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Nozawa Onsen (Japan) - Review

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  Quote ippollite Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: Nozawa Onsen (Japan) - Review
    Posted: May/24/2012 at 3:26am

Nozawa Onsen: The Review.

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Where?Nozawa Onsen, Nagano, Japan.
When?2 days in Feb 2010, 3 days in Jan 2012, 1 day in March 2012
Who?Ippy Vangelis. Clutz. About day 80 lifetime. Awful balance. Likes slackcountry and the trees, used to like air, but became gutless last year and stayed in his comfort zone this year instead of fighting his cowardice.

Ticket Info: 4600 yen a day (i swear it was 4500 when i was there last). There is also a thing they have where you get 500 yen off if you bring a previous day pass. So really if you're there a few times over the year you might as well consider it 4100 yen. (Of course that was this season, so maybe its not the same next year). Season Pass is a fair 60,000yen which is pretty much comparable for most of the other decent sized places in the area (hakuba 47 and Happo1, shigakogen, myoko big 4 etc.). Fifteen times and it starts paying for itself. http://www.nozawaski...ift_charges.php

Public Transport Accessibility: Bit of a faff, but not too awful. You can get the bus from outside Nagano station for about 1500 yen each way which drops you off outside the resort. The problem with that is it doesn't leave until after 9.20am if I remember right so you wont really be on the course until 10.30 or even later. An alternative (and where the faff exists) is to get the train to Togari-Nozawa Onsen (about an hour journey), and then get the bus up to the resort itself. The problem is that the buses and trains arent entirely linked up all that well (you usually have a good 15 minute or so wait) and even when you do get up to the resort you then have to either walk another ten or so minutes up the hill or wait for the shuttle bus (which also wasnt exactly running in perfect harmony with the rest of the network). Basically it all felt like a bit of a mission. The reason is (of course) that first there was the spa town, then came the ski town (from december to late march). The schedule isn't really made for tourists without their own transport.

Snow Conditions?: First trip it was spitting rain, no real coverage, hard and icy in plenty of places. Second trip was insane pow. The final trip in March this year was late season sticky snow up to the top of the gondola, but fluffy up at the peak. 

Crowds?: Over the bank holiday weekend in Early Jan (on the sunday in particular) the gondolas were pretty busy in the early morning, but by around 10.30 most people were spread out over the mountain making waiting times pretty much normal as they go. Small queues, nothing too dramatic. For the life of me i cant think of a single pont where i felt id cocked up and ended up in a bottleneck. Arguably the reason for that is that the two gondolas pretty much do the leg work here. They get everyone up the mountain nice and quick and let them hit any one of the four main lines (each with a few smaller lifts to break it up even further). There isn't really a congestion point. Probably the busiest area is the Uenotaira area and maybe the link lift to get you over to the Nagasaka gondola when you come down the Uenotaira/Schneider side into Hikage. If you're looking for a nice quiet spot though, the middle line down towards Ushikubi (after the beginners turn back on to Uenotaira) and the Karasawa areas never seemed to have that many people on them.

Resort Facilities?: A few cafes and restaurants and a couple of shops as well as a museum. But really, on piste there isnt ALL that much. There's enough to keep you going at the base, and there's a little crypto-cafe at the top of the gondola as well as a typical skijo restaurant at the foot of uenotaira, but I wouldnt exactly say its brimming with facilities or anything. 

Anything Else?: Nozawa is a little town nestled in among the mountains. Its GORGEOUS to wander about in on a saturday night in peak season when the snows falling. Its even pretty enough to keep significant others who hate riding entertained for a day. Truth be told i have my stoke on about Nozawa resort right now and though the town itself is the stuff of chocolate boxes, I dont really feel like chatting about it. Its pretty. You should wander about it to relax at night and see if you can catch one of the events they have there routinely during the peak season (free soup/sake nights, fire festival etc). The nightlife though still isnt exactly kicking. It's fairly sleepy and come 10pm the party pretty much stops for all but the hardcore. It aint niseko or hakuba but its gentile and quaint. So er... thats pretty much it. Lots of free onsens, but i never used them (since theres usually about 400 dudes all crammed into these tiny little baths). Nice footbaths around the town, and plenty of little shops to look in (mostly restaurants and omiyage/tat though).
Anyways, summary over. The towns nice, it'll keep you entertained for a nice evening stroll. But i aint really here to review the town. So on with it.

