Earlier this year Derek and I spent a week of skiing at a tiny Japanese mountain village called Nozawa Onsen. It feels like a life time ago now but it was a wonderful holiday with aspects of complete unfamiliarity like nude bathing in an onsen and fumbling our way through the country with our limited Japanese knowledge relying on a small pocketbook dictionary. Skiing was by far the most memorable experience. Set on repeat, our days entailed fueling up on one or two cups of coffee and warm savoury dumplings in the morning, walking to the ski slope for a day on the snow and returning just after sunset to the village for a hot soothing shower or onsen before chowing down a feast of a dinner at one of the nearby village restaurants before falling into a deep healing slumber.
Having only seen snow three times in my life, I am an absolute beginner at the alpine sport of skiing. My second time on snow skis, I eagerly wished to venture up into the mountain at Nozawa, especially after spending my first trip some 5 years ago on the bunny slopes in France among children who pushed in line and found it hilarious when adults fell on skis. Derek on the other hand is an advanced snowboarder and a whizz kid of an ice skater but for this trip he switched to skis, so that we could ski together. He always surprises me with his considerate personality.
Following a couple of good days on the Hikage slope we took the adjacent gondola to another section of the ski field.
We skied down a smoothly groomed path through trees along Kumataka to the next gondola. To further progress up the mountain we had to go down, the best part! I was thankful the run down to Nagasaka gondola was wide enough to accommodate my unrefined turns. We took the big Nagasaka gondola up to Yambiko station which sits at 1,400 m above sea level. While some skiers continued onto the next gondola for the highest skiing and snowboarding point of Mt Kenashi, we thought the snow park and half pipe at Uenotaira sounded like awesome fun and this is where we ended up for a couple of hours.
The snow park and half pipe at Uenotaira is fantastic for beginners, offering more space and a few fun obstacles. Derek went straight for the rail and jumps. Even though he grew up by the beach he seems to take to snow really well; he mastered the rail after the 3rd attempt and I know that it would take me about 100 attempts to get it right.
A trail followed alongside the snow park area and I happily skied along this a few times while Derek carved it up in the snow park. Both trails met to reveal a deceivingly high slope down to the gondola. This was our mustering spot, and we worked out the trick to make it all the way to the gondolas without having to pole at the end was a speedy run up. Poling, something I found harder than skiing itself. A gondola whizzed us, legs dangling, back to the top where we did it all over again.
Following the snow park we skied half way down Paradise slope to a restaurant housed in an alpine wood hut. Literally skiing up to the door, I kind of tried to mimic a manoeuvre I saw on an old James Bond movie but had to settle for an unsteady snow plough halt instead! By the time I clipped out of my skis Derek was already browsing and translating the Japanese menu inside. On Paradise slope we were still high in the mountain and the terrain was so beautiful – at this point we could see a glimpse of the small village below. Food and a little bit of liquid courage in the form of an ice cold glass of Ashani beer was exactly what I needed to continue down the next 5km long ski run. Against the alpine backdrop we ate delicious tonkatsu (pork cutlet) with steamed white rice, miso broth and cabbage. It was intensely bright on the snow, a result of the reflection of the sun’s rays and I opted to keep my tinted ski goggles on while eating. Sunglasses would have been handy.
Food has never tasted that delicious then on the mountain. Skiing works up one mammoth of an appetite and, it was so satisfying tucking into a warm meal. I can fondly marry up our ski experiences with food quite easily. Returning back to our room and opening a bottle of the local sake and unwrapping the delicate Wagashi treats. Or, taking up some red bean paste donuts to the slopes for snacks. Let me tell you the food cuisine in Japan is a tourist attraction on its own! Bellies full and rearing to go, we skied further down Paradise slope to a fork in the trail. Our two options – to the left a black diamond trail with a steep degree of 32 that Derek accidentally went down one day to discover moguls and no way back (story about that adventure later) and to the right, the Rinkan Tree run. We headed right.
Rinkan Tree run
The tree-lined course was scenic and shaded, it wasn’t straight but rather it traced the side of the mountain through a number of bends and turns. I was a little intimidated by a couple of the bends where I could see the sheer drop of the cliff, but boy was it incredible to see and experience! Just keep your eyes on the path ahead were the words I silently told myself over and over again. I should probably mention I have a vivid imagination in times of fear and the ski run was perfectly safe, clean and well maintained. The snow conditions were pristine, soft fluffy natural snow and no scary icy spots. The 5km trail took about 40 minutes, mainly because I snow ploughed the whole way down, we passed and were passed by skiers and snowboarders alike. Most of the skiers and snowboarders were beginners and I think because the tree run is quite long the advanced snow folk go via the shorter and faster routes. We emerged from the cover of snow topped trees at the bottom of the Hikage slope. My legs felt like concrete, a punishment for snow ploughing but I was chuffed and it had been so much fun. It only got better too. We skied the Rinkan tree run a couple more times, another week in the village would have been bliss.
The ultimate experience of skiing is actually forgetting about skiing while you are skiing! When it starts to feel natural. This happened a few times and I felt like a real pro which was a massive boast for my trending downward confidence. Following the siren call at dusk signalling the end of the ski day, Derek and I would race to the top of the Hikage slope and wait until not one soul was on the slope which surprisingly was only a matter of 10 to 15 minutes. Then, we would race down. Yes, race! I actually skied fast and felt the soft snow carve under the skis, there was no snow ploughing at all. By far my favourite moment of skiing at Nozawa Onsen in Japan. Interestingly I found skiing fast easier than skiing slow!
Ski Survival for adult beginners!
Learning to ski is like learning to swim, it surely takes practice and being aware of what your body parts are doing.
Living in Australia, sure it’s a little difficult to practice without snow but if you want to prepare there are some activities you can do like rollerblading down hills with winding paths and ice skating at the local ice rink. Travelling from Perth if you stop over in Kuala Lumpur there is an indoor ice rink at one of the shopping centres. Albeit ice skating and roller blading are quite different to skiing, they do, however, develop some skills and a little confidence to bring along. I dislike to say, but they also get you accustomed to falling, an inevitable fact if you have never been on skis before – you will fall. Ice skating is also a great way to introduce you to the feeling of people whizzing past.
A ski lesson is a must. While I had one in France I didn’t opt for one this time around. I was lucky to have Derek teach me and had I been travelling on my own I would have invested in another lesson. The great thing about the ski lesson is that the instructor can also give you a run down of the area, conditions and best time to head into the mountains. Ask as many question as you like and definitely invest in a one on one lesson.
Confidence is king, do not let a fall from deterring you from such an awesome sport! The hardest part is to get back up, especially when you do not have waterproof pants and feeling wet from the melted snow. If you are like me, you’ll fall in the weirdest positions like a split position up the slope with my head and skies into the snow. Trying to get up would further sink the skis in. What a predicament and after a while I figured out to roll onto my back with skis in the air, looking far from suave. It worked and I was standing tall again. During such times you just have to laugh, forget and move on!
Observe Observe and Observe! Apart from skiing, there is; learning to clip in and out of the skis, riding a gondola with your skis on, poling on the flat spots and standing still whilst on the slope. Watching what others do helps.
Rest. One day you’ll have an awesome run and then the next it may seem that you have gone backwards. Sometimes you’ll need a scene change to regroup. Head to the village and have a sushi feast at Hamachozushi I say!
Have you seen our other Nozawa Onsen Travel Posts?