If you love winter sports