Nozawa - The resort.

Beginners:

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(Karasawa on a typically busy day)

Absolute beginners are VERY well catered for. The base of the resort ares itself (between the three ridge lines) has a decent incline with loads of open space and plenty of lifts to get you lapping the zones fairly regularly. If youre learning to side slide, leaf, garland or grabbing that first turn the 3 areas (hikage, nagasaka, and Karasawa) are almost the perfect pitch and just long enough to give you a bit of a practice, but short enough to keep you feeling like you're moving a bit. Once you've learned your turns (or if you just want to see a bit more of the mountain itself), there's also the Uenotaira area which slips into a really long very shallow green path bringing you down to the base of Higaki. As if that wasnt enough, theres a nice little green path going down the middle ridge (the panorama course) which then pops over to the paradise course at the base of the Uenotaira area before plunging into that path down to Hikage. Finally, you can elect to head down the skyline a bit before taking the first turn off it into Karasawa and enjoying what is an entirely wide open, completely empty part of the mountain for you to get comfy doing whatever it is you want to do. Basically beginners have a LOT of the mountain they can play on before they're liable to feel they're repeating themselves.

Intermediates:

SKYLINE:

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(skyline 2010) 

On my first ever snowboarding trip to Togari Onsen I remember looking across at the skyline and wondering how long it would be before I could ride it. The skyline was just this thing of pure beauty. I knew nothing about snowboarding, but I knew absolutely that i was looking at something sublime. Now I'm being a little effusive here... you'll forgive me. Unless you too were learning to turn on your second real day of snowboarding and looking across at it, you probably don't get what I'm saying and you might be naturally wondering if I'm being a little over the top here. Well obviously I am. It's just a run after all... a perfect, delicious, incredible, terrifying run. But just a run...

Nah, it ain't. It's freaking awesome. I defy anyone to run it full pelt for the entire thing. Consistent fall line, some serious steeps, a few nobbly bits, the greatest optical illusion I've ever seen since electric brae (ayrshire represent!), a nice long ride, and all round one of the finest bombing runs I've had the pleasure to play on. You just have to rip it. Theres nothing else to do on it. Point the board straight down and rip. Its exhilarating stuff. I've also been spanked on it at full pelt onto my head (backwards), so i know just how much a slam on it really will give you a proper concussion even with protection... So er, take it easy, and don't push yourself too much. It might list itself as an intermediate run and it might seem straightforward (point board down, bomb, ???, profit), but be aware theres some hidden little bumps every now and again that wil catch you in flat light late in the day when you're a bit knackered. :p

Skyline is probably the best fall line on the mountain for an intermediate. Its nice and long, it's going to be a challenge and it's gonna give speed freaks a serious kick. Obviously be careful of the people in front of you though (and be careful where you stop), it can get crowded near the top where it is a bit twistier and narrow, and since it is kind of the crown jewel ride of the mountain, lots of people want to have a crack at it regardless of their level. That being said though, if you are fortunate enough to get an open line, you do what you need to do!

