Nozawa Onsen is a destination so popular with Australians and other overseas skiers that the bars and restaurants of this hot spring village are filled almost entirely with these venturers during peak season. The reason for its popularity is none other than its compact combination of skiing areas and a hot spring village.
Not only does Nozawa Onsen boast expansive skiing areas, the hot spring village that lies at the foothills offers incredible convenience with a great many stores that you can visit by foot, all set amidst the atmosphere of a traditional Japanese village. The hot spring waters of Nozawa Onsen are known for their quality, and hot spring stops can be found throughout the town, visited by people walking through the town in their traditional Japanese yukata, lending it an air of sophistication.
I visited Nozawa Onsen and was surprised to find that here in March, there were much fewer travellers from overseas than in the peak season, another sign that springtime skiing has yet to gain in popularity. The Nozawa Onsen skiing area is an expansive one that feels like a mountain in and of itself whose average elevation exceeds 1,000m, reached by taking a long gondola from the foothills. The Yamabiko area there at the topmost reaches changes dramatically in the spring.
From the peaks of the mountains, the Yamabiko area breaks out into three main courses. In between those courses, however, is a sidecountry area that skiers can enter at their own risk. In Japan, entering sidecountry areas such as these is generally prohibited out of concern for safety, but some skiing areas have recently begun to open these areas up in response to demand. Most tend not to stray too deep, but the sidecountry areas that you can enter here at the Yamabiko area are popular for allowing skiers to enjoy tree runs over power snow on a scale available in true backcountry areas. That course, however, changes completely with the spring.
Nozawa Onsen is an area known for its heavy snowfall, so it comes as no surprise that there are heavy snows even in the spring, and the high elevation of the Yamabiko area allows the groomed barn here to retain a consistency that is perfect for carving while the sidecountry areas are covered in corn snow typical of the springtime. The amount of snow does gradually fall in comparison to the harsher winter months, however, as the days grow warmer to unveil the natural formation of the wilderness around.
The Yamabiko area is normally well known for its natural half pipes and kickers that make for an exciting course, but the receding snows that uncover the wilds beneath bring an added layer of strategy to the slopes. Gliding down the slopes across this ever-changing terrain amidst the warm weather, the rustling sound of the wind through the trees greets you as you come to rest. It is here, in this wonderful oneness with nature, that Nozawa Onsen shines.
The village of Nozawa itself is beginning to evolve as new stores open to meet the boom in popularity among overseas skiers. One example is a new brewery that has opened up in front of the large outdoor bath that is one of the symbols of this hot spring village. Another gift shop in the center of the town has turned into a cafe that uses coffee beans and equipment popular in New Zealand and Australia to serve authentic espresso coffee. When I visited, there was a customer from Melbourne who was sitting down to a cup. The older soba noodle and other shops are also still alive and well. This jumble of eastern and western cultures in the midst of an old hot spring village is one of the reasons that gives the area its charm, and is sure to secure its place as a hotspot in the springtime for those that come to learn of its appeal.
Last but not least, Nozawa Onsen is a place from which many national skiing representatives have been born, some of which have gone on to become former world champions and olympic competitors. During my travels this time, I happened across a social get together between some olympians, and had the chance to join them for a drink, a rare opportunity that few other locations can provide.