This article is part of Ski Asia's Perfect Day series, in which we ask locals and business owners how they'd spend a "perfect day" in their home resort.
Peter Douglas heads kk Nozawa Hospitality, an accommodation provider in Nozawa Onsen, Nagano Prefecture, that operates a number of properties from rental lodges to full-service hotels. Peter first scoped out the business in 2009, identifying Asian tourism growth as a driver for Japanese skiing, and Nozawa Onsen for its unique appeal and easy access. He and his wife ShuShen have now lived permanently in the village for eight years.
“This is an extraordinary place,” says Peter. “It can trace its history to prehistoric times, with the village administration going back to the 1700s. Almost everyone here has been at least a national, if not international athlete in their youth. And the sense of community is tangible; it’s almost as if the village is a living being itself.”
HOW PETER WOULD SPEND A “PERFECT DAY” IN NOZAWA ONSEN
This compact village of about 1,000 households is amazing every day of the year, and each season has its own “perfect day”, but let me describe a perfect snow day, say in early March, arguably the best month for a skiing holiday.
All accommodations in the village used to offer breakfast, but increasingly you can book accommodation-only packages, or apartment-style, that allow you to choose your breakfast spot. Stroll down to the soothing Kumanotearai onsen for a wake-up soak, and next door you’ll find Harding’s café open for breakfast, a new patisserie in a lovely setting. On the way to the slopes, drop by Winterland for arguably the best coffee in the village to keep you pumped for the gondola ride.
I’m a cross-country skier, and my favourite area is the side country between Uenotaira and lake Sutaka, halfway up the mountain. It’s quiet, and stunningly beautiful, the beech and larch forest utterly calming; the perfect way to set up my day. I’ll sometimes take guests snowshoeing in the same ‘hood.
I have another favourite route at the lower end of the resort that links the Karasawa area to lake Hokuryuu, which connects to the Olympic cross country course if I feel like upping the pace a bit.
My kids are into snowboarding and downhill skiing, and of a morning they’ll usually head straight up to Yamabiko, at the top of the mountain. After the inevitable selfies with the Sea of Japan as a backdrop, they’ll dive into some tree skiing (resort-legal in the Yamabiko area), or take Skyline, a picturesque run from the very top to the very bottom of Mt. Kenashi, a vertical drop of over 1km. When the main slopes are too busy, you’ll find them in the Yunomine area in the middle of the mountain, where they know they’ll find untracked snow.
The ski guides that accompany our more ambitious guests are probably already off in the back bowl, snorkelling in the ole’ steep’n’deep in one of the gullies that leads to Karasawa, or if they think the guest really knows their stuff, off on the other side of the mountain making tracks down to the fire trail that loops back to Uenotaira. So long as you lodge a route plan with them, the ski patrol is fine with you and your guide ducking under the ropes and off into the big nowhere.
Hungry now? Nozawa Onsen’s iconic mountain restaurant is Buna, on Paradise slope, with its fiery curries. If you don’t want to wait for a table there, Hakugin next door is the epitome of a classic Japanese skier`s restaurant: ramen, tonkatsu, and cold beer just as you’d expect – or ski down to Popeye to hang with the hip crowd. The ski resort’s café Servus, at the top of the Nagasaka gondola, is cafeteria-style, but the menu is excellent and varied, from baked-to-order pizza to exotic Asian dishes as well as hearty Japanese fare.
Nozawa Onsen is a working rural community, and your non-skiing family or friends are going to be as happy exploring the village as you are exploring the mountain. I lose track of the cute cafes that have popped up (try the one inside Tatsuyuki memorial hall, with its gorgeous garden, Melia for a cupcake, the gloriously old-school Carté, or St Anton for homemade ice cream). Then maybe take in the ski museum, or the village’s tiny ceramics museum with its collection of priceless Japanese pottery. Or take the kids to the Dojo climbing gym to burn off some energy (while you sneak in a local beer or two!).
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Of course there are onsen everywhere and our Japanese guests pride themselves on dipping in as many different baths as they can during their stay; I like Shinyu onsen with its milky, mineral-loaded waters, but try a few and find your own favourite. Onsen noobs could start with Furusato-no-yu which has tubs of different temperatures, as well as good showers and amenities.
Exercised, bathed… time for a beer! Nozawa Onsen is the home of Libushi, a mecca for craft beer geeks from around the country. The original bar is tiny, and serves only beer (i.e. bring your own peanuts) but the same folks run the Pig and Barrel which serves home-made hot dogs with their beers, not to mention their own gins and bitters for only-in-Nozawa Onsen cocktails. Teaser: there’ll be another distillery opening in the village soon… watch this space!
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For dinner, our go-to izakaya out of the many in the village is Sakai. Mr. Sakai and his son are expert cooks, and it has a super-traditional local vibe.
If we’re feeling a bit more uptown, Bivacco’s natural wine list and Italian-influenced cooking, or Tanuki’s new-but-traditional sushi restaurant, would get our attention.
Part of the fun of this village is the almost uncountable dining choices; however, chat to your accommodation host for their recommendations (and reservations!) and you’ll soon find your own special place.
After a long day, time for bed. With well over 200 accommodations in the village at every price point, it’s hard to point to one standout. I’m very proud of my company’s latest project, Kawamotoya, with its eight deluxe apartments (including the only penthouse in the village, 200m2 and 360⁰ views). My wife would scold me if I didn’t give a shout-out to her hotel, Elizabeth, with its 20 ensuite rooms and concierge service.
Nozawa Onsen has been a ryokan town for over 200 years, and if you’d like a ryokan experience, Kawaichiya’s fresh blend of comfort and service might be the insider’s choice. There are many minshuku dotted around who’ll offer you clean, simple accommodation, at very reasonable prices; try super-friendly Utopia, for example, or Marutoya for its dinners of creative local cuisine and regional wines.
And tomorrow will be just as perfect…