Trip Report: Spring Skiing in Nagano, Japan

Andy Knights

Our goal last winter as ‘the’ Japan experts was to soak up as much of the country's skiing as possible. Following our powder fix in Niseko in December 2022, we headed to Nagano in March to see how the more traditional resorts of Nozawa Onsen and Hakuba compared.

Skiing holidays to Japan have never been so popular, the allure of almost guaranteed powder, incredible terrain, fascinating culture and unbeatable cuisine draws customers from far and wide, keen to experience one of the world's greatest-ever winter destinations. So it's important that we keep visiting to be able to provide the most up to date and accurate advice.

On this Nagano Ski Safari, I was joined by Ski Safari founder Richard along with Andy Hemingway, Hannah and Andy Evans and between us, we had a good mix of experience in Japan.

Richard and I had visited a few times between us, Hannah had visited Hokkaido before and it was Andy Hemingway’s very first time. Andy Evans lived in Hokkaido for five years before joining the team and speaks good Japanese, so he was an easy pick for designated driver and food orderer!

By Andy Knights, Sales Manager / Japan & Switzerland Product Manager

The Journey to Nagano

Heading to the other side of the globe is never going to be quick, but once you factor in time travelling to the airport and arriving two to three hours before departure, the 13 hour flight doesn't feel like much more than travelling to North America's west coast. Eat some food, watch a couple of films, have a snooze and you'll be there in no time.

After a good old stretch in baggage claim at Tokyo Haneda, we made our way to the train station where we picked up our Japan Rail Passes (aka JR Pass). These one-ticket wonders allow you to travel on every rail and metro network in the country and the slick Japanese rail system allowed us to get to and from Tokyo station in no time at all.

Andy H, Andy K, Rich, Hannah and Andy E outside the redbrick station building in Tokyo
We went for a quick walk around outside the red brick station building in Tokyo, soaking up some spring sunshine and fresh air.

We each grabbed a ‘bento box’ - the classic all-in-one Japanese lunch boxes - and were soon relaxing in 300 km/h lightning-speed luxury as we enjoyed all the comforts of the wifi-enabled Bullet train. We raced through city suburbs, rice fields and alpine foothills as we headed for Nagano.

An Afternoon in Nagano

Lying in the Nagano basin and surrounded by spectacular mountains, Nagano is the perfect hub from which to explore the Japanese Alps. Look out from the town, as we did on a sunny afternoon, and you can see the distinctive shapes of ski runs cutting through the trees in the distance. We had one more sleep before we could get to the ski areas ourselves, but first, it was time to sample some Japanese culture.

Zenkō-ji Temple in Nagano
Zenkō-ji, a Buddhist temple built in the 7th century located in the city of Nagano

Close to the station in the centre of Nagano is Zenkō-ji Temple. If you have time before heading up to resort, I'd definitely recommend visiting. It’s one of Japan’s major temples, but not really on the tourist map like those in Kyoto or Nara, so we got to enjoy it in a quiet, uncrowded atmosphere. The time spent wandering around the pretty grounds was also really relaxing after a long day of travel.

Nozawa Onsen

After our afternoon exploring Nagano, we drove one hour to the resort of Nozawa Onsen. We consider ourselves incredibly fortunate that our lives within the ski industry have seen us collectively visit hundreds of ski resorts around the world, but none can offer the old-world authenticity of Nozawa Onsen. In fact, it’s one of the oldest ski resorts in the world! This is real Japan, with steaming onsen (hot springs) aplenty, the sound of running water in the air, quaint and traditional ryokan style accommodation and new but respectfully built modern hotels and apartments.

Nozawa Onsen from above
Nozawa Onsen from our Kawamotoya apartment

Enamoured as we are at Ski Safari with all things Japan, we opted for what we knew best and stayed at the newly renovated Kawamotoya with its contemporary western apartments where we enjoyed a welcome night's sleep. Not wanting to be incurious about the culture of our hosts, we hurried to the cafe the next morning where we ate a fantastic traditional Japanese breakfast, with soft-boiled eggs, cooked in naturally heated onsen water bubbling up just outside the hotel.

