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. The Hokuriku Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Station takes you to Iiyama Station in just 1 hour 50 minutes. From here it is just a 20-minute comfortable bus ride on the Nozawa Liner to Nozawa Onsen. If you miss the bus taxis are readily available. See our Access page for more 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 16 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.
The Dosojin Matsuri, the famous fire festival that takes place each year on Jan. 15, is the biggest day of the year in the village and the busiest week to be in Nozawa Onsen each winter. 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 (if not an entire year) in advance.
The thirteen bathhouses in Nozawa Onsen have been maintained as community properties jointly owned by the villagers and protected by an organization called Yu-Nakama, meaning friends of the hot springs, 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. There are thirteen "gumi" (neighborhoods) in Nozawa Onsen organized around each hot spring and the neighborhood residents clean and maintain their hot spring.