Yamabiko:

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At the very top of the mountain and slightly cut off from the rest of it (you need to take a lift back up to reconnect to the top fo the nagasaka gondola area), is the Yamabiko area. I kinda gave it short shrift the second time out since its pretty small and powder was everywhere anyway. Its fun, has a bit of tree riding between the main runs, and for an intermediate starting to flirt with the trees or slack country its a great little area to muck about in. First time I went to Nozawa it was decent fun, felt a bit short though so by the second trip i felt it wasnt really worth the trouble. Cue trip three though, late march and powder starved. We popped up there and was STUNNED to find fresh dry fluffy untracked powder still hanging around. It didnt hurt that a couple of days prior there was a top up in Nagano, but it was still superb quality freshies. It really changed the entire dynamic of the day. Obviously we decided to hang about there and skip the rest of the mountain. The area is GREAT for powder when the rest of the resort starts getting a bit tracked out, sticky, moguled and slow. Pop up here and get your groove back. Some great lines, as i say, a bit short, but nevertheless a stack of fun.

Speaking of Pow... when it drops, the line down the middle on Ushikubi is AWESOME fun to hit up. Its STEEP, and it will scare the hell out of you if you're seeing it for the first time, but once you start splatting into soft fluffy pow, who gives a crap? It gets wild and bumpy, its way out of most peoples difficulty level in truth (i dont think i saw many people ride it like it was nothing), but it was puking, the pow was wild, everyone was grinning and enjoying the whole bumper car spirit of it all. Id avoid it once it gets a bit barren. Its steep, moguled and pretty much double black.

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(Mizunashi area) 

As far as my mates in January were concerned (one a solid intermediate and the other a beginning intermediate), the Mizumashi into Ushikubi was their absolute highlight. They kept making me ride that stupid mizumashi lift all day when i just wanted to play over at schneider :p The Ushikubi was maybe a bit much for the burgeoning intermediate if I'm honest, but the other one was ripping it. (I was just launching off the bumps and splatting every three or four turns by the way - it was a blast!)

Finally for intermediates there's the Hikage area. But truth be told, though its a little steep at the very top of it, it wasn't really that bad. A glorified green run if you ask me.

Advanced:

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(ushikubi pow)

I'll let you into a secret. I already wrote a review of Nozawa after the second trip. I accidentally erased it from history when I had a brain fart and copied over it with my Kagura review. I mention this here because it was really the advanced part that was the troubling part of the review for me. You see it's like this: Skyline is great, the powder is great, and the steeps are AWESOME. But there's just this massive middle break in the fall line between the top of the Nagasaka gondola and the good stuff that really lets Nozawa down. It was around this thought that the entire review ended up being less than enthusiastic.

I still feel that to be accurate. The best lines for advanced riders (aside skyline which is genuinely an advanced ride, but a bit of a one trick ripper), are found in the bottom half of the mountain coming off those ridges. Ushikubi is the highlight, and the line coming off that into the top of Higake is pants wettingly steep and ridiculously bouncy. In the three days i spent riding that area i never saw a single person own that line: its pure chaos. Over the other side and similar but slightly mellower in its incline is the Schneider area. I'm fairly sure the first time i was there it was nothing but SERIOUS moguls, but the second time it was just powder. So hard to say. When its powder, its arguably easier than the lines coming off skyline and Ushikubi, but once the snow stops i can only imagine it to be utter hell for a snowboarder. Alas, the only time i spent any real time over this side was the first trip up, so ive kinda forgotten which one of Uopia or Challenge course that had a ridiculous steep to it as well.

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(foreground utopia, behind that are the drops off the ushikubi ridge line, and behind those is the skyline and the drops from it).

To summarise. There are a LOT of awesome little steeps you might want to play on here. The only trouble is you kinda have to ride through a tedious bit of crap at uenotaira or yunomine to get to it. Where it is awesome, it's seriously challenging and interesting stuff, but when you're spending ten minutes of your ride cruising through very slow gradients and praying you dont have to unclip (i always did: my bataleon and the wax job i gave it kept letting me down), then it can feel kinda tedious. Eventually i just started getting off the gondola at the middle station just to avoid it all, and well, that kinda sucked in truth.

