Fire and Snow/Rain...
The Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival is an annual event traditionally celebrating the 1st born son of the family but in more recent years, a good ski season. Since it coincided with a rainstorm, it was a chance for us to experience several days of Japanese Après ski.
After abruptly ending out adventure in the North, Alex and I jumped on the Shinkansen south to meet up with friends from Hong Kong and San Francisco in Nozawa Onsen. This would be the first time that I returned to Nozawa since my first ski trip to Japan in 2012. Back then, I did not know what to expect of Japan. Flying in from Beijing where I was living at the time, I was just happy to try something besides the mediocre mountains in northern China. When I finally arrived at Nozawa after tremendously confusing time navigating Tokyo with my skis, I was greeted by a cute, quintessential Japanese mountain village sitting upon a collection of natural hot springs. As some of the few foreigners in town, it seemed like another world. And there was over a meter of fresh light Japanese powder waiting for us…
This time around, things had changed pretty significantly. Arriving on the evening of the annual snow festival, a huge crowd – many who were foreign – waited for us upon our arrival. While initially, this was a bit of a letdown, I quickly got over it when a Japanese man rushed over to us with a ladle full of sake. Several ladles later, we were in full party mode. We squeezed through the mob of people to get a better view of the spectacle. A giant wooden structure that resembled a tree house was in full blaze. Meanwhile, 2 deliberately decorated canopies seemed to be battling or dancing in front of the fire. I collection of local men was in charge of keeping the structures upright. Considering that they were all visibly inebriated, this dance with the fire took on a level of danger for the nearby spectators, including us. After almost falling into the crowd multiple times, the first structure finally descended into the fire going up a vibrant blaze. The second soon followed thus ending the exciting part of the festival.
With our sake buzz starting to fade, we moved further into the village to continue the party. After sharing a few aerobes with some local girls who had set up a stand, we stumbled into the Heaven bar, or as the modified sign above the door indicated, the snot bar. Inside the place was packed. People from all parts of the ski world were crammed in. We proceeded to have shots with a group from Taiwan, a couple from South Africa, and a few with the random Aussies that are now ubiquitous with skiing in Japan. Having not partied much in our trip up north, it was nice to be back in the familiar setting and state of mind that is so integral to ski culture.
Walk of Pain
As the night began to wind down around 3 am, we realized that we were the last men standing. The pretty blond bartender reminded us of this fact when she not so indirectly told us it was time to go. When inquiring about getting a taxi back to our temporary accommodation 7km across the valley, she chuckled and told us there were no taxis that would take us there. Defiantly we walked out thinking that we would be able to hail a taxi on the way, or at least get picked up by a passing car. About 30 minutes into our walk back, the lone passing car drove by without even slowing down. Around this time, we noticed a slight drizzle in the unusually warm morning air. Another hour and 7km later, we finally stumbled into our hotel, sopping wet from the downpour that had developed through the course of our expedition.
Waking up the next morning, we jumped in a taxi and made our way back across the same road or the prior evening’s walk of pain. The rain had continued saturating the deep powder stash that had fallen the week before. Once we checked into the Hotel Denbey, our home for the next week, we reluctantly ventured out to ski in the rain, hoping that at least our hangovers would be extinguished. Wet, cold, and with no visibility, the skiing was little better than our walk the night before. Sadly, these conditions would persist through the course of our stay in Nozawa. It was difficult not to be bummed when our friends arrived at the hotel later in the day. But since they had traveled far to join us, we did our best to remain upbeat despite the conditions.
While I was a little bummed about how many foreigners and party bars had popped up since my first trip to Nozawa, with the poor conditions on the mountain, I was thankful that there were many places to indulge in the other side of skiing, après skiing. Between the multitude of bars and the many high-quality restaurants serving sushi, ramen, Japanese Hot Pot, and delicious steamed buns, we kept ourselves very entertained. We even had our own private ones for the hotel for us to soak… and drink. It was a reminder that skiing is a multi-faceted endeavor, and anyone who likes to have a good time can find some happiness regardless of the terrain, conditions or physical health.
Leaving Nozawa, we made our way to Tokyo to celebrate Alex’s birthday and showcase the fine drinking shape we were all in. We had an eventful night of sushi, drinks and then ending at R2 in Roping. We continued the following day with an extensive voyage through the city with multiple stops at ramen restaurants (my official first ramen crawl), ending with a beautiful sunset in the 65th floor New York Bar at the Park Hyatt where much of the movie Lost in Translation was filmed. A piece of advice for anyone who visits this establishment, unless you like sweet, fruity drinks in a martini glass, avoid the signature L.I.T. Stuffed, tired, and a little drunk, we went back to our hotel ready to return to our respective homes the next morning.
A Note about Rain in Japan
Like all low elevation ski destinations, the treat of warm weather and precipitation is always present. In my 6 trips to ski in Japan, I have been rained on 3 times. Japan experiences some form of precipitation seemingly almost every day in the winter months. Most often the moist air coming north from the Pacific Ocean hits the cold air coming down from Siberia producing some of the best quality powder in the world. But every few weeks, particularly in the south, you should expect a warm spell that like means some rain. If you have the luxury of waiting until a few weeks out before booking your trip, then you can pretty much ensure that you will miss the rain. Sure enough, the following week all of Japan was covered in heaps of light japow. It even snowed 10cm in Tokyo, a rarity.