Nozawa Onsen, famed for winter sports and hot spring bathing, is also home to a thriving agricultural industry with a history stretching back many centuries. This side of Nozawa comes to the fore in the off-season, when treats ranging from plump and juicy apples to the town’s namesake vegetable are prepared for the year-round delectation of visitors. Drinks-wise, Nozawa’s long-established sake breweries are now joined by a craft beer maker conjuring up some singular tipples.
Apples grown in Nozawa, and Nagano Prefecture in general, are famed across Japan for their sweetness, color, and considerable size. Key factors in this are the region’s sunny climate; fertile soil; and elevation above sea level. Locals take great pride in this produce, with shops dedicated to apples staffed by proprietors keen to introduce their wares. Visitors can join apple-picking trips at several farms, and Nozawa apples play a part in all kinds of local food: from oyaki dumplings (see Apple Oyaki below), to the prefectural speciality of Shinshu Beef, whose succulent taste is thanks to cattle enjoying a fermented feed made with local apples.
Onsen Tamago (‘onsen eggs’) are slowly boiled in the steaming waters of a natural hot spring. This gives them the unique feature of a firm center with the hue and creamy texture of an uncooked yolk, combined with a white that develops a custard-like milky softness. At certain onsen baths you’ll see them being cooked in nets gently lowered into the sulphuric waters, and they can be sampled both at these baths themselves, and at some guesthouses. Gift shops also have them for sale.
Nagano Prefecture’s climes also lend themselves to beer production: it’s one of Japan’s principal hop growing regions, and home to a number of acclaimed craft beer breweries. Nozawa Onsen itself is home to AJB (Anglo Japanese Brewing Company). Founded by a British expat and his Japanese wife, AJB runs the town’s Libushi taproom and brews specialty beers made with all-natural ingredients. The brewery’s eponymous Nozawa Onsen beer comes in several varieties including a superb green IPA, and AJB has also created a ‘soba stout’ made with the same buckwheat used in soba noodles.
Nozawa Onsen has also become well known for its crepes: indulging in a couple of flavors is a bucket list item for Japanese tourists. The town is dotted with specialist shops where you can grab a crepe to enjoy on-the-go, and you’ll also find them on the menu at apres-ski/apres-board hangouts such as the popular Neo Bar. Wherever you choose to try Nozawa’s crepes, we heartily recommend the sweet-and-sour taste combination of the banana variety.
Nozawa’s strong farming tradition is such that it even has a vegetable named after it. Nozawana, translating as ‘Nozawa vegetable’, is a variety of mustard leaf related to the common turnip. Said to have been bought here from Kyoto by a Buddhist priest back in the 18th century, it is commonly served pickled as an appetizer at local eateries. Nozawana’s sour, salty, and slightly sweet taste can also be enjoyed as the filling of onigiri rice balls sold in convenience stores.
Nozawa’s potent sake, or nihonshu, is another product of the town’s fertile land and fresh water, together with some diligent craftsmanship. Revered as some of the finest in all Japan, Nozawa sake hails from two main breweries; Tanakaya and Kadoguchi. The former is noted for its Mizuo-branded variety, made with pure water from a spring at the foot of the mountain of that name. A smooth, easily drinkable brew, it can be purchased directly from a shop at the Tanakaya brewery, and is also served at many local bars and eateries.
Oyaki is another Nagano Prefecture specialty. These juicy, chewy, and slightly crunchy dumplings are stuffed with a whole host of fillings including meat, sweet beans, vegetables, and fruit. Our suggestion? Without a doubt, the oyaki filled with Nozawa’s famed apples, served fresh at the cafe of classically European-styled hotel the Haus St. Anton.