Chill out

The top of Kasadake mountain - climb it, ski it, or just view it from the tub
Photos by Maki Nibayashi and Naoki Nagumo

Simeon Paterson heads to the hills to stress-bust with hot spring soaks, great scenery, and white powder (the kind you ski).

The top of an out of the way mountain in Nagano may seem like an odd resting place for a redwood tree from California' Sequoia National Park, but stranger still is the use to which it is put. It, or rather several slices of its hollow trunk, form the edge of several onsen baths at the Redwood Inn in the Yamada Bokujo ski area.

It comes, of course, from a time before environmental controls prevented trees being shipped out of National Parks, but when you're sitting in the bath, surrounded by snow and steam, it certainly seems like a decent enough graveyard for such a beautiful tree. Then again, few things ease one's mind quite like a soak in a hot tub, and if that's your thing, you're spoiled for choice: opaque onsen (hot spring) and o-furo (baths) to ease fatigue, diabetes, hemorrhoids and more. There are about 20-30 in the vicinity.

Lower down the mountain is Yamada Onsen, boringly enough in the village of the same name, a 20min drive from Suzaka. About a 10min drive further along the same road, going up the mountain is the Goshiki rotenburo (outdoor bath). Another few minutes drive, bearing right at the first junction is the Shichimichi Rotenburo Onsen.

Be warned, these onsen are the real thing, so the water has a faint sulfuric smell. Be sure to take that extra rinse off after dipping, or your friends and family may not be as overwhelmed by your glowing skin as by your new odor, healthy though it may be.

Cruising down the slopes at Yamada Bokujo

For onsen first-timers, check TC 355 for our guide to bathing etiquette. Any monkeys straying from their usual haunts on the slopes over the road above Yamada Onsen, probably won't have brushed up their bathing manners - the magazine is unavailable in Nagano, and as everyone knows, monkeys can't use the Internet.

Slippery slopes
For the less sedentary type, this mountain's principle attraction is the skiing/snowboarding - and the absence of lines at the lifts. The ski areas can't touch Hakuba et al for size, but if you are only going to be there for a day or if you are a relative beginner, why waste half an hour each time for a ride on the large resorts' packed Yamanote train-like gondolas?

For beginners who can speak Japanese there is the Minami Shiga Ski School at the higher and better Yamada Bokujo ski area. A day's instruction is JY4000, a half-day JY3000. The school's red-clad sensei (teachers) conduct a cross-country trip "Takochi" through powder and between trees for JY2500. Frustratingly, rather than disturbing that wa thing (group harmony) poorer boarders/skiers may be lumped in with better ones, alternating adrenaline rush with waiting around for stragglers long enough to enjoy a beer, some ciggies and an onigiri (rice ball), just like our guides did.

The lower Yamada Onsen ski area is the perfect resort for families with young kids or indeed anyone seeking a beginner-friendly ski experience. One of the lifts isn't even a lift: It's a large sledge that's dragged up the slope with everyone sitting comfortably on benches. This is low intensity skiing with a capital LOW. The compact resort also allows you to go in any direction on any slope and still end up at the same spot - right in front of the ryokan (inns), onsen and eating places. Not for the weak-willed, or anyone trying to loose their kids.

If you're not very clever, you might think that it is easier to climb up the mountain than catch a ski lift - it's not. Either way, there's plenty of ice and snow to wade through on the way to the top. Fair weather friends should wait six months in an onsen and attempt the same climb in a pair of sneakers in the summer. The cool August breezes are worlds away from Tokyo's sun-baked streets, and in fall the mountain rivers are lined with glorious foliage.

Food and onsen, or sit out the blizzard in comfort

Food for thought
Obviously, the food, water and air in the middle of nowhere tastes much better than in the big city (yes, in Japanese, air is oishii), but true purists can look for wild mushrooms, too. Check the woods to the right of the top sections of the road to Yamada Bokujo. In season, local apple picking is both a good way to get cheap omiyage and give yourself acid indigestion in the tastiest possible way. Blueberries, oyaki - a kind of Japanese manju (steamed buns) - and nozawana (a variety of spinach) pickles are also local specialties.

More local still are the award-winning sausages made and smoked by Redwood Inn's Chef Fujima. They contain nozawana and that Nagano specialty, soba (buckwheat) flour. These too are available for sale as omiyage (souvenirs).

Take a dip at Redwood Inn's onsen

There are lots of places to stay in the area, some with onsen attached, some not, some easily bookable, some not.

Where to stay:
At Yamada Bokujo: Redwood Inn (Tel: 026-242-2418; Fax 026-242-2008). Email:  (; Lodge Canadian (Tel: 026-242-2803); Mominokigoya (Tel: 026-242-2507).

The Redwood Inn costs JY6000 for one night and one (vast) breakfast every day except Sat and days before a National Holiday, and JY6500 otherwise. For the (also vast) buffet dinner it is an extra JY4000 or there is a separate dinner set for JY5000.

At Yamada Onsen: Yamada Kan (Tel: 026-242-2521); Yumoto Kan (Tel: 026-242-2511); Hirano Ya (Tel: 026-242-2811)

How to get there
Take the Kanetsu expressway, then the Joushin expressway to the Suzaka IC, from there it's a 30min drive depending on conditions.

By train, take the JR Nagano shinkansen to Nagano (79min) then the Nagano Dentetsu to Suzaka, which runs five times an hour and takes 25min. From Suzaka stn catch a local bus.

By bus, catch the Nagano Dentetsu bus (Tel: 03-3271-1261) from Ikebukuro Sunshine City (JY7200 return, JY4000 single, half price for kids) to Nagano, then use the train/bus from there. There are four buses from Ikebukuro daily: 7:30am, 10:30am, 4:15pm, 5:45pm. They take 3hr 45min.

More information, maps etc. are available at the Suzaka Information Center (Tel: 026-242-2503).

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