This article originally featured in the January 2021 issue of Connect.
Derek Hurst (Nagano)
Nestled high in the mountains that straddle Nagano and Gunma prefectures lies the unique, hot spring village of Manza Onsen. Often overshadowed by its more famed neighbor, Kutatsu, Manza offers the kind of rugged yet refined experience that few other resort towns in Japan can truly match.
The most singular aspect of Manza would have to be its otherworldly surroundings. At 1800 m above sea level, it is the second-highest hot spring resort in Japan. It is a comparatively sleepy place, comprising several large hotels, a modest ski resort, and a slew of souvenir shops—and, because the town is technically located within the boundaries of scenic Jōshin’etsu-kōgen National Park, development has been restricted for decades, leaving a relatively untouched and pristine area free of the unsightly high-rises and boisterous neon signs characteristic of most Japanese hot spring villages.
The overpowering smell of sulfur quickly takes up residence within the nostrils; yet, after spending a few days luxuriating in the waters and hiking the surrounding area, the acrid aroma will become familiar and, remarkably, even enjoyable. The waters themselves are colored a milky blue and are fairly acidic, which lend themselves well to unwinding after a long, cold day on the slopes. However, those with overly sensitive skin may experience irritation after repeated bathing. One need not fear, though—the water is perfectly safe and is considered to be some of the most medicinal in the region, long having been lauded as the perfect natural treatment of everything from rheumatoid arthritis to psoriasis.
Most of the hotels are of the more traditional variety in terms of décor, yet provide a highly satisfying and memorable stay. One of the Manza mainstays are, in fact, the delectable dinner buffets offered at some of the hotels, which, until COVID-19, were one of the primary draws for tourists. Now on indefinite hold because of the virus, once the pandemic elapses, hotels assure us that the delicious all-you-can-eats will quickly be back on the proverbial menu.
Manza Onsen may lack some of the flash and bluster of larger resorts, but it more than makes up for its lack of concrete and conbini with another kind of energy—a primal energy that revitalizes the soul and calls to mind the romanticism of old Japan combined with the natural aesthetic of the alpine resorts of Tuscany and Switzerland. Whether it be a simple, weekend jaunt or an extended getaway from the big city, Manza Onsen is sure to provide an unforgettable and, most importantly, relaxing stay in the high mountains; that is, as long as you promise to leave your worries behind you.
Derek Hurst has lived in Nagano Prefecture for almost ten years and enjoys both winter and summer getaways to far-flung and isolated resort towns, ski resorts, and mountain huts. He edits the Business Section at CONNECT Magazine.