m)

This was the only resort I knew well since I had skied there several times during my first years in Japan. Back then, the shinkansen ended at Nagano station, and I used to go there via overnight bus from Tokyo. Nowadays, Nozawa Onsen is just a short bus ride from Iiyama station on the Hokuriku shinkansen, and is included in the Welcome Japan JR East pass. I was curious to see how the resort had changed since my last visit about ten years ago. I knew for sure that the easier access had made it more crowed. The weather forecast was sunny blue skies but with unseasonably warm temperatures – about 12 °C at the base and 7 °C near the top. I was worried that the conditions wouldn’t really be suitable for skiing. However, I couldn’t resist the chance to check out the views, and also ski the “skyline”, one of the best slopes I’ve ever done in Japan.

Nozawa Onsen Village from near the end of the skyline

I was first in line for the Nozawa Onsen liner departing at 10am sharp. It took less than half an hour to reach the bus terminal in the middle of the village. Unlike other resorts, I had to catch a (free) shuttle bus to get to the rental shops and lifts. After renting my gear from Sports Thanx, I was finally ready to take the Nagazaka gondola up at 11h30. It felt late, but at least I knew which slopes I wanted to spend time on. First, I headed to the Yamabiko area, the highest part of the resort, and also the summit of Mt Kenashi (1650m) where I was sure to get the best views. Also, since it was such a fine day, I thought the snow condition would be better high up.

View of Niigata form the top of the Yamabiko area

Halfway down the “skyline”

There was a huge line for my second chairlift of the day. Apparently, everybody else had had the same idea! Regretfully, I decided to flee the top area and head straight for the “skyline” before it got crowded as well. The “skyline” is a long slope following a narrow ridgeline from the top of the resort down to the village, alternating steep and flat sections. It has unobstructed views of the entire valley which is why it is such a spectacular and popular run. Luckily for me, it was now lunchtime, and I had several sections entirely to myself. After going back up with the gondola, I descended towards the Uenotaira area and did the “Challenge” slope, a nice red, a few times in the sun.

Skiing an easier slope lower down the mountain

Skiing a more challenging slope higher up

It was now past 2pm, and time to get some lunch. I decided to try the pizza at the recently opened Yamabiko Rest House. There was no easy way back to the Yamabiko area, and I had to combine a gondola and two chairlifts. However at the second chairlift, I encountered another long line, meaning that I would not make it to the restaurant before closing time. Instead, I headed to Panorama House Buna, where, true to its name, I could sit outside and enjoy the panorama. I had an excellent mushroom curry, the house specialty. Straight ahead, and hazy in the afternoon sun, I could make out the majestic shape of Mt Myoko where I had been on my previous ski trip.

View from Panorama House Buna in the Uenotaira area

Riding the Hikage gondola

I almost wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon lounging in the sun, but I was worried about getting sunburnt; I also wanted to get some more skiing in before the end of the day. It was 3pm and I had less than two hours before the bus back. I did one more “Challenge” run, at a slower pace on a full stomach, and then headed back to the Yamabiko area to finish with the skyline. Once again, I wasn’t the only person with this idea. Fortunately, I had been conservative with my timing, and I could afford to hang around waiting for the slope to clear while enjoying the views. Despite the warm temperatures, the snow never got slushy and wet (except at the base of the gondola), and I just had to remove one layer of clothing to ski in comfort.

The Uenotaira course, half-way up the mountain

Back at the top for the last run of the day

After returning my skis, I decided to skip the shuttle, and walk to the bus terminal less than 15 minutes away. One of the attractive features of Nozawa Onsen is its village, a maze of streets lined with traditional houses, with several public bathhouses spread throughout. It looks especially beautiful in the winter under several meters of snow. Today, however, a lot of the snow had already melted, and the scenery wasn’t quite as charming as I had remembered. I skipped the hot bath so that I could claim a good seat on the bus. There was nearly an hour wait for the shinkansen back to Tokyo, and I hung out at the small cafe inside Iiyama station enjoying Nozawa Onsen craft beer.

See what it’s like to ski at Nozawa Onsen

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