I don’t know if you have ever sat naked in a hot tub with fresh snow falling on your head?
You loll about in the steaming waters until your body is pretty well poached and ready for the Béarnaise sauce. Many onsens in Japan offer this experience but the real thrill is being able to climb out of the saucepan and dive into a mound of fresh snow.
You can almost hear the sizzle as your super-heated body hits the ice. It is rather like what I imagine diving into a bathtub filed with Champagne would be like.
Although there are many Japanese open-air onsens where the hot tub + snow on head is possible, the diving into a heap of fresh snow may perhaps be more frequently found in Scandinavian countries where a steaming sauna and a few bashes with a birch branch can easily be followed by a roll in the snow.
In Nozawa Onsen, about two hours by Shinkansen from Tokyo there are thirteen public onsens and during my visit there was plenty of snow around … but it would have been inappropriate for me to run naked from the onsen into a public street and leap into a snowdrift.
Fur-clad matrons would have spilled their sake at the sight and the snow monkeys would have blushed even brighter red.
Nozawa Onsen is a pretty little village of hilly winding streets and is one of Japan’s oldest ski resorts. According to legend, a monk named Gyoki discovered the famous hot springs in the 8th Century and the village was opened for skiing in 1924. Nozawa Onsen hosted the 1998 Olympic Games Biathlon and the British team stayed in my lovely little Gastof Schi Heil.
The village has a permanent population of just three or four thousand people and perhaps almost that many Dosojin – wooden statues of folk gods believed to bring happiness and fertility. A huge fire festival is held in January in their honour. The village has just one set of traffic lights – traffic is not very chaotic – but the number of residents swells in the winter when people come for the skiing – huge open pistes, long runs, some very challenging terrain – and the hot springs.The skiing is rather good – with two gondolas and twenty or so other lifts serving about three hundred hectares of slopes. There are sixteen intermediate slopes with a total length of about eleven kilometres and almost twenty-three kilometres of easier courses. Advanced skiers have more than a dozen pistes where they can risk their necks.
I met a local travel guide – Shinji – who told me that the ski business in Japan reached its peak in the 1980s but that it is now steadily declining: there were over 600 individual ski resorts and now fewer than 400. Japan has a rapidly ageing population and according to Shinji, skiing and snowboarding are young peoples’ sports. Perhaps he is right – but the two occasions when I was knocked over on the slopes were by a young Japanese man on a snowboard and an old Japanese man more or less on skis.
And then there is global warming.
I was lucky that there was a huge fall of fresh snow the day after I arrived – and then nothing for the next ten days. Niseko, world-famous for its depth of fresh powder, had one of its worst seasons ever.
In addition to the excellent Japan Ski Museum near the Hikage Gondola station (I think I was the only visitor the old man at the ticket booth had seen in days), there are many restaurants, bars and cafes scattered over the mountain, so you never have to go too long between beers or sakes or huge glasses of water. I had lunch one day at the Utopia Restaurant near the foot of a perilous black run, watching skiers and snowboarders tackle the steep, mogul-studded slope before carrying on down the rest of the Utopia B course – an intermediate red run.
- Perhaps the glass of homemade sake I had with my lunch interfered with my balance, as my later descent of Utopia B was pretty inelegant with men, women, children and wild beasts scattering before my headlong tumble.
At the Naganoya liquor shop in the village’s main street you can order a tasting tray of three different sakes for Y500. I had two semi-dry varieties and a dry sample where the rice, according to the accompanying pamphlet, had been “polished” 59%. I have no idea what that means, but the one I liked most was one of the semi-dry varieties where the rice had been “plished” 50%. I was certainly pretty plished after the three generous samples.
Scattered along the village high street are several shops selling oyaki – steamed buns – an ideal form of blotting paper to soak up the sake. The steamed pork buns were my favourites, but there are buns with red bean paste, with mushrooms, with pumpkin and also with local pickles.
Traditionally, the steamed buns were cooked using waters from the hot springs that feed the many onsens. Perhaps they still are, but the people streaming to the many onsens are certainly still steamed by the rich mineral waters.