That broken fall line really put a massive dent in the nozawa sheen for me which i found hard to get over. Of course I still loved the place, but it meant that the pull i felt looking across from Togari (and the serene beauty I experienced on my first trip there) was gone. It had a massive flaw and it was all i could see. The fall line was broken, the mountain was really really small and way too spread out once you start getting the gondola up only half way.

And then i went out a third time purely because i had the free tickets from Snowjapan and wanted to use them to save a bit of cash.

The Third Trip to Nozawa:

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So there we were mucking about on the walls (the slow parts are a bit more fun when theres no snow - lots of little walls to ride). It was alright, we were enjoying it, it was free, i hadn't done skyline yet so there was that still to look forward to. I took us down ushikubi but it was a bit gnarly, so really I was looking at a day of bouncing around on the walls. What snow there was on the side was kinda sticky. The groomers were fast and light, but in the sides it was a bit heavier and not really worth it. So i figured we might as well head up to Yamabiko. Well, ive already mentioned above how fun it was but I'll reiterate: Lots of nice little lines and ridiculously light powder to still be scored. Some great little sidecountry and all in all, pretty much great times. But somewhere along the ride i got greedy. I saw some lines heading under the ropes on skiers left and off the side of the mountain. I wanted to know where they went, so being ever the idiot I followed them and figured if i had to hike back, so be it. And this is when Nozawa seriously blew me away.

The line is dangerous. Im going to say that now. After the first ride on it i wasnt entirely confident i wanted to ride it again. Not because the line itself is super steep or prone to sliding (though it probably is). It was more that flanking it were loads of little walls that clearly were prone to sliding and any slide was definitely shooting down the line you're on.

This is a classic terrain trap.

If it slides and you're caught in it, I dont fancy your chances much even with safety gear and mates. There's plenty of trees, it's plenty steep enough to carry you into them and even with your gear on, i can envision serious impacts. So yeah, my brain is definitely aware that this is slightly dodgier stuff than I'm used to and that maybe I need to be a bit more careful riding this than maybe the slackcountry at Kagura. This is kinda the step up between slackcountry and backcountry in my head. I know that makes me sound even more stupid because slackcountry is DANGEROUS FULL STOP and only an idiot marches into any part of the mountain that's unpatrolled thinking it isn't dangerous, but there's an ocean of difference riding this and riding some of the slackcountry areas i've ridden the past couple of years. Most of the stuff i'm hitting would barely qualify as a red run if there weren't any trees and it was groomed - Kagura being a prime example (except for the face that pushes into Tashiro... which I'm always happy to be off and into the trees on the other side, death free :).

This area you definitely know is dangerous. You just need to open your eyes to see it. And even the hundreds of lines you see half way down don't exactly comfort you. So yeah, much as i want to say "dudes! this ride was freaking awesome!" (and i will say that), I also think it's really really important that I stress this put the willies up me. I didnt have any safety gear that day because I was sure Nozawa didnt have a real off piste, but I got lucky the three times i rode it. Next year there's not a chance in hell i'll be heading to Nozawa without my safety gears.

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So public service announcement over. Just look at it! The line is phenomenally good fun. Anyone who wants a bit of a fresh, powder heavy 3km or so valley is going to blast it. I cant really say more about it than that...

Well, I can say that there are TWO avalanche barriers (about 300 meters away from each other), the line comes off the Yamabiko C course and the line pops out at the very top of Karasawa. Just look at a trail map and its pretty obvious. Other than the fact its a clear avi path for any slide, its a fairly straighforward reasonably steep little run to the bottom. And after the rush of riding all that, it's actually a real joy to pop out into an empty, wide Karasawa where you can just butter about and muck around with some side hits and ungroomed spots. All in all, you couldnt really ask for a better, more enjoyable run... well, I couldn't, but then again i dont hike... so its all relative. Obviously if you're a proper BC kid, this is just a glorified piste run, I imagine.

