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Fire and ice

Nozawa Onsen was a much better ski area than Mt. Naeba. It's got a cozy, down-home feel, while Naeba, dominated by the Prince Hotel, is impersonal and corporate. There are twisty little streets around the base of the mountains, with old-fashioned inns and hot spring spas run by mom-and-pop teams who have been there for decades, if not generations. After a day on the slopes, we went to a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop run by a jazz afficionado and sipped creamy Cafe Viennas while listening to his choice of bebop.

The snowboarding was better, too. Like the town, the mountain itself has a lot of character. The main trails stay pretty empty, because there is so much great terrain off to the sides to explore. We got dumped on the first two days -- 10 inches fell Saturday night alone -- and had our fill of untouched powder stashes. But by Sunday night, the snow had turned to rain and my thighs had turned to Jell-O, so I decided to once again pack it in, and came home one day early.

Saturday night, we caught the Dosojin Fire Festival. In a nutshell, it's held to pray for a good harvest, which is done by setting a giant wood shrine ablaze while people swarm around it in fighting groups. This is a religious ceremony even Beavis and Butthead could enjoy. I got a good shot of it by climbing up on a snow mound behind the massive crowd:

Nozawa Onsen also has a much better ski mascot than Mt. Naeba -- the Nozawa Na (野沢菜), a green, leafy vegetable indigenous to the region.

Beats Mt. Naeba's Hitler rabbit, if you ask me.




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