Bizarre Nagano ski resort a winter hot spot

Bizarre Nagano ski resort a winter hot spot

Nozawa Onsen offers free hot springs, sake, fireworks and ... angry mobs?
Nozawa skiing
Nozawa offers some of Nagano's finest skiing, but there are surprises in store off piste.

Japan offers some excellent skiing and snowboarding, but I won't lie -- it's not one of my favorite winter activities in a country filled with many more-leisurely pursuits.

It probably has something to do with the fact that I am much more likely to end up face-first in the powder than gracefully slaloming down the hill. So, when planning a winter ski escape with my more talented friends, the only place for me is Nagano Prefecture's Nozawa Onsen.

The slopes

Nozawa Onsen is a big name in the Japanese ski scene as the home of several big pro ski meets and as the largest single resort in the country.

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The first ski run there was established in 1924, just about a decade after skiing was introduced to Japan, and it was the first place in the country to install a lift.

The resort is located at the foot of Mount Kenashi, which somewhat bizarrely translates to Hairless Mountain. Really.

Nozawa skiingA perfect day on the slopes. Jealous yet? Wait until the really weird part comes later.

There are 20 courses spread over the peak, covering every skill level from the gently sloping Uenotiara for beginners to the FIS-approved race slope Kandahar. In total, there are over 50 kilometers of trails to explore.

A one-day lift pass will set you back ¥4,600 and a half-day will be ¥3,500. Rental gear is available for both skiers and boarders.

Free for all

At the heart of it all, the little village of Nozawa Onsen somehow retains its traditional feel despite the thousands of tourists passing through each winter, with narrow, winding streets and old-fashioned inns and shops with hand-carved wooden items at every stop. Only about 5,000 people  live there year round.

These locals maintain 13 hot-spring baths that are free and open to the public. The largest is Oyu, a lovely tiered wooden building in the center of town. It was once the retreat of a feudal lord, but is now open to all comers.

Due to its location in an attractive old building, it's also the busiest of the free baths, so you may want to try one of the others if you'd like a little more space or the chance to chat with the locals in peace.

Nozawa OnsenAs at many small tourist towns, there's a fantastic selection of free hot springs.

If you’re really serious about your hot springs, you can even pick up a special strip of linen from the tourist office and get it stamped at each location you visit.

Though the waters are as good as any resort, these baths are pretty bare bones. Be sure to bring your own towel and toiletries and leave your valuables at the hotel.

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Another place to check out is the Ogama source spring. You won't want to bathe here though, as the water comes out at a scalding 90 C. You can, however, use it to cook eggs or Nozawa-na, a local vegetable similar to spinach. Cooking utensils on long poles are freely available. And you can’t say that about most ski towns, eh?

Pitchforks available

But one of the best reasons to make Nozawa your winter destination is the Dosojin Fire Festival. This incendiary extravaganza, which includes fireworks over the ski slopes, takes place on January 15 each year, but it actually begins several days before with the construction of a special shrine from the wood of sacred trees.

Villagers aged 25 and 42, considered to be unlucky ages, seek the favor of the gods by dragging the trees down the mountain by hand. This hard work is somewhat alleviated by the fact that onlookers will offer them sake as they go.

Another fixture of the festival is the display of “first lanterns” constructed by couples when their first son is born.

These nine-meter high poles are festooned with paper lanterns, strips of paper bearing New Year’s messages and other decorations. Highly flammable additions to the fun, in other words.

Nozawa OnsenSo, you want me to get on top of that and do what to the enraged mob?

Which leads me to the main event -- the part when torch-wielding villagers attack and try to set fire to the shrine. It’s like Mary Shelley moved to Japan back in the day.

The 25-year-olds stand in a ring around the shrine, beating back the attackers, while the 42-year-olds stand atop and try to stamp out any flames that reach it.

All this is made even more hectic by the presence of men who roam the crowd with big bottles of sake, offering it to anyone and everyone, visitors included.

The battle can rage for several hours, but eventually the 42-year-olds will call a stop and the shrine and first lanterns are then set on fire as an offering to the gods, while a sooty-faced and usually sozzled audience looks on.

Who needs snow when you’ve got fire, after all?

Getting there: There’s no direct train from Tokyo to Nozawa Onsen, so you’ll have to take the Shinkansen as far as Nagano Station (¥7,770 reserved, ¥7,460 unreserved), then get on an express bus (¥1,400 yen).

Otherwise, you can take the JR Iiyama Line from Nagano to Togari Nozawa Onsen (¥740) and then take the Nozawa Onsen Kotsu “Yu-no-hana” bus (¥300). For more info, Lodge Nagano has schedules and more.

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