Zao Onsen has been welcoming the weary for at least 1900 years of recorded history, and doubtless much longer – hey, if the monkeys in Japan are into onsen bathing you got to figure we humans thought of it first – and the therapeutic thermal waters are second to none.
But that’s just one part of the equation here, skiing having taken off a long time ago too, back in the early Austrian-influenced years of Japanese skiing, thanks to the accessibility and the plentiful snow (around 12m a season). So much snow in fact, and so consistently cold over the main winter, that it forms the famous Juhyo snow monsters on the pine trees at the top.
You can ski past these by day, sort of – they don’t glade the snow ghosts like at Big White, but there is a cut run down from the top and if you are quick and discrete it’s possible to dive in and get a couple of turns around them without being chased as the attitude to off-piste is pretty old school Japan here.
You can also come up at night to check out the illuminated display from the upper ropeway as shown here – well worth it, but rug up, it’s bloody cold (though you can just view from the inside).
The monster’s novelty value attracts plenty of local sightseers, and the sprawling Zao ski area plenty of enthusiasts, but it’s big enough to shift them around so you can generally find an uncrowded area to play in.
For skiers the runs are generally excellent from easy to steep and fast, but boarders have to watch out for flat spots and short uphills that will have you cursing or wishing you were a skier with independent leg movement and poles ..
You could be forgiven for thinking you’d gone back in time on your visit to the beautiful town of Zao Onsen. The small town is built into the side of the mountain and with the enormous ski area surrounding you a full 180 degrees, it’s hard to take your mind off skiing no matter what you’re doing.
We took the bus from Yamagata station and after a very scenic 40 minute trip we met our host, Mao Ojima of Lodge Scole. The lodge, originally opened by Mao’s parents, has been welcoming foreign guests to Zao Onsen since the winter of 1973. Mao took over management of the lodge in 1998, but her mother still works as the lodge’s chef to ensure guests are well fed and ready for each day on the mountain.
Our first day on the snow was spent exploring the mountain and trying not to get lost among the 4 gondolas and 35 lifts! We planned to stick to the well-marked groomers for a while to get a feel for the mountain but with around 30cm of snow falling the night before, it wasn’t long before we ventured into the trees in search of fresh lines. Officially, off-piste skiing is prohibited at Zao, but there are many spots where you can access tree areas without ducking ropes and in three days we had no trouble. While the tree runs we found were relatively short, the snow quality was incredible as most visitors seemed to stick to the piste leaving some deep, untouched snow amongst the tight trees.
Our second day was spent touring with Mao, who offers regular tours for groups and private skiers. Having spent many winters in the lodge as a child, and many more since returning to take over, she knows the area as well as any other.
We started our day with a visit to the Juhyo (Ice Monsters – large fir trees covered in ice) at the top of the mountain, from there we explored the 10km long run from top the bottom, and after lunch in the Omori area we explored the trees a little more.
No Japanese ski trip would be complete without a little time in the hot springs, and with Zao Onsen boasting springs dating back 1900 years or so, you’re spoilt for choice. Ours was GenShichi-no-Yu, a small onsen at the top of town with lovely outdoor baths surrounded by deep snow and towering trees. Zao’s volcanic water has a high sulphur content which results in a strong smell and adds a beautiful green colour to the baths, and it is said to have healing properties and be great for the skin.
After a relaxing soak we visited the nearby Tanaka Kokeshi, one of Zao’s many cultural experiences. Kokeshi are small wooden dolls which are simple in design and decorated with water colours before being waxed to protect them. At Tanaka Kokeshi you can purchase Kokeshi and other crafts, and you can even decorate your own Kokeshi doll, with a little guidance from Mrs. Tanaka of course!
Between the excellent skiing, amazing hot springs and wonderful cultural experiences available, Zao Onsen is high on our list for those looking for a more “Japanese” ski experience. Although one can get by, English is not as widely spoken as it is in areas such as Niseko and Hakuba, so if your Japanese is a little rusty it’s a good idea to book somewhere like Lodge Scole with English-speaking staff who will help you make the most of your stay. – Dan Power
Getting to Zao 2.5hrs on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Yamagata, then 40 minutes by bus from Yamagata Station to Zao bus terminal; or fly into Sendai (from/via China, Taiwan, Korea)100 minutes direct bus.
Zao tourist information http://www.zao-spa.or.jp/english/index.html
Best of Zao accommodation
The Takamiya group has been operating in Zao for many years, with a great variety of properties to cater to all budgets.
Takamiya Rurikura Resort boasts ski in ski out access (across the road) from Yokukura ski slope at the base of the Zao Sanrokusen Ropeway (first stage to the top). All rooms complete with ensuite facilities, guests can unwind in the hot spring onsen or sauna From ¥10,000 with breakfast, ¥13,000 with breakfast & dinner.
Hotel Lucent Takamiya Centrally located in the village, with easy access to slopes, resataurants and bars. All natural onsen to finish the day. From ¥9,600 with breakfast, ¥12,750 with breakfast & dinner.
Hotel Hammond Takamiya A cozy hotel 5 minutes walk to the Uwanodai slopes & Zao Sky Cable Station, with indoor/outdoor natural onsen. Great value, from ¥6,750 with breakfast, ¥10,650 with breakfast & dinner.
Also Lodge Scole http://lodgescole.com/index.html/