Nozawa Onsen Conclusion:

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(upside down looking up korokura I believe)

It's tough to conclude this without feeling the scowly eyes of people with much more awareness of the dangers of slackcountry (and the danger you pose to the people at Karasawa) burning into my head as I'm typing this. I'm hoping that by trying to emphasise that it's VERY DANGEROUS to ride this area (like you might when you nip into the trees at Myoko or kagura (as a tacit extension of the piste - we all do it)), they might be placated enough to let me type my thoughts guilt free. But they wont because theyre jerks. Jerks looking after you from idiots like me i should add, though! But screw the man! 

I know and understand how foolish i am even talking about this. I live in the hope that this review is so long winded that no ones even gotten this far to see it. But the truth is i LOVED this run and i cant talk about Nozawa now without mentioning it if i want to explain my little conversion here.

On the second trip out I lamented the break in the fall line and the fact that the skyline, awesome as it is, is still just really a bombing run that doesn't give you enough variation to want to keep hitting it. Well its all changed now.

Not only does it have the skyline, a very serene and beautiful vista (the blues of the mountains in the distance contrasting with the deep black of the trees on the resort is honestly breathtaking), some fun off piste between the yamabiko lifts, and some excellent terrain once you get past the horrible flat middle part, it also now has fantastic slackcountry on top of all that. Going into season 6 Nozawa pretty much justified itself as the number one place on my hit list for next year. I know theres better slackcountry rides out there, (feel free to school me on it), and i definitely know there's nothing better than pure hiked backcountry (from one whole hike and a ride that was pure face shot heaven). But right now this is the most enjoyable slack line I've seen and until i find something better its pretty much at the top of the list for next year. Were it not for the fact I'm definitely gonna get nabbed at least once next year from patrol (i wont be able to resist the temptation) and they're definitely gonna take my pass away, I'd be saving up right now for a season pass there. I'm pretty much done. Unless I accidentally end up with a job in Yuzawa or Hokkaido before November, It's Nozawa next year for me.

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  Quote movesmusic Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: May/24/2012 at 6:17am
Sick!  The second trip sounds like $$$ and the third trip pics are $$$.  Forgive me if I missed it, but how was the snow (pow) density in that area?
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  Quote ippollite Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: May/24/2012 at 4:55pm
generally honshu has the same dry light soft surfy powder you get in places like niseko. Basicaly heavenly stuff. 

The big difference is it also gets melty days and it starts getting a little heavier as you move through to march. After that it starts getting pretty wet and slow as you move further down the mountain. 

Actually, heres my own take on the conditions in japan throughout the year:


January - Perfect japan snow regardless of the prefecture. Unlikely to be bad conditions anywhere (though some places may be having a bit of a slow start and struggling to get a decent base - shiga this year for example was fairly slow i heard). 

February - a bad feb (which can happen in nagano) with a few weeks between drops and a bit of mixed weather and it all starts getting crusty and hard packed. A couple of drops though freshens things up nice and quick.  You will get heavy drops in feb, but it might not happen until the day after you leave the country (twice when i lived in korea that happened to me by the way - 2 weeks of ice, then suddenly i leave and it starts puking again). The snow quality is still generally excellent of itself. If its a normal year the drops will be less frequent than january (which is almost constant snow), but when it pukes, it pukes. Temperatures are generally below zero though still, so the powder will stay fresh for several days without too much trouble. 

March - Freezing level starts shooting up and the snow becomes a little nastier and heavier. Still solid quality for a day or two, but after that it starts getting baked wet and crusty. The temps in general are shooting up in honshu (the main island) about now so you really need to be there within a day or so (or the day after a night time drop) to get the best of it. High altitude areas still maintain decent quality, but lower down the mountains it starts getting super sticky towards the end of the month, flatter slackcountry areas (like kagura) start feeling a bit like boarding in treacle. (though a top up quickly sorts it out - but theyre obviously fewer and further between). Consider this about a 60% chance for a drop a couple of days a week in early march, and about a 20% chance by late march. Freezing levels will be pretty high around now, so youre going to get some rain. 

