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47 Prefectures from A to Y


Hot water from the sleeping mountain

  • Japanese
  • Chinese

Nozawa Onsen is located in northern Nagano Prefecture, host of the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. With 30 distinct hot springs and 13 public onsen, or soto-yu, Nozawa Onsen has been renowned for its hot springs since the Edo period. The soto-yu, cared for by a villagers' association called yu-nakama ('hot water friends'), are open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., and are free to use. The water runs very hot, though some – including O-yu, the best-known soto-yu – have cold-water taps to help bring the temperature down. And one, Kumanotearaiyu, hovers at a 'cool,' 41 to 42 degrees Celsius.

Free bathing means Spartan bathing, with no towels or soap provided. For a fancier soak, there are a few paid options, such as Furusato no Yu and SPArena, the latter offering bathing-suit-required family-friendly soaking (at child-friendly temperatures) as well as traditional birthday-suit-only baths.

The source of Nozawa's soto-yu is Ogama, a spring that reaches temperatures of 90 degrees Celsius and is also used as the 'village kitchen.' Virtually all the town's ryokan (Japanese-style inns) use hot water from Ogama to cook the onsen tamago (hot-spring eggs) served with breakfast - and villagers use it to cook vegetables and soften the akebi vines used to weave the baskets and knickknacks for which Nozawa Onsen is famous. Though the 'village kitchen' is off limits to visitors, those interested in making their own onsen tamago can drop their own eggs into any of the various small hot spring baths reserved for onsen tamago around town. The 20-minute cooking time offers the perfect interval to pop into the nearest ashi-yu (foot bath).

Nozawa Onsen's bounty of hot springs is a result of its location at the foot of Mount Kenashi, an old volcano. Covered with beautiful forests, the mountain is also crisscrossed with ski slopes offering 10 kilometers of trails. With a vertical drop of 1,085 meters, a terrain park, a play area for children and snowshoeing tours, it's got something for everyone. And it's easily accessible from town with a moving sidewalk carrying visitors from the town to the slopes for free. If you time your trip right, you can even experience Nozawa Onsen's Dosojin Matsuri, one of Japan's three big fire festivals, held every year on January 15. Consisting of fire battles centered around a massive wooden shaden (pavilion) – with one team fighting to light the shaden ablaze while the opposing team defends – the festival is a sight not to be missed.

Nozawa Onsen continues to entertain past the spring thaw, first with delicious mountain vegetables and then with mountain biking, hiking and camping in the summer. In fall, fiery-hued foliage takes center stage, with hikes through Uenotaira-kogen, a national park, being the recommended activity.

When it comes to food, regional fare is always the way to go. Though known for the usual Nagano Prefecture specialties – soba noodles, manju (steamed cakes filled with sweet bean paste) and oyaki (steamed buns with various fillings) – Nozawa Onsen's most famous contribution to the Japanese culinary world is nozawa-na, a leafy vegetable traditionally pickled and served as a side dish. Now found in flavored toppings, rice crackers and even ice cream, nozawa-na is almost as ubiquitous as the hot springs and the sound of water splashing through the town.

Come for a soak, come for the slopes or come for a seasonal ramble – Nozawa Onsen is the place to be!