Back in August, when we first arrived in Tokyo, I asked a friend who had lived here for 8 years where she liked to ski. Her favorites were Nozawa Onsen and Happo One, both in the Nagano area. She warned that I needed to book the trip asap as the places to stay tended to fill up quickly. She recommended some websites and after some research, I made my decision and booked a 4 night stay at Kawaichiya Ryokan. I emailed the Japanese inn and asked for accomodations for 3 children and 2 adults and I was told there were two rooms left, both with private toilet and sink. We would have to bathe in the public bath downstairs. I was also quoted a room rate that included breakfast and dinner. Knowing that ryokans were similiar to B&B’s in America, and that you couldn’t get a rate without the breakfast, I went ahead and booked the 4 nights bundled with the meals. I was told that a deposit was not necessary, as they “trusted” me. A week before our departure, I called the number the American Club gave me for a luggage delivery service, and they showed up at our apartment two days before we were due to leave and collected the 5 HUGE bags filled with ski equipment and clothing for 5 people. They assured me that my bags would be at the hotel before I arrived and that they would return to collect them the day that we left and that the bags would be delivered back home to us the following day. For this service I was charged the equivalent of $150. On Wednesday, each of us carrying a small backpack, met Tom at Tokyo Station around 4:30 (he was at work) and we boarded the Shinkansen Bullet train. We had reserved seats and had bought o-bento boxes to eat dinner on the train. The train to Nagano took 1.5 hours and arrived at the exact moment it was expected to. In Nagano, we changed to a small two car local train that took us slowly North to Nozawa Onsen. The train took one hour and we arrived at the local station after 8pm, took a 10 minute taxi ride and arrived at our ryokan. Kono, the man I had been communicating with via email was waiting for us and explained the layout of the town, handed over the lift tickets (more on those later) that we had ordered and had our bags brought up to our rooms. They were exactly as I had expected them. Here is a photo of the kids room:
of course, the photo was taken on Day 2 when they had a chance to make it their own. We were woken up the next morning around 7am when a little japanese old lady used her key in our door and barged into our room saying “breakfast” “breakfast”… Tom and I had to laugh knowing she was barging into the kids room next! We got dressed in our ski clothes and headed downstairs for breakfast. There were individual tables set on the tatami floor with pillows to sit on. The table was filled with plates – maybe 6 or 7 for each person and after carefully looking over everything we were served, decided the only thing we would consider eating was the white rice and the miso soup (and that even had large things floating in it). We pushed around the food a bit and made a quick exit. Our next stop was the ski rental shop (past the one traffic light in the town) and somehow managed to rent equipment. There is a little video of the experience on the photo site. We then carried our equipment through the town and up a very steep road to where the steps began. After going up the many steps we arrived at the “Yu Road”. This was a combination of a moving walkway and an escalator that was probably installed for the 1998 Olympics – the biathlon was held at Nozawa Onsen. As soon as the “road” ended you were on the snow and next to the ticket booth. We put our gear on, stored our after ski boots and took the gondola up. The lift tickets were small plastic squares the size of a matchbook that you put into your ski jacket pocket around waist high. The ticket scanners were not human. You passed through a gate that scanned your body for the pass and the bar would lift up when it found it. At first Annie had the “ticket” in a pocket that was lower than the scanner and she would hop up and down until it found her ticket, but then Tom told her to move it to her chest pocket and it worked like a charm. The resort had over 20 lifts (most of them covered quads which were amazing) and two gondola. At first, we thought there were more lifts than trails, but after finding our way around we realized that the mountain was much bigger then we had originally thought. And the day… it was absolutely gorgeous. Somewhere in the mid-30’s with the sun shining, no wind. Just the most perfect day to be alive and skiing. And there was no one else there. Maybe a few Australians here and there on summer holidays but that was it. We found this great little italian restaurant halfway up the mountain that served a list of different spaghetti, a good enough house wine and strong cappuccino. We skied all day until the runs were about to stop and were able to find ski and boot lockers that cost us about $2 a person per night. The place felt a little like a ghost town. It looked like it had been built up during the height of the bubble when everyone had cash and supposedly the lift lines could reach a kilometer in length, and then when the economy faded, so did the resort. Nothing had been updated since and there were very few visitors. But that was just fine. They were still grooming the trails every night so it was more fresh corduroy for us! We spent the late afternoon and early evening testing out the various onsen in town. The town is famous for its 12 public onsen and the town was built around them. They are literally large wooden enclosures split in half (men on one side, women on the other) that have the hottest water i’ve ever put my body in, being fed by natural hot springs under the earth. There is an important bathing ritual that must take place before you can enter an onsen. Squating naked next to a water spigot, you must totally cleanse your body and hair. And when you are squeaky clean, you can then get into the bath (naked of course), with the rest of the village. It does take some getting used to but it is a big part of the Japanese culture and after living here for 5 months, we’ve done it many times before. After a long day of skiing, there is nothing better. And you don’t even notice the cold when you put your yukata (cotton bath robe) back on and walk through the town with wet hair. Back at the ryokan, it was 6pm and time for dinner. We were a bit hesitant to see what would be served, but I promised the kids that if it was inedible, we would go out for dinner after. When we arrived at our table, we were not surprised to see the profusion of plates. The old lady came out to explain what everything was. The first dish she pointed to had raw meat on it. She smiled and said “Hawwwse Sashimi” and then she did a little impersonation of a horse. Tom asked in Japanese if she meant Uma? And she smiled and said “yes, uma”. It was confirmed, the main special dish of the night was raw horse meat. There was also a small plate of tempura, white rice and an udon (a small stew) that was bubbling over a flame with various vegetables and sliced duck. Tom and Sophie actually tried the Uma:
and then the laughing started and a major case of the giggles followed and then Hayden tried a small whole fish and started gagging and that was the end of the “dinner”. We quickly located a place that made pizza in town, ate again and then made a reservation for Saturday night too. Tom tried to explain to the person at the desk that we no longer were going to need breakfast or dinner again. But the next morning, at 7am, our friendly maid opened the door again to tell us to come to breakfast. And then when we didn’t come, they called us. And we tried to explain that we said no more meals but it never sunk in. The woman tried to get us to come to breakfast the entire time we were there. All in all, we were in Nozawa for four days, we skied for two of the days, Tom Sr. snowshoed through chest high powder on the third day and we took an early train home on the fourth. We went in several different onsen, bought fun souvenirs, played many many games of Apples to Apples (a very fun family board game) and made some really interesting memories….
We have two more ski trips planned – at the end of this month we visit Sapporo in Hokkaido for the annual Yuri Matsuri (Snow Festival) and then over the February break we go to Happo One in Nagano for five days. We are all looking forward to more fun skiing…