5 Reasons to Visit a Traditional Village like Nozawa Onsen
With so many things to see and do in Japan, you’d be forgiven for sticking to the well-trodden paths. Of course, Kyoto offers history and beauty in equal measure, and Tokyo’s intoxicating grand maze of people and neon is a legitimate modern wonder. However, there’s much more to Japan if you know where to look. Here are 5 reasons to begin with a visit to Nozawa Onsen, a village said to have been founded by a Buddhist monk almost 1300 years ago.
Skiing and snowboarding
With around 70% of its landmass mountainous, Japan is famous worldwide for its abundance of the smoothest powder snow, and Nozawa has always been at the heart of winter sports. The modern age of Japanese skiing began with Austrian instructor, Hannes Schneider, who had his instructions translated to locals back in 1930. Cut forward about 90 years and Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort is among the country’s elite. From the foot to the top of Mt Kenashi (1,650m), the mountain offers an expanse of runs of all levels with a beautiful, traditional village at the base in place of the cultural wasteland of many other ski resorts.
Public onsen (hot springs)
As the town’s name suggests, it’s not just skiing that attracts visitors. For many hundreds of years before anyone conceived skiing could become the village’s lifeblood, people have been visiting for the onsen. There are thirteen soto-yu (public bath houses) in town, all of which are immaculately maintained by the locals, as they have been for centuries. Known for their curative and rejuvenating abilities, onsen are as much a part of daily life in Nozawa as eating and sleeping. The most iconic is perhaps O-yu, an intricately constructed bathhouse which has become a symbol of Nozawa itself.
An onsen you might not like to cure your ills in is Ogama. Unlike the soto-yu, Ogama is reserved for cooking by the locals due to its temperature of around 90°C. Owing to the rarity of such a phenomenon, Ogama is considered a natural monument of national importance. It’s treated as the kitchen of the village and you’ll see villagers using the steaming waters of Ogama to cook such local delights as the green-leafed nozawana and the famous onsen tamago (hot spring boiled egg). You may also find onsen tamago being slowly cooked at many of the village’s other onsen.
One of the best things about Japanese produce is how truly regional it tends to be and this is typified in sake, a quintessentially Japanese product. Mizuo sake has been producing locally in nearby Iiayma since 1873, using Nozawa Onsen spring water to create a tasty version of the nation’s iconic beverage.
Japan’s stature as a food destination is no secret, but well beyond the Michelin stars of Tokyo, in Nozawa are some of the most authentically Japanese restaurants you’ll find. Adding to the authentic vibe typical of Nozawa, many, like Jisaku izakaya (pictured), are mum-and-dad-run businesses, whose owners pride themselves on delivering upon generations of culinary crafting.
Throughout the year there are many festivals celebrated in Japan and Nozawa, but perhaps none as spectacular as Nozawa’s Dōsojin Matsuri, one of the three great Fire Festivals of Japan. Held in mid-January, the culmination is a beautiful and occasionally brutal “fire-setting battle” on the night of the 15th, as one team charges the shaden (large wooden structure) with blazing torches, while the other tries in vain to protect it, over hours of sake-fuelled attrition.
（Photo courtesy of Nozawa Holidays）