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Japanese Wanderings Part 2: Successes and Fails at Nozawa Onsen

Nozawa Onsen is a magical ski area, blessed by around 10-12 meters of snowfall annually. It's got about 750 Acres of inbounds terrain, making it a large resort by Japanese Standards, but its real strength is the lift accessible side country and "closed" tree areas which sit in-between the pistes. These tree zones are really part of the resort, and when you include them it's total size jumps up to around 2,500 acres. Still small by North American standards, but combine that with a 3,000+ ft. vertical drop and very few people skiing the trees -and you have a recipe for greatness!

Nozawa was our first stop for skiing in Japan, where we spent two awesome days getting acclimated and starting to figure out our new Japanese Vanlife.

But before I go into more detail...If you haven't read part 1 yet and you want to, check it out here.

Nozawa Onsen's magical Nagasaki Gondola from the base area. Typical weather.

The mountain with some side country names annotated.

Where TF is Nozawa Onsen? Heres how we got there from Tokyo.

As we first pulled up to Nozawa Onsen, the full mountain was hidden clouds, and it looked small. Very unassuming. I could see two short double chair lifts running up to the top of the ridge, and some trees, and that was it. Remmington later told me that he had very low expectations for the resort, and thought that what we were seeing was all. Hah!

Despite the small amount of visible terrain, it was blizzarding hard, and the snow looked fantastic! Welcome to fucking Japan in January.

Small side of the resort, and the first base area you drive to (far right on the trail map)

We took a couple warm-up runs on the small lifts, and enjoyed some powder. I knew we needed to go check out the rest of the mountain though, and I suspected we were essentially just wasting time. We crossed into the next canyon over, and dropped down to one of two main base areas (called Nagasaki), our eyes filled with possibilities as we looked over the hill. I knew that checking out the rest the mountain was the right call.

Soon, we are hopping on the Nagasaki gondola , what is arguably the steeper and better of the two main lifts that Nozawa offers. It’s kind of an odd gondola, with standing room only except for a couple small ledges you can rest your butt long. It’s two stages, and the ride is quite long. Nice, for all the storm riding we were about to do.

On the gondola we chatted with some Australian snowboarders, who seemed like they had gotten to know their way around the mountain. They asked about the backcountry gear in our packs, and then suggested that we would like a backcountry zone which was actually a side country zone. I always try to take people up on their recommendations, so I suggested that we check it out for our first real run.

Soon we were unloading the gondola, and hopping on another small double, which takes you to the top of Skyline run. From Skyline you have many options for off piste skiing as you simply drop off the run anywhere into the uncontrolled terrain below, and then ski to the lift at the bottom. We hiked up for a couple more minutes to a small hill with abandoned observation deck, and then dropped in. High up on the mountain where we were, those first few turns were magical. Face shots and over the head blower. With grins we pushed on down the slopes, and into the canyon eventually popping out far below once again at the gondola.

Theresa finds powpowpowPOW

We kept lapping the canyon zone, each time looking at new places to ski and trying to find them. Occasionally we'd get stuck traversing through deep snow and our snowboarder friend would curse us skiers. Other times we'd drop right in on steep tree lines, and we'd consciously ski by one by one through the most dangerous portions.

Skiing with your friends is a good idea in Japan.

Theresa contemplating another

Rem finds the goods (lets be honest they were everywhere)

The terrain we were skiing was more or less back country, although within the resort. Truthfully, I’m not sure I would have trusted ski patrol to rescue or control those slopes for avalanches even if they were in bounds. As such we were sneaky in skiing these "closed areas", although over the course of the day we only saw one patroller. He had narrow-waisted slalom skis and wore a fannypack, and seemed unconcerned with all the off-piste skiing happening around him.

Later we discovered a new run, unloading midway on the gondola. After unloading you had to immediately duck under a fence that said entry not prohibited, but the established track suggested that we weren’t the only ones doing so. We took several laps on that zone, thanks to its abbreviated lift ride. The skiing was similarly good open trees, with loads of untouched powder that just kept getting deeper.

Deep in a gully

All too quickly it was closing time, and we headed back to the van after a great introductory day to our JaPOW tour. In the parking lot we noted almost a foot of fresh (thats 30cm to you metric fans), and it was still coming down hard! Nozawa again the next day was an unquestioned and easy decision. In the meantime we needed to find a spot to park the van, and hopefully an onsen (Japanese hot spring) to warm up and cleanse ourselves.

Yep, it snowed a bit that day.

The town of Nozawa Onsen is up a steep hill, which can be quite snowy during a blizzard. We made a wrong turn and headed out of town, quickly descending away from where we wanted to go. Soon Remmington was attempting to turn the van around on a slippery inclined pullout, and we immediately realized just how bad the 2-wheel drive van performed on ice/snow. This was to be a recurring theme throughout our travels -which I had under-appreciated thanks to driving a 4-wheel drive truck my whole life.

After an hour or so of struggling to put on the included tire chains, our van was ready to go (or so we thought). However, the chains did little to improve traction on the steep hill. Eventually we gave up, drove to the bottom of the hill, and took it on with momentum. Using our speed and the chains, we eventually made it back to town, and found a random parking lot with some other camper vans parked in it. Home for the night!

Eager to warm up, we headed up to a nearby hot pool. Nozawa Onsen is famed for its public baths (of which it had more than 10), which are all heated by a hot spring source at the top of town. We quickly located a free spring in the bottom floor of a building, and decided to hop in. It was full of Japanese men (I'm sure Theresa's side was full of Japanese Women), and far too hot for any sense of comfort. The pool was very authentic, and Remmington and I speculated that some of the local residents used it as their bathing facility rather than having a shower/bath at home.

