Zao Onsen is the heart of skiing in Yamagata, and the best of the many resorts in this north western prefecture of Tohoku. The quaint village that sprawls along the foot of the famous mountain peak is well over a thousand years old. Deep volcanic rifts snake down the mountainside, filled with steaming hydrothermal vents emerging out of the deep powder snow. Japan is famous for its Onsens and it is pretty hard to get any closer to the source than at Zao with the peak of the most active volcano in northern Honshu a mere few kilometres away.
Oh, and the skiing is pretty good at Zao Onsen too.
Snow Action has been singing its praises for 10 years, latest of our team to get there was Senior Photographer Shaun Mittwollen who filed this update.
Those that enjoy a more traditional Japanese skiing experience will relish in the atmosphere at Zao. Few westerners visit the resort and the village holds a distinct quiet charm, much like Nozawa Onsen before it was ‘discovered’ by western skies and boarders a few years back.
Zao Onsen is an amazing resort, even by Japanese standards. It’s really big, unlike most, being an amalgamation of several original areas totalling 41 lifts. You can wind your way 9km down from the top, which is a Euro-length ski trail.
The slopes are expansive with an intricate lift system reaching a high point of 1661m. Up here special climatic conditions results in intricate growths of rime ice on sub-alpine fir trees that give rise to the popular snow monsters, or Juhyo. Skiing amongst this gigantic ice world on a foggy day is an otherworldly experience. The main piste from the summit winds down through the frozen forest and individual trees are buried in the mist, only to reach out, appearing at the last second like ghostly figures. When the weather opens up its possible to ski amongst these icy beasts. While it’s strictly forbidden by the resort officials but there are a few nice lines amongst the monsters if your sneaky.
On the lower two-thirds of the mountain, the pistes spread laterally quickly encompassing a broad rimmed valley where deep volcanic ravines cut downhill. The tree line starts immediately below the snow ghosts and indeed there is some fine powder skiing amongst the vegetated slopes. Trees are usually well spaced and the obvious off piste runs that cut between courses offers good steep skiing across stepped terrain. Venturing further into the side country is usually unnecessary thanks to the lack of competition for powder, its almost always untouched.
One of Austria’s most famous ski racers, Toni Sailer, helped develop Zao ski resort. On mountain you can drop down serious black runs like the Toni Sailer Memorial and Hahnenkamm A, B & C racecourses, while downtown you’ll find accommodation and restaurants with names like Pension Tirol, Hotel Sonne and Fressgasse. Wandering through the fog ye-olde oompah-pa-pa music blares out of mountain restaurants, not the usual J pop.
“You’ll need a map because of the size of the resort, but also when it’s dumping and visibility is poor if you take a wrong turn you’ll easily end up in part of the resort that you weren’t expecting” says our roving powder-punter Greg Cansdale. “Then again, I kind of like getting lost because you find stashes you probably would have missed otherwise.”
Zao has a tremendous variety of groomed runs, from serious black to seriously flat, snowboarders watch out, and unlike many resorts you can’t ski it out in a day or two. Definitely worth a few days at least, a great starter on an itinerary heading north.
Still, there remains a quintessential relaxed Japanese vibe to the place. Zao is not a purpose built ski resort but a traditional Japanese onsen village. This spa town provides a variety of options for soaking away those aches and pains at the end of an awesome pow day with public footbaths and bath-houses, open-air hot-springs, as well as private onsens at most accommodation houses.
Zao Onsen trail map
In a quiet town like Zao you wouldn’t expect much après other than a soak in a thousand year old onsen, seriously they are some of the best around. But explore a little further and you just might uncover some local secrets. The township is dotted with numerous classic Izakayas serving traditional Yamagata grown food. Karaoke is big in the town amongst the locals, so popular it seems that many bars are simply residents lounge rooms that have been converted into a bar and karaoke box! Cant recommend this one on a powder day though, nights here can stretch well into the early hours.
While Zao Onsen has often been overlooked by international skiers and snowboards, it certainly deserves more attention, and is starting to get it. An amazing village, interesting local surrounds, easy access from Tokyo, and a plethora of excellent lift accessed terrain that is especially well suited towards intermediate level riders.
Not to mention the backcountry, that’s something for another, clearer, day – and when there is no volcano alert in place as there has been for much of the 2018 season.
Don’t miss near Zao Onsen
Shonai Yamagata is a great place to take a break from skiing and boarding for a day or two and check out the spiritual side of Japan’s mountains. Yamagata Prefecture claims the most snowfall in Japan, so it has some amazing winter sights. 90 minutes or so from Zao and the 3 sacred mountains of Dewa Shenzan – hiking through old cypress forest to the Five Storey Pagoda is special. Check our feature on Shonai here.
Getting to Zao Onsen
From Tokyo take the Yamagata shinkansen (2 hours 30 mins), then a bus from station to Zao Onsen (40 mins) – there are regular buses from 7am to 8pm, for only ¥1,000 adults, ¥500 kids.
Alternatively a shinkansen to Sendai is shorter (90 mins), but then the bus is 90 minutes from the station to Zao, and there are only 2 daily each way. OR fly into Sendai Airport (domestic and some very useful international connections via Korea or Taiwan) and it’s 110 minutes direct bus, with 2 daily.
Sendai is also a great stopover city with all the shopping and nightlife you could want without the bustle of Tokyo.
By car simplest to Zao Onsen is use the Yamagata-Zaou PA highway stop exit off the Yamagata Expresssway, and Routes 286, 167 to 53 to Zao.
The Yamagata Expressway runs off the Tohoku Expressway at Murata south of Sendai for those coming up from Tokyo or down from Aomori/Iwate.
Zao Onsen location map
Zao Onsen Mountain stats and info
• Summit 1661m, base 780m, max vertical 881m off lifts
• 12m plus snowfall
• 26 courses longest 9km; terrain 40% beginner, 40% intermediate, 20% advanced/expert
• 41 lifts including 3 ropeways, 1 gondola & 4 hooded express quads
• Lift pass rates day adult ¥5000, senior ¥4400, child (primary school) ¥2500
Zao Onsen packages & more info links
Zao Onsen hotel and ryokan 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 (the 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.