Refreshed, we wandered across town, picked up our ski rentals at the Salomon Rental Station and headed to the Nagasaka Gondola. True to our expectations, there was rarely a queue in sight whilst we were in the resort. We were very quickly whisked up the mountain on the newly built ten-seater gondola, enjoying the views over the valley on a remarkably clear and sunny day.

Skiing in Nozawa Onsen

Having sat still for 6,000 miles the day before, we needed to warm up our legs on some gentle runs and found the perfect slopes to do just that from Uenotaira Station. From here we skied the long and cruisy Rinkan, a green run which snakes its way below the tree line back to the main hub of the resort.

Back in the groove, we headed to the top of the top of the mountain to ski the area called Yamabiko. The real highlights of this zone are the areas between the runs, with widely spaced trees and terrain full of gulleys and chutes which had us whooping and hollering all the way down. There are no ropes to duck and the whole area is open, so it’s the go-to spot for advanced skiers on a powder day.

Andy Knights on the slopes of Nozawa Onsen
Taking in the magnificent views over Nozawa Onsen before tearing up the slopes

We stopped for lunch at Hakugin, one of several mountain restaurants with mesmerizing panoramic views over the valley. We slurped down big bowls of udon noodles and enjoyed a refreshing lemon beer while we sat outside in the sunshine, fuelling us for the rest of our day out on the snow.

I was impressed by the variety and choice for intermediate skiers in Nozawa Onsen, with still enough to challenge those who want steeper and more advanced runs. Outside the area boundaries, with touring skis or a split board, the terrain is very impressive - ask us about backcountry guiding options if you're feeling confident!

And if you’re into your snow parks, Nozawa Onsen will suit you just fine. We couldn’t take our eyes off former Japan resident and expert skier Andy Evans as he took on the half pipe.

Andy Evans in the park in Nozawa Onsen
Andy Evans impressed us all with his jumps in the park in Nozawa Onsen

As an unusually early riser, I was up with the sun at 6am the next day and decided to take a walk around the quiet streets of Nozawa. I watched the locals heading for their first onsen and then cooking their eggs for breakfast in the locals-only cooking spot. Nozawa Onsen is known primarily to us as a ski resort, but spend a few moments observing and you'll see it’s a real town steeped in tradition. If you visit, make sure to take a wander through the charming narrow cobbled streets and pay a visit to an old Japanese inn.

Jigokudani Snow Monkeys

With that, it was time to head to Hakuba, but not before a visit to Jigokudani Monkey Park. The warm waters here famously attract Japanese macaques (or ‘snow monkeys’) down from the surrounding forests to soak during the winter. It is in fact the only place in the world where monkeys are seen to engage in this behaviour.

Snow monkeys in Jigokudani
The Snow monkeys of Jigokudani are cute and funny in equal measure

The walk from the entrance to reach the monkeys was about two kilometres, a slow climb upstream following the Yokoyu River through a very scenic and tranquil valley. The path winds through tall pine trees, surrounded by vibrant green moss and ferns covering the forest floor. 

The park itself is comprised of a series of walkways that bridge the springs where the monkeys bathe, socialise and generally frolic to the amusement of onlookers. We noticed that the macaques completely ignored us. So used to being surrounded by humans staring and pointing their phones at them, they felt totally at ease with our presence.

Snow monkeys in Jigokudani
A couple of totally unfazed Jigokudani Snow Monkeys walk right up to us

It makes for a truly special visit if you fancy a non-ski day and in our mind, it’s definitely one to tick off the list. We have tours that cost only £93 per person including transport to the park, an English-speaking guide and lunch. Plus, there’s the added bonus of a tour of Nagano’s Zenkou-ji temple.

Skiing in Hakuba

Day four and we were excited to be in Hakuba, one of Japan’s largest and best-known ski destinations. This stunning winter playground is made up of 10 different ski areas stretching along a deep valley to the west of Nagano. Each area is different, offering something for skiers of all abilities and all linked on the Hakuba Valley lift pass. 

