The Hidden Onsen Retreats of Japan

STORY BY
Peter Coombs

I’ve always travelled to get away from it all. Not simply to get away from home for a recharge, but I travel to get away from the norm, to experience the new. Whilst many of my friends are adventurous summer travellers, when it comes to ski holidays, it’s always a quick bolt down the peage to stay in a British run hotel in France.

So why the general lack of adventure around skiing? Why can’t a ski holiday also be about different cultures, food, transport and yet still include knee deep powder? Well they can, as I found out on a trip to the backwater Onsen’s of the Japanese Alps.

My culture explosion starts in the food markets of downtown Tokyo (pictured above), where unknown fish is sold to locals alongside chopstick whisked squid-balls, fried in what looked like metal egg boxes – Tokyo’s version of fast food. A recharge after the long flight from London is achieved with a soak in the roof top Onsen – a traditional hot spring bath – of the fantastic Hoshinoya hotel, and an early morning samurai sword lesson overlooking Tokyo’s waking streets.

First ski stop was the Hakuba Valley, but rather than stay in resort, I opt for the Kai Alps Hotel, which recently reopened after a refurbishment in 2017. It’s quite frankly the best ski hotel I’ve ever stayed in, and, as I sink into my own private granite onsen (pictured top), after a sixteen course meal of sometimes wonderful and sometimes un-understandable food, I slip into a trance like state.

Hakuba offers up all that you dream of when thinking of Japan’s powder filled slopes. There’s wonderful tree skiing, steep and deep on the slopes as well as easy riding for those who are still getting to grips with the sport.

Via an obligatory visit to the snow monkeys, my next stop is an inbounds mountain hut, in the little known resort of Mt Naeba (pictured below). Mt Naeba is actually a link up of two resorts: Naeba, a mainly intermediate resort with a huge base station building (a one stop lodging, dining and shopping destination), and the larger ski zone, but smaller resort village, of Kagura.

Throughout the winter, it’s possible to overnight in the very cool – yet very basic – Wada-goya hut (below), which is situated halfway up the Kagura mountain, at the bottom of a red piste. Dinner is washed down with sake and served to guests on low tables. Sleeping is on the mezzanine, in a series of communal rooms on tatami mats; you have to set up and put away your own roll out mattress.

The Wada-goya hut comes into its own first thing in the morning, when you have the slopes to yourself a full hour before anyone else shows up. So I lap the fresh red runs above the hut again and again, with only my fellow hut guests for company.

My last port of call is the remote onsen resort of Manza (below). I’m not sure what to expect as I pull up outside the reception, after the drive along a private road through a magical forest, heavy with snow. Gone are any European faces and with it any spoken English, so I make do with smiles and waving my passport under their noses.

Manza is a mix between a dedicated onsen resort and skiing, with most of the guests walking around in either white towelling dressing gowns or gortex. The slopes are limited but fun, with plenty of fresh tracks to be found – and the views from the summit give you a real feeling of escapism, as the forest seems to stretch on forever.

After a few hours on the slopes I was ready for the onsen, which has to be entered without any clothing. Firstly you undress in a changing room, before washing under a hand held shower- all whilst seated on a low plastic stool, as its considered very bad form to splash your neighbours with your dirty water. You then take a very small towel to cover yourself on the extremely cold walk to the outdoor onsen. Once at the hot spring, you gingerly lower yourself in and with tingling skin, you put the small towel on your head.

It’s magical to relax in a hot spring whilst surrounded by snow, and being the only white face in the hotel, I feel as if it isn’t just the water I’m immersed in – but the culture too.

INFO

Flights

JAL flies direct twice daily to Tokyo Haneda, with connections to Sapporo. Direct flights, including one Japan domestic flight each way, from GBP820 return.

Hotels

Tokyo Hoshinoya Hotel. A Modern take on traditional guesthouse in the heart of Tokyo.

Hakuba Valley- KAI Alps is a hot spring ryokan located in the Japanese Alps with baths fed by Omachi Hot Spring.

Mout Naeba – All accommodation and lift passes/ski hire is booked through the Prince Hotel website.

Manza – Again Manza accommodation lift passes/ski hire is booked through the Prince Hotel website.

 

All images copyright Peter Coombs

 

 

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