Some time once I was 10 or 11, my English instructor requested the class to jot down a haiku round the theme of “Christmas in Japan”.
My mom was unimpressed. “Who came up with this bright idea? They don’t celebrate Christmas in Japan.” But we sat down and collaborated on the poem:
Christmas in Japan
On a chilly and wintry day
Snowflakes fall gently
Roughly 40 years later, I considered these traces whereas sitting outdoor in a pure hot spring bathtub, or onsen, in Japan at Christmastime. I used to be feeling pleasantly lightheaded from the mixture of extraordinarily heat mineral water and frigid mountain air when it dawned on me: it was a chilly and wintry day and snowflakes had been, in truth, falling gently.
There had been many such quietly magical moments on household journeys to Nozawa Onsen, a mountain village in Nagano prefecture, throughout our time dwelling in Japan, the place I labored for Nikkei, the FT’s guardian firm. All of us fell in love with this snow-blanketed jewel sitting close to the peaks of Mount Kenashi.
Nozawa Onsen is famed for the high quality of its snow © StayNozawa
Nozawa Onsen is thought by skiers for the high quality of its powder and, extra lately, by foodies for its extraordinary eating places and cafés. But it was soaking in the onsen that delighted us most. Nozawa Onsen has been famend for its hot springs since the eighth century. Many of the native ryokans, the conventional Japanese B&Bs, have indoor onsens, however there are additionally charming free open-air bathhouses – 13 of them, generally known as soto-yu – dotted alongside the village’s cobblestone streets. Some guests attempt to hit all of them in a mineral-bath model of a pub crawl, full with stamps.
My childhood-haiku epiphany got here at Furusato-no-yu, a bathhouse that has a extra up to date type than the others and costs an entrance charge. It turned our go-to spot for a good soak, because it has indoor and outside choices, heated indoor altering rooms and merchandising machines stocked with beer, in case it involves that.
Nozawa Onsen first opened as a ski resort in the early twentieth century, and it has been a vacation spot for international skiers for years. The locals are pleased with their powder, which they are saying owes its top quality to Siberian air travelling over the Sea of Japan. I don’t ski, due to an unlucky disco accident, however mates and instructors maintained that the high quality of the snow and the size of the runs makes up for the comparatively low elevation of Mount Kenashi (1,650m). On our final go to in 2019, nonetheless, there was an alarming absence of snow – one thing locals and long-time guests mentioned that they had by no means skilled earlier than, elevating considerations about the influence of world warming.
Making tamago – hot-spring eggs © Nozawa Onsen Tourism (2)
As an expat household, we beloved how rapidly Nozawa Onsen turned a well-known place that felt like “our” spot. The heavy snows that fell on our first go to thrilled all of us, inspiring epic snowball fights and night-time walks to admire the vibrant lanterns and streetlights in the buried village.
And then there was the meals scene, which has been gaining discover over the previous 15 years, giving the in any other case conventional village a hip edge. Before we dropped the twins off at the mountain for a day of snowboarding, we’d go to Tanuki for wonderful espresso, decadent hot chocolate and a really satisfying western-style breakfast cooked by a staff of worldwide cooks.
The steam and golden daylight made it really feel like a temple
None of us might resist the steamed pork, vegetable and apple buns bought from a picket field exterior the Haus St Anton Jam Factory & Café. Its wonderful restaurant, led by chef Kensaku Katagiri, blends European and Japanese types and takes a seasonal strategy to sourcing components (the workers are extraordinarily heat and pleasant too).
In the night, we’d squeeze our approach into the village’s bustling izakayas – bars that serve quite a lot of small plates and skewers – notably the intimate Minato and Sakai, the place we beloved the grilled mackerel. More upscale is Himatsuri (“Fire Festival”), which has a multi-dish kaiseki menu and options attention-grabbing sakes.
Though Japan is hooked on soaking, Nozawa Onsen is the solely place in the nation that has “onsen” in its title – it changed Toyosato Village with the extra brochure-friendly title in the Fifties.
Locals says Nozawa Onsen owes its high-quality slopes to Siberian air travelling over the Sea of Japan
Yet the title works, since the hot water that feeds into the onsens can also be central to life in the village. The speeding torrents alongside the streets are a continuing reminder of the highly effective pure forces in these mountains The water’s excessive sulphuric content material additionally provides the complete village an eggy pong, however even that is put to make use of by the individuals who reside right here: locals put together inexperienced greens and onsen tamago – hot-spring eggs – in it.
On our second go to I made a decision to department out and check out soaking in a couple of of the different soto-yu. The O-yu was the first to beckon. Situated on one in all the charming cobbled streets, steam pouring from its roof towards a vibrant blue winter sky, it was the image of a basic Edo-era bathhouse.
By now I thought of myself pretty skilled on onsen customs. Squatting on a small, upturned bucket and taking a bathe in entrance of others not felt awkward. I knew that water temperatures range from bathtub to bathtub, and that it was OK to activate a chilly faucet for a few seconds if issues obtained too hot.
The O-yu is the greatest of the village’s bathhouses, and some guides label it a “must try”. Once inside, I might perceive why. As I stood there earlier than the customary shower-off, I glanced up to admire the interaction of rising steam and golden sunshine pouring by way of the open slats close to the roof. It felt like a temple, and I ready for one thing vaguely transcendent as I moved towards the stone pool. Only one different man, who appeared to be in his mid-80s, was bathing.
I dunked a foot into the water and jerked it out instantly, virtually shocked that my flesh wasn’t left sitting in a heap at the backside of the pool. I attempted once more, this time plunging in all the approach with one leg up to my knee. Excruciating. There could be no getting used to this – that day or ever. Later, I’d learn that water temperatures can attain 90ºC in a few of the village’s onsens. (To keep away from truly, actually getting burnt, there are on-line guides to the city’s public baths which are price consulting.)
For a second I used to be crouched by the pool, bare with vibrant purple legs, my credibility as an onsen grasp shredded. I now look again on this as a form of parable of my 4 years in Japan: each time I thought that I had found out some facet of life there, I could be proven how far more there was left to be taught.
The outdated man had been watching me in silence; he mentioned one thing I didn’t perceive, which might have been recommendation, sympathy or commentary. In any case, he began to pack it in too and we washed off, dressed and left in silence. I nonetheless marvel: how might he stand it?
The sting wore off, each to my legs and my pleasure. Later, Jane and I’d return to Furusato-no-yu, take pleasure in a lengthy soak and possibly pop a fast vending-machine beer. There could be a crowded izakaya, and an energising stroll again to the lodge by way of the village. Before the night time was over, there may even be some gently falling snowflakes.
Christopher Grimes is the FT’s Los Angeles correspondent