Most of the Nozawa onsens are in beautiful old timber structures that recall the architecture of Japan’s Edo Period (1603 – 1869) but some are just simple concrete and granite boxes with a steaming tub or two. My favourites included the beautiful O-Yu with its two bathing pools, one of which was VERY HOT and another that was just HOT. Over the road there is a footbath where travellers can sit and soak their tired feet.
Most ski lifts close at about 4.00 or 4.30 pm, so a quiet soak in the hot tub at 3.30 can become a bit of a scrabble at 4.30 or 5.00 pm when everyone leaves the mountain and comes in search of a soothing bath to ease tired muscles. On one visit to O-Yu my bath started quietly but rapidly became rather farcical as about sixteen naked slim young men (Japan does not do obesity very well) and one not so young or so slim man squished into the more comfortable bath while just one brave – or silly – soul endured the poached egg bath at the other end of the onsen.
Opened at the end of the Edo Period, the Shinden No-Yu is one of the oldest onsens in town and I was the oldest person in the tub at this old bathhouse. It is quite small and has below-boiling-point water that apparently contains Glauber’s Salts, gypsum and sulphur – all of which, I am told, are good for haemorrhoids, diabetes and other ailments. Glauber’s Salts, according to www.infoplease.com, is used in dyeing and also used as a mild laxative … so perhaps the laxative / piles ideas are linked.
At the other end of the village is the Ogama No-Yu with very hot (900C) waters and signs saying that it is reserved for villagers only. It is also called the village kitchen. I did not see anyone taking the waters but there was a man lifting out a large basket of onsen tamago – eggs that he had boiled in the water. At a nearby grocery shop were groups of people eating the soft-boiled eggs and drinking hot tea. I wonder if any of them had haemorrhoids or diabetes …?
Food Glorious Food
If boiled eggs – soft or hard – are not your thing, then you need not go hungry in Nozawa. I had a great steak dinner at The Corner Steak House, a tasty kebab at the Kebab House, a chilled beer at Sun Yamaki near the Hikage gondola and a rather salty pizza in the restaurant at the top of the Nagasaka gondola.
- What? No Japanese food?
- Well, yes, there was my dinner at the Ryokan Sakaya
To call this feast simply a “dinner” does not do it justice. At many ryokans (traditional guest houses) visitors can choose tatami-mat bedrooms or Western rooms, have a cuddly hot tub and then have the seasonal kaiseki meal: a feast for the eyes almost more than for the tongue.
My little snack was rather paltry – just ten items served as an appetiser, and then only eight different courses to follow and a couple of jugs of sake to wash it all down.
There was fermented fish with hot pepper, sweet potato rolled in thin beef strips, three types of sashimi (I really enjoyed the Shinano snow trout with lemon), a steamed pot of Miyuki pork simmered in a sake lees soup hot pot, some Tateshina wagyu beef and other meats grilled on a tiny hotplate, and one or two other nibbles just to keep the hunger demons away.
A farewell to snow
I did not manage to sample the waters in all thirteen onsen – just five or six of them – but my favourite even on my second visit was O-Yu that had water just hot enough to sooth without broiling and still packed with slim young men: I wonder where the oldies go for their baths and when?
Perhaps they are just dirty old men and do not bathe.
I did not manage to see the Naked Man Stampede, either. This famous Nozawa festival to honour the Buddhist gods of war and good health was held two days after I left so I did not wrap a white loincloth around my hips, did not carry flaming torches through the night and did not drink too much sake.
Perhaps next time.
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall March 2020.
Location map, snow onsen and interior of O-Yu photographs from Internet
Journey February March 2020
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight
- Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship
A friend, married to a Japanese man, recently wrote to me to relate her first experience in a Japanese onsen:
I should tell you how I burned my vagina in an onsen.
We were on our honeymoon at XXX Onsen. It was my first exposure to an onsen and I wanted to watch what the women do whilst in an onsen and how they interacted with each other. I was on my period but had a tampon inside of me. I sat and sat and sat in the boiling waters watching and watching the women. Unbeknownst to me, the boiling water of the onsen saturated my tampon and burned the inside of me.
So much for the honeymoon