After a while, the other men left and we had it to ourselves. I jumped at the opportunity, and turned on a tap which provided cold water (to full blast). "We run this place now!", I exuberantly told Rem, "We can make this pool whatever temperature we want". However, my excitement was short lived. After about 2 minutes of some cooling action (it probably would have taken 20 for the pool to reach a comfortable temperature), an old man showed up to join us. With a stern expression he immediately turned off the tap, and wagged a finger at me. "No" he said simply. I guess his skin was tougher than mine -and I typically like my hot pools HOT.

We hung around for a few more minutes, and then decided to find food + beer. The Onsen had a changing area outside the main pool room, which like most Japanese establishments featured a raised area that signaled the end of shoes, and time to go barefoot (this is a customary thing, as shoes are never worn indoors in Japan). Like American tourists, we were fairly clueless to this imaginary shoes/no shoes boundary.

As we were finishing up with putting on clean clothes, the old Japanese man came out to the changing area. He still looked stern, and I suspected we were doing something against tradition. Sure enough, Remmington stepped up onto the no-shoes area with his now clothed feet. The Japanese man looked flustered, and I realized what was happening. He spluttered and shook his finger at Rem (who looked confused), before finally summoning two words we could understand: "Boots, NO!". He pointed at Rem's feet, and we both apologized profusely before leaving. Luckily the old man didn't seem too put off, I think he just wanted to set the rules straight with us Gaijin (a word meaning white tourist).

The next day we woke up to damp gear in the van, and reports of 50 cm of fresh on the hill (thats nearly 2 ft. for you Americans)! It was somewhat sunny out too! Time to shred it.

Early morning on the mountain

We picked up where we had left off the day before, resuming our laps on the "closed" inbounds side-country terrain, mostly unloading at the Gondola mid station. It was probably the best snow that any of us had had yet that year, and all aspects were amazing. Even the sunny south-facing slopes held light powder, and we found a variety of steeps, treed spines, pillows, cliffs, open trees, and other assorted goods.

Later that day we ran into some fellow rippers from Vail, CO. They had been there for a week, and said that conditions were the best they'd seen. They had explored the mountain thoroughly, and called the canyon zone off the half-way gondola unloading point the "Storm Zone". The other (larger) canyon which we had mostly skied the day before, they called the "Party Zone". We shared stories and laughed with our American compatriots, before eventually parting ways.

Our legs were feeling the two days of deep powder, and we actually took a break for lunch. Japanese on-mountain food is amazing, and North American resorts could learn a lot from Japan in this aspect. For about $8 each, we enjoyed delicious noodles, green tea, octopus roll appetizers, and a great place to dry out. Remmington seemed happy -and mentioned that he was in food paradise. I was enjoying it, but also wanted to get back to the 2 feet of powder!

Noodle lunch

That afternoon we lapped a new zone off the Hikage Gondola (Nozawa's older of the two). The gondola would be weird by American standards, as you sit back to back facing outward. Its also very small -like many things in Japan it was constructed for people averaging 5 ft. tall instead of 6 ft. However, it services some of Nozawa's least skied best terrain.

With the recent snow, we enjoyed south facing steeps across from the "Storm Zone". The trees there were legitimately gnarly, littered with pillows and spines, large cliffs in spots, and a runout through a tight canyon with tall checkdams. Just your typical Japanese Ravine. On our first run we came across two Kamoshikas (Japanese Serow), which basically look like demented snow pig goats and are about the size and fluffiness of malamutes. They were an exciting find, and we unintentionally chased them down canyon for a while. They can move surprisingly fast in deep snow (downhill only), and we speculated about what they might eat out there.

*not my photo but some Kamoshika

On a later run, I got into a scary situation. Looking for steep pillow lines, I unintentionally ended up on a massive cliff that appeared to drop into either thick trees or the bottom of a gully. A possibly doable straightline chute of steep ice cut the cliff, but I would have to point 'em for a hundred feet or so. I knew the snow was soft, but what was the transition at the bottom like? Clouds had moved in, and the light was very flat for such speedy skiing. Especially in Japan, where the terrain is almost always uneven, abrupt, and undulating thanks to a very bushy base.

After a puckering few minutes of trying to sidestep back up the steep drops I had come down, I had an idea. I dropped a leaf down the ice chute, and watched its trajectory to the bottom. No abrupt stops or transitions. Ok...looked good but I would be dropping in blind. I took a deep breath, and pointed my skis between trees and down the chute. Next thing I knew I was rocketing out the bottom at speeds which were way too fast for the small gully. I hit a roller, flailed wildly, and managed to land and somehow survive the rest. Phew! Back at the gondola, Theresa and Rem were starting to look worried, but I relived the story on our ride up.

The good shit

Looking back at some steeps

Just another pole plant in the woods

Our final run was from the top of Skyline, off into a new side country zone that we hadn't yet explored. At the top of our run, the clouds parted and the sun shone. We could see an incredible amount of other amazing terrain, which we hadn't had time to even think about checking out. We debated the merits of spending another day in Nozawa, but eventually decided to move on. I know I will be back, as this resort is massive, sees lots of snow, and has progressively-minded boundary/off-piste policies. Thank you Nozawa for an awesome time!

With the blizzard abated, and our next highway heated by hot spring water, we took off the vans chains and headed out of town. Down below the village we found a nice Onsen resort near a river, and paid about $5 each for a hot bath (after a few miscommunications). We debated our next moves, and decided that camping in a 7-11 parking lot followed by a trajectory to Myoko was what we wanted. To be continued in our next installment...

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