April: Any time you score powder in April consider it a massive bonus. Loads of resorts will be shutting down about now. The cherry blossoms will be blooming, the temps will be closer to the high teens in most of the flat areas of nagano/niigata. On the mountains you're looking at end of season conditions and rain. On good days the sun will be out and conditions will be sticky for the most part on most groomers and in the trees its going to be dense working through some of that. On bad days itll be pouring down. On the bright side, in Tohoku a little resort called Gassan has just opened. Its completely inaccessible until April and itll be open right through to late June/Mid July. 

May: Very few places will be open (maybe a couple of places in shiga kogen, possibly seki onsen in myoko and probably kagura). May is VERY VERY unlikely to get any kind of top up and youll likely be baking hot wherever you are. Consider it more like summer than spring boarding. I Was actually just at Kagura the last weekend. The ropeway area is pretty much barren. Theyve maintained a single line though so you can still ride the entire mountain without having to take a bus to the top area. The top area still has decent coverage though even in the trees and under the lifts. Its getting thin with lots of mountain now popping through, but the base was great this year so almost all the runs in the top area are still open (they close for the year this sunday but had a good run of it - conditions are sticky, slushy and wet, but still fun). 

June/July/August/september: No chance (except gassan).

Late October: Yeti (on mt fuji) will have been spraying for a few weeks and no doubt has a wee strip that you (and another 2000 or so people) can ride on (sometime towards the last week in october). If you can get there on a (non holiday) weekday you might actually have an alright time of it. A little after that Karuizawa will open a small trail as well. All artificial, but you takes what you can get :)

November: Hakuba 47 will be spraying and hoping for a wee dump or two to shore it up. Temps are coming down, but they arent usually consistent enough to keep what snow might have fallen in the area. In my second season Hakuba Goryu/47 got a really solid 2 or 3 day puking in late november that let them open from the top to about half way down 47. 

Usually though, November will be the great emotional rollercoaster of watching webcams and cheering when you see coverage and then crying the next day when its all gone. 

December: Early december is pretty much the same as november. If it snows and you get a solid coverage, consider yourself super lucky. Really the serious snow and the full openings dont come until late into december. 

Id say (and this is entirely subjective based on my own experience) the first two weeks is pretty much a D12 roll for solid coverage. Its very unlikely. More than likely resorts will have a few lifts open (and will be looking for a first or second week in december opening), but wont have anywhere near enough to open the whole place. By around the 3rd week though its more like a 1/3 chance for a serious dump (or a 50% chance if youre somewhere closer to the sea like the minakami/yuzawa/myoko resorts are). And around the fourth week (between xmas and new year) youre looking at around a 70-80% chance its going to puke. Youd honestly have to be pretty unlucky to not get a drop in that period (though it can of course happen). 

Snow will be awesome and when the heavens open they really open. Snow quality will be pretty much the same as January and early feb: cold, light and powdery.

So thats honshu. Well actually its more nagano/niigata. I havent lived in tohoku and i dont really know niseko well enough to tell you their story. But from reading other peoples reports, late november is more like mid december conditions in honshu (and early-mid december is closer to early january). Whilst february in niseko is still pretty much consistent (like january in honshu) and early march is more like feb here(heavy drops a couple of times a week)... And drops still happen in april... unlike here where they are pretty damn rare. They still shut shop after golden week though... so er... not sure why in truth, but there you go. 

Oh, as for the nozawa info:

Trip 2: Soft light fluffy niseko quality dump.
Trip 3: Amazingly still super high quality at the top of yamabiko. And on that slackcountry ride the top third is perfect surf... as you got close to the base though it got a fair bit slushier. 
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  Quote dazzaspazza Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: Feb/28/2013 at 3:38pm
OMG....I have an erection....pow pow
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