Often referred to as the quintessential Japanese ski town, Nozawa Onsen (野沢温泉村 Nozawa-Onsen-mura) is located in northern Nagano Prefecture about an hour drive or train ride from Nagano City. From March 13, 2015, the bullet train will cut that time significantly as it will speed visitors from Nagano to Iiyama in just 12 minutes. From there it is about a 25-minute drive or taxi ride. See our Access page for details.
This charming hot spring village is located at the foot of Mt. Kenashi and home to nearly 5,000 residents. Nozawa Onsen is the only place in Japan that has “onsen” in its official name. Legend has it the first hot spring was discovered by a hunter who was led there by an injured bear. It’s been a favorite hot spring destination since the Edo Period, but more recently has become even more famous as a world-class ski resort. In 1998 the village hosted the biathlon events for the Nagano Olympics and 15 villagers have represented Japan in the Olympics since 1955.
Just a few minutes walk (or even closer ski) is the Nozawa Onsen Ski Museum, which has fascinating multi-lingual exhibits that explore the history of skiing in Japan, from the woven straw snow boots and wooden planks of the 19th century through the 1972 Sapporo and 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Highly recommended to get a feel for the history and passion the village has for winter sports.
Be sure to spend some time strolling the streets of the village. Whether it’s your first time to Nozawa Onsen or you return every year, you are bound to discover a new street, shop or hot spring. There are 13 free hot springs dotted around the village as well as free footbaths. Many hotels and Ryokan allow visitors to pay to use their baths at certain times of the day.
A trip to Northern Nagano is not complete for many visitors to Japan without visiting the lounging macaques at the hot springs in Jigokudani. The trip makes a good diversion to break up a long trip, or a nice bad weather activity. Tours are available from Nozawa Onsen (inquire at the front desk). It is about a 45-minute drive and another 40 minutes by foot to the hot springs.
Fire & Ice: Dosojin Matsuri
The Dosojin Matsuri, the famous fire festival that takes place each year on Jan. 15, is the busiest day of the year. What has been a rite of passage for men in the village for centuries is now an event that attracts guest from Japan and abroad to watch the spectacular event. The village prepares for days as the men of the village of certain ages get ready for a fiery battle. Be sure to book early as rooms fill up months in advance.
New Year’s Eve is another big night on the mountain. At midnight the new year is welcomed with a big fireworks display. Its one night places are open a bit later, and The Craft Room at Nagasaka Gondola Station stays open until midnight.
Soto-yu: The 13 bathhouses in Nozawa Onsen
Thirteen bathhouses in this hot-spring resort village have been maintained as community properties jointly owned by the villagers and protected by an organization called Yu-nakama–meaning friends of the hot-spa–since the Edo Period. These bathhouses use 100% natural hot-spring water, which is not recycled. Properly maintained and always clean, the bathhouses are open to the public and can be enjoyed by short-term visitors as well as the villagers who use them every day.
Experience the heartwarming human relationship that exists between villagers and guests at each bathhouse. Relaxing and soaking in the hot water, this is the time to talk about and listen to what each of us has discovered and experienced during the day. Yakushi Sanzon–a triad comprising the Buddha of healing and medicine and his two attendant bodhisattvas–is enshrined at the Oyu bathhouse, while his 12 heavenly guardians are enshrined at the other bathhouses. Together, this group of Buddhist deities protects Nozawa hot spring resort.