We stayed at the brand-new and very stylish self-catering Happo Slopeside Apartments at Happo One. Each apartment has huge windows and, sitting just a stone’s throw from the main Happo gondola, provides direct access to the ski area.

The next morning's crystal blue skies revealed the peaks towering all around us. These are truly breathtaking, rugged and spiny mountains that top out at over 3,000 metres, strewn with lines you can only dream of being able to ski! No wonder they’re known as the ‘Japanese Alps’.

Staying in Hakuba provides you with easy access to three main ski areas; Happo One, Hakuba 47 and Goryu. Between the three, there would have been more than enough skiing to keep us busy for at least a week, so we had to pack as much in to two days as we could! I was particularly impressed by the amount of vertical, with long, consistent slopes all the way down to the valley floor. There were fun terrain features too, including world-beating tree skiing and some super-fast pistes.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we took a break at the base of Hakuba 47 and, before settling fully into après mode, an impromptu ‘gear swap’ took place. I lent Richard my snowboard, while I buckled into his skis.

Andy Knights trying skiing in Hakuba, Japan
Don't I look like a natural?

For my colleagues, this provided the rare sight of me wobbling around on a pair of skis on what felt like the longest and most painful two runs of my life. In a short time, I exhibited all the reasons why skiing is most certainly not my favoured discipline. Had I had more time it would have been the ideal place to take a lesson but I didn’t want to put the superb local ski instructors through that kind of nightmare.

More Skiing in Hakuba

On our second day in Hakuba, we headed up to Cortina, one of the more remote areas at the northern end of the valley. It doesn’t look like much on the trail map, with only a few lifts running up two ridges on either side of a central gulley, but on a powder day, this is where it’s at.

The trees are widely spaced and every line funnels back to the main piste, giving adventurous skiers countless steep and deep options. As we'd arrived late in the season, we had to settle for slush spray turns but still had lots of fun lapping the pistes and exploring the more mellow runs in neighbouring Norikura. Another great day, rounded off with free Mini Milk ice creams and a post-ski soak in the scenic onsen at the Sierra Hakuba Resort.

There’s a wide range of bars and restaurants in Happo, which has a slightly more modern and western feel than Nozawa Onsen. We tried to keep it local and enjoyed a fantastic izakaya-style meal at ‘Ohyokkuri’ on one evening, then a yakiniku barbeque at ‘Ushio’ the next. The restaurants do get busy, so we recommend making a few reservations prior to your holiday. You can easily do this through Ski Safari or your accommodation concierge during your stay.

Rich, Andy H and Andy E in Hakuba
Richard, Andy Hemingway and Andy Evans on a slushy but fun day in Hakuba

Back to Tokyo

In all honesty, we could have stayed in the Japanese Alps for weeks, but our time in the mountains had to come to an end sometime, so we made our way back to Tokyo by bullet train. We always recommend spending at least one extra night in Tokyo - the experience of walking through its temples, shrines and parks, then seeing the city come alive as the sun sets is truly immersive.

Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo
The famous Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo

We stayed at the brand new Villa Fontaine Grand Haneda Hotel which is ideally situated right next to the International Terminal at Haneda Airport. It’s a fantastic option, giving easy access to the city via the Monorail. The next morning you can, almost literally, roll out of bed, make your way downstairs and check in to your flight. There is an excellent onsen on the top floor, with open-air baths on the roof overlooking the city. On a clear day, you can even see Mount Fuji. What a way to round off a trip to Japan!

Make 2024/25 the season you ski Japan

We were extremely lucky to ski Japan twice last winter. It reminded us and hopefully now you in turn what an exceptional skiing destination it is.

For your first visit to Japan, it’s easy to want to head to Hokkaido and the well-established Niseko which is a stunning destination in itself. Read my trip report from December 2022 for more on how that trip works.

But for something different and perhaps more authentic, a visit to Nozawa Onsen and Hakuba will provide you with a lifetime of memories.

We pride ourselves on being the Japan experts, so if you want to ski in the Land of the Rising Sun in 2024/25, get in touch and let’s get planning the winter holiday of a lifetime! Enquire online or call us on 01273 224060.

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