The snow has been falling since we arrived in Nozawa Onsen, a traditional Japanese town that sits at the centre of a skiing area in the mountainous Nagano province. It’s a chilly late afternoon in February. With the ski lifts already closed, I stroll across charming, wood-panelled streets lined with buildings that have stood since the Edo period (江戸時代)(1603-1868). Each of the narrow streets is fringed with steaming water as if the entire town was built around a network of mountain streams. The water running from the volcanic springs is channelled away to heat private houses and the almost 30 public onsens (温泉), from which the town gets its name. Nosawa gained a good deal of popularity thanks to these hot spring baths, many years before snowsports became a thing in the country.
Having grown up by the beaches of Rio, I am not precisely a snow expert. But I’ve married an avid German skier who would do anything for a few days of reliable powdery snowfall. Max, my husband, talks about previous skiing-trips to Japan with nostalgia. I hear about Niseko on the island of Hokkaido—considered the country’s largest ski area—and Hakuba, which is slightly smaller. I also give attention to a Japanese friend—another skiing fanatic—who tells me about a laid back ski village she has been going over the years with her family in the north of the country. She says this is a place with a depth of history and culture unrivalled by any other ski town in Japan.
Max and I, therefore, follow our friend’s advice and take a two-hour ride on Shinkansen, the bullet train, from Tokyo to Nosawa Onsen. Here, in the Northern Japanese Alps, the snow falls by the metre. The “Japow”—Japan powder—has a reputation for being of excellent quality, due to the super-dry snow as a result of a unique marine effect that carries precipitation from Siberia across the Sea of Japan to Honshu. This region is known as a world-class ski destination due to its 10,000-foot-tall peaks and for having one of the highest average snowfalls in the world, with up to 125 feet each year.
In the days that follow, huge snowflakes pile up into thick slabs on the sloping roofs, adding a whole storey to the height of the houses. We have snowy days of skiing, but when the sun shines, the clear skies reveal a circular panorama of blue layered peaks around Nozawa Onsen. I, on my snowboard, and Max, on his skis, enjoy the combination of wide, groomed pistes, and tree runs with regular powder dumps. The resort takes a relaxed attitude toward off-piste, and there are backcountry guides available for the more adventurous. Yet I hear Nosawa is not as extensive as Niseko, Hakuba, or Shiga Kogen (another vast resort). While there are enough runs here to keep you busy for a few days, you can always combine it with a couple of nights in nearby Hakuba.
Unlike any other ski resort, in Nosawa Onsen we deep dive into Japan’s sacred moments, which involves exquisite culinary experiences, volcanic hot springs, and authentic ryokans (旅館). We stay at Sumiyosiya—one of the century-old traditional Japanese inns in town—where we sleep on tatami mats with snowy views of the town, its lantern-lit split-timber houses trailing up the mountainside. We bath in our in-house onsen and also in communal hot springs. The meals consist of an elaborate array of Japanese-style dishes which are included in our ryokan, and the tasteful food we find while hopping between izakayas (居酒屋)—places that are part bar, part restaurant.
Our trip to Nagano province is not just about sliding around on snow, it is also an immersion in the remarkable, alluring world of Japan. While the island of Hokkaido has experienced a massive Australian invasion, I’m fascinated by how quaint and immaculate Nosawa’s village managed to remain, despite its reputation. The ryokans, the cuisine, the hot springs, the communal cooking pools, the traditions—they all offer elusive, precious insight into Japan’s ancient culture.