Snow, Sake & naked greetings

The incredibly accessible snow in Japan feels like the country’s best kept secret. We left Tokyo at 6.30am and by 11am we were on beautiful mountains covered in heaps of the white stuff. We headed to Nozawa Onsen, and our first bit of excitement involved the Shinkansen (bullet train). It looks like the Bloodhound (the supersonic car being developed and built in Bristol) when it pulls into the station and it feels like you’re riding in a plane rather than a train! They go up to 320km/h (!) but they feel super smooth. We were in love.

We stayed in Villa Nozawa, run by an Aussie called Mark, who moved to the small mountain town 24 years ago and never looked back. The place is super friendly, comfortable and provided us with excellent breakfasts (especially the banana pancakes). Mark’s got a great set up and also runs a hire shop as well as several other hostels. We booked a quick lesson (more for me than for Rob) as soon as we arrived and within an hour we were on the slopes with our guide, Jerry. We were both a bit nervous as we’d never skied alone together and are at very different levels, but Jerry was pretty laid back and we soon found our feet on the mountain. We skied for 4 days and the snow got better and better. One morning at breakfast, a guy from the hostel announced we’d had half a metre of snow in the past 24 hours! It was without a doubt the best snow either of us have ever experienced. They don’t seem to really treat (piste bash?!) the pistes much in Nozawa Onsen and the result is that they often feel more like off-piste. I almost disappeared coming down one steep slope (with Rob in stitches at the bottom). We also managed to find a Japanese girl’s phone buried in a snow drift! I heard it ringing as we whizzed down a slope and we dug it out and managed to return it to her. Good deed = tick 🙂

Rob is an excellent skier anyway, but the amazing snow and the incredible scenery helped my confidence no end and by the last morning I even tackled a few black runs (Kim & Belinda you would’ve been proud)!

As the name suggests, Nozawa Onsen is an Onsen town! They’re essentially public baths where all the locals (and a few brave tourists) get naked and get scrubbing. The water is piping hot and it’s meant to be frightfully good for you – in a sort of bracing British walk kind of way. The main rules are: take your shoes off at the door (and don’t put them in the same locker as your clothes, as Rob got sternly told off for doing), then leave all your modesty behind, make sure you’re completely naked and scrub yourself vigorously while sitting on a little plastic seat. Once sufficiently clean, plunge into the scolding hot water and sit there for as long as you can bear, before having a rinse, drying off (BEFORE you step back into the changing area) and leaving feeling tingly and relaxed.

There are 13 Onsens in the small town and we went to a little local one just round the corner from Villa Nozawa. It was pretty rustic and clearly didn’t get many tourists. The male and female baths are separated by a high wooden panel, so you can’t peak but you can hear what’s going on. I heard Rob tell the 8 other men in the male bath that he was on his honeymoon and they all went wild, cheering loudly. He told me afterwards they’d all stood up and shaken his hand – completely naked, obviously!

The food in the town is also excellent and we ate a lot of great Gyoza (dumplings) at a place called Sakai, washed down with Sake (rice wine). It was tiny and we sat at the bar, which separated the ‘restaurant’ from the kitchen. The couple that ran it epitomised the local people and were really sweet and friendly. Our lunches in the mountains were also really tasty. They serve Ramen (noodle soup) everywhere and it’s the perfect skiing food! French Alps – take note. We would’ve loved to have stayed in Nozawa Onsen longer and we definitely could’ve got used to the amazing snow, followed by steaming hot Onsens and delicious dumplings. What a life!

Here’s what we love about Japan so far:

1. Super friendly and incredibly helpful people (including really polite kids)
2. The history; there’s roughly one temple for every person in Japan (our guesstimate!)
3. Amazingly efficient public transport system, especially the Shinkansen (bullet train) 4. The food; especially sushi, dumplings and Ramen
5. Vending machines that serve everything, including dinner & beer 6. The awesome skiing
7. Onsens (public baths) where you can get some high quality naked time 8. The fashion; crazy patterns, impractical shoes and dogs in coats 9. The number of Samuri swords on display
10. Heated toilet seats!

J & R xxx

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