Standing out amongst many ski resorts, Nozawaonsen offers more of an all round winter holiday than simply a skiing holiday. It is ideal for groups and families comprising skiers and non-skiers. Experience the deep and authentic culture of a village established as a vacation retreat over the centuries. Besides the acclaimed ski area, the food, famous hot springs and the renowned fire festival of Nozawaonsen sets this resort apart from others.
The village features some amazing traditional architecture with temples, shrines, hot spring establishments, traditional ryokan and free “ashi-yu" foot baths along many of its streets. Villagers celebrate numerous matsuri or local festivals.
Soak your tired feet in one bath while waiting for your onsen eggs to cook in traditional onsen waters! Even though the village is small, over 100 restaurants and bars are open during peak ski season. The range of cuisine is broad - from well known western-style bars to small hole in the wall shokudo, and of a quality that will please any gourmand.
Yuzawa Shrine and Kenmei-ji Temple
If you follow Oyu-dori sharply uphill towards the Yu Road, you will come to the foot of the hill where Yuzawa Shrine and Kenmei-ji Temple sit. Both Heian period structures, and as so often found in Japan, the Buddhist Kenmei-ji Temple sits right next to the Shinto Yuzawa Shrine. Take a moment to savour the peaceful ancient woods and admire the awe-inspiring fluidity of the roofs and carved eaves.
Ashi-yu and Onsen eggs
There are many free ashi-yu where you can soak your tired feet for a relaxing break. Similarly, many of the soto-yu public baths have egg cooking troughs outside - you can spot them from the row of wooden lids. You'll need a mesh bag or a bamboo basket to cook your eggs in. The ashi-yu in front of Oyu is one footbath you can have a soak in while waiting for your onsen eggs to cook! The egg cooking trough is right next to the footbath. Oyu is one of the hottest thermal springs in the village so you won’t have to wait too long!
Nozawaonsen is famed for its baths since the Edo period. There are thirteen public baths or soto-yu around the village and each is known for the quality of their waters. These are assets that are shared and cherished by the villagers.
Neighbours take charge of cleaning the soto-yu and making sure it is in good working order. Some are in picture perfect conditions, others may look more like tired old places but the onsen connoisseur pays little heed to the building aesthetics. What matters is that the bathhouses are always kept clean and the waters are good for one’s health and well-being!
To the left of Oyu, you’ll find a small road leading left uphill in front of Himatsuri and Jonnobi. This leads to Ogama or “hemp pot” because harvested hemp was dipped into these hot-water pools with paddles to make the hemp easier to peel. You’ll know you’re on the right road when you see a hairdresser with the barber’s pole outside. Ogama is one of over thirty natural-source onsens in Nozawaonsen, a certified national natural monument and one of the unique sights around Nozawaonsen.
This is the village’s cooking onsen with waters of near boiling point bubbling up from deep under the ground. So that visitors don’t accidentally cook themselves, non-villagers are not allowed into the onsen area. Ogama comprises five large water pools filled with steaming-hot mineral water, each with different temperatures so villagers use them for different purposes.
Ogama's near boiling waters are great for cooking wild plants and other vegetables.
Yudegama's water are as hot and so are used in the same way.
Marugama takes its name from the fact that it used to be circular or “maru”. Marugama's temperature is cooler - about 70 degrees Celsius, and is reserved for soaking nemagari bamboo strips and akebi vines used in the basket weaving villagers excel at. This pool was previously also used to sanitize silk-making tools.
Takenoshigama's slightly hotter waters emerges from underneath a big rock on the east side. Local people use this pool in the same way as Marugama.
Shimogama's rather odiferous water pour out on the south side.
There are some charming shops selling onsen eggs and dumplings in bamboo leaves that have been cooked in these waters nearby. These shops are worth visiting also for the crafts and local produce they stock.
The street heading downhill from the corner of Ogama is Asagama-dori. One of the oldest parts of the village, Asagama is a picturesque street lined by traditional old ryokans, a traditional sweet shop called Shosendo and a couple of restaurants. You’ll also find Furusato no-yu, a relatively new luxury soto-yu with all the facilities and amenities you’d expect to find only in private onsens. Uniquely, Furusato no-yu also has an outdoor onsen (although be warned that it has none of the stunning sceneries found at Maguse-onsen Spa).
The village's most important festival is the Nozawaonsen Fire Festival or the Nozawaonsen no dosojin matsuri held every January 15. Any visitors fortunate enough to be in Nozawaonsen during this time should not miss this. It forms part of a nationwide culture of honouring folk deities and in particular Dosojin. The festival attracts many visitors and accommodation is often booked a year in advance.
This is a three-day event, with the most visible element being the battle to burn down a three storey wooden shrine called the shadan, on the evening of January 15. Planning takes place much before this period though; the wood that make up the shadan is chosen, cut, and brought down from the mountain to the village during the previous autumn. The whole event showcases the continuing community spirit in the village, with the many visitors who arrive welcome as spectators to this age old tradition.
There are numerous trails around Nozawaonsen in the summer. One of the most beautiful is the circumnavigation of nearby heart-shaped Lake Hokuryu. The scenic walk around the lake is a small journey of discovery - there’s a small island accessible by foot which is home to Shichifukujin statues - seven stone gods of fortune.
Amble or cycle through the padi fields or around the mountain parks and you may come across villagers foraging for the wild nozawana. Nozawana (野沢菜), a variety of mustard leaf, is generally pickled. It is believed that some time between 1751-1764 the master of a Buddhist temple brought the plant to the Nozawa-onsen village, thus becoming known as Nozawa-na - na meaning vegetable. Pickled nozawana is one of the most iconic local foods in Nagano Prefecture.
The relatively undiscovered long range gem nearby, the Shin-etsu Trail is one of the most beautiful trails. A ridge walk along the Sekida Mountains with spectacular views, the Shin-etsu Trail at 1,000m above sea level, is one of the few truly long trails of Japan. Historically, there were 16 passages through the mountains that connected Nagano with Niigata (traditionally called Shinano and Echigo, respectively). These passages were used for carrying salt and sea-products from Niigata, and Uchiyama paper and mustard seed oil from Nagano.
Not only trade passed along this path of course. The famous warlord Kenshin Uesugi is said to have led tens of thousands of his men through these passages to fight the Battle of Kawanakajima. The magnificent Japanese beech tree forests and rich ecosystem the trail runs through has stood witness the area’s long history.
During the green season, Nozwaonsen’s Asa-ichi Sunday morning weekend market is well worth waking up for. Running from May to October, street vendors set up their stalls at 6am, selling a variety of local products which include vegetables, Japanese pickles, crafts, and more. It is a great place to pick up some souvenirs and also try some of the local vegetables like Nozawana. Don’t dally in bed! The busy stall holders pack up to continue with their normal day’s work by 7.30am.