Located in northern Nagano Prefecture, Nozawa Onsen is a laid-back, heavily snow-dusted town that’s quickly garnering a reputation for being one of the hottest ski spots in the country. Unlike Japan’s mega-resorts in Hakuba and Niseko, this onsen town is relatively untouched by significant snow-tourism development. Nozawa is home to 13 traditional style public baths and locally run establishments it’s an excellent winter escape for those who want both incredible skiing and a taste of old-world charm of Japanese onsen culture.
If you want the full Nozawa experience, it’s essential that before hitting the slopes, you take a little time to learn about the area’s history. With a bit of context and understanding of how Nozawa came to be, you’ll have a deeper level of appreciation for this beautiful corner of Japan. In 1998, Nozawa Onsen hosted the Nagano Winter Olympic biathlon events, but way before that, back in 724, during the reign of Emperor Shomu, it’s said that a Buddhist monk known as Gyoki founded the area. I n 1250 AD, during the Kamakura period the city was already blossoming into a popular destination, and by 1870, there were around 24 inns in the area.
Today you'll find remnants of the area’s history lining the narrow, winding streets that make up the town’s center. With shops, traditional inns, and cozy restaurants, it’s a tranquil getaway overflowing with Japanese atmosphere. This is also where many of the local onsen public baths still stand. Known as 'soto-yu,' the baths are open to visitors to come and soak their cold, tired muscles. For the full onsen experience, consider taking a relaxing onsen hopping pilgrimage through the area. Even during the off-snow season, this area is a beautiful wellness escape worth adding to your Nagano itinerary.
When you’re exploring Nozawa Onsen, chances are you’ll come face to face with a few Dosojin statues. Dosojin is a kami god said to protect travelers and the town from evil spirits and epidemics. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because each year Nozawa Onsen celebrates the Dosojin Matsuri, also known as the Nozawa Fire Festival. Running in mid-January, it’s a visually striking winter event fueled by sake and flames.
Although it does make a worthy getaway any time of year, Nozawa Onsen is definitely most popular during the winter months. It has an incredible ski resort with runs for those of all skiing and boarding levels, as well as plenty of English friendly accessibility. The entire resort is linked via a network of chairlifts and gondolas, and there’s plenty of ski rental and dining options available in the resort area.
With incredible mountain views, it’s also perfect for those wanting to admire the rugged beauty of regional Japan. If you’re on the slopes, head on over to the Yamabiko ski area, which is the highest point of the ski resort, from there, you’ll be privy to some incredible natural scenery.
An ideal balance of uninterrupted traditionalism, modern accessibility, healing natural onsens, incredible skiing, and fascinating history; there’s no question that Nozawa Onsen will soon experience a boom in popularity. If you want to enjoy the beauty of Nagano without the crowds, add this to the top of your must-visit itinerary.