Nagano-ken’s mountains are home to several wonderful ski resorts and onsen villages, including the delightful Nozawa Onsen, self-proclaimed home of Japanese skiing; Hakuba, a valley with seven different ski resorts; and Shiga Kōgen, Japan’s biggest skiing area, lying within the Jōshinetsu Kōgen National Park, which is also home to Yudanaka Onsen, famous for its snow monkeys, which splash about in their very own rotemburo.
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Even though international word is out on how great the skiing is at NOZAWA ONSEN (野沢温泉), this village of four thousand people, nestled at the base of Kenashi-yama (1650m), 50km northeast of Nagano, maintains a traditional atmosphere. Dotted along the narrow, twisting streets, you’ll find thirteen free bathhouses, all lovingly tended by the locals. Most impressive is Ōyu bathhouse, housed in a temple-like wooden building in the centre of the village; each side has two pools, one of which is so hot that it’s almost impossible to get into.
Nozawa claims to be the birthplace of Japanese skiing since it was here, in 1930, that Hannes Schneider – an Austrian who popularized the two-pole technique – gave skiing demonstrations to an awestruck audience. One of the resort’s most difficult runs is named after Schneider, and photos of the man in action, impeccably dressed in suit and tie, can be seen in the Japan Museum of Skiing (daily except Tues 9am–4pm; ¥300), housed in a white, church-like building at the bottom of the Hikage slope.
The ski resort (wwww.nozawaski.com; open late Nov to early May) is family friendly, has lots of English signs and varied terrain that will put all levels through their paces. Time your visit to coincide with the spectacular Dōso-jin fire festival, held every January 15.
Situated in the dramatic northern Japanese Alps, 60km northwest of Nagano, HAKUBA (白馬) is one of Japan’s top ski destinations, featuring six resorts. The largest and most popular is HAPPŌ-ONE (八方尾根), site of the 1998 Nagano Olympics downhill course. The valley is perfect for skiers and snowboarders who prefer a variety of terrain and plenty of après ski fun.
With two very pretty lakes – Aoki and Kizaki – the Hakuba valley also makes a fine base for a whole range of outdoor pursuits in summer. The reliable Evergreen Outdoor Centre offers everything from rafting and mountain biking in summer to backcountry ski expeditions and avalanche-awareness courses in the winter.
The complaint that Japanese ski resorts are too small certainly doesn’t apply to mammoth SHIGA KŌGEN (志賀高原), eighteen resorts strung out along the Shiga plateau in the Jōshinetsu Kōgen National Park, 20km northeast of Nagano. The huge variety of terrain makes the one-day ¥4800 lift pass, which covers the entire lift network, terrific value. It takes several days to ski the whole area; if you’re short of time head for the northern end of the mountain range to the resorts at Okushiga-kōgen (奥志賀高原) and Yakebitai-yama (焼額山), where the slalom events of the 1998 Olympics were held.
Yudanaka and Kambayashi Onsen
Yudanaka and Kambayashi Onsen
On the western fringes of the Jōshinetsu Kōgen National Park is a string of onsen villages, kicking off with YUDANAKA (湯田中), from where you can catch the bus to see the famous “snow monkeys” at nearby KAMBAYASHI ONSEN (上林温泉). Yudanaka is also the access point for the well-groomed and quiet slopes of Gorin Kōgen (ごりん高原) and Kita-Shiga Kōgen Heights (北志賀高原), which are especially popular with snowboarders.
The Nagano–Dentetsu train line from Nagano terminates in Yudanaka (express 40min, ¥1230; local 1hr, ¥1130). From the station, it’s a fifteen-minute bus journey to Kanbayashi Onsen. There’s also a direct bus from Nagano to Kanbayashi Onsen (40min; ¥1300). To reach the monkey park, walk uphill from the bus stop until you find a sign for a trail leading through the woods for around 2km.
Beside the monkey park is Kōrakukan (後楽館), a rambling wooden ryokan offering homely Japanese-style accommodation; rates include two meals. Take a dip in their rotemburo for ¥500 and it’s possible that the monkeys will join you. Alternatively, there’s the elegant Kanbayashi Hotel Senjukaku (上林ホテル仙壽閣), set amid the trees in Kanbayashi Onsen.