the sydney morning herald: off-piste in japan

Kate Gibbs spends the new year in the Nagano Prefecture, enjoying Hakuba's vast ranges and Nozawa's elegant runs by day, and resort traditions by night.

Japan's on-piste appeal is no secret and in the alps about 300 kilometres north-west of Tokyo, in-the-know skiers are enjoying their seventh season of record snow. Both Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen are premier ski destinations and easily reached from the capital. A two-hour bullet train ride gets you to Nagano, then it's a transfer to a bus for an hour-long journey to the resorts.

If blood-sugar levels are running low when you arrive at Nagano station, there's a nook at the bottom of the main stairs where you'll find bowls of Tokyo-style ramen for sustenance.

Hakuba hosts 10 easy-to-navigate resorts in one vast valley. The experienced go off-piste for thigh-deep powder (the out-of-bounds policy is liberal by Japanese standards) and there are jumps, ramps and features left over from Nagano's time as a Winter Olympics host.

The mountains are dotted with cafes and bars serving Asahi draught and soy lattes, excellent in equal measure. At the main gondola stops, among vending machines filled with cans of coffee and syrupy vitamin drinks, are bowls of house-made udon, ramen and soba. It's enough to warm the cockles and defrost the goggles.

Despite crisp temperatures, soft-serve ice-cream is the on-mountain dessert de rigueur along with lime-green soda floats.

There's a formidable food scene in Hakuba village. Izakaya bars serving small plates of fresh food are perfected here. At night, skiers perch on bar stools and order tiny salads topped with slivers of raw tuna alongside dishes of made-to-order potato crisps and agedashi tofu.

The marbling and nutty flavour of local wagyu beef is enough to draw even non-skiers into town and at Wagyu Kobeya, a restaurant at Windy Lodge in Wadano, a short taxi ride from Hakuba's Happo One, the beef is charred to perfection by diners at their tables.

Tucked into Nagano's Mount Kenashi, Nozawa Onsen is a classic holiday destination for skiers and non-skiers alike. The sound of water running through village pipes is like a dreamy background hymn among the narrow streets of Nozawa, where old onsen and charming wooden buildings seem to groan under metres of snow and where oyaki dumplings - palm-size and filled with sweet pumpkin, spicy mushrooms, red-bean paste or cinnamon-spiked apple - are sold on the street.

Locals plough and shovel the snow day and night to keep streets and roofs clear, and homes built beside key hot-water passageways, which serve a double duty melting the snow, can sell for a premium. From the cobblestones of Nozawa old town has sprung a terrific, modern extravagance: a free, moving undercover footway called the Yu Road, which takes skiers on a five-minute trek-free journey to the resort's main gondola. Thirty-six courses are carved into Mount Kenashi's 1650-metre summit and its slopes, with two gondolas and 23 lifts giving access to 50 kilometres of runs. Though lacking the sprawling drama of Hakuba's ranges, Nozawa's slopes make up for it with subtlety and majesty - every tree piled high with champagne powder. Easy green runs are at times so heavy with snow it's hard work to budge on the wide, flat slopes, making the mid-level red runs and accessible off-piste options most popular. For boarders, the park has jumps, rails, boxes and an 80-metre pipe.

It all makes for a romantic landscape, with browse-worthy village shopfronts selling vacuum packs of pickled vegetables. There are Customs-friendly packs of local dried soba noodles and gift-perfect onsen bags holding tiny towels, exfoliation sheets, hair ties and Japanese-printed brushes, as well as printed cotton robes and locally made baskets and toys. Local cuisine also extends to "equine sashimi" and bear meat, charred whole mackerel, dried squid fried in butter and clams cooked in sake. Most meals begin with a plate of the village's speciality, nozawana, a local pickled broccoli cooked in the hot spring before being packed in vinegar.

A walking tour of the old town is like a choose-your-own-adventure. Depending on the passageways taken, visitors might emerge further up-mountain for pretty views of the valley or at an obscure onsen house, wooden temple, another izakaya, a bar brewing its own beer or an ice-cream-making shop. To see the region's monkeys, which bathe pink-faced in the hot-spring pools of nearby mountains, it's a 45-minute drive from Nozawa Onsen, a trip worth making.

Another essential ritual in Nozawa is the eponymous onsen, that earthly gift of mineral-rich hot water available at 13 free public onsen houses known as soto-yu. One of the largest and busiest is Oyu, in a tiered wooden building in the centre of town.

This story was published in The Sydney Morning Herald's Traveller on 17 February 2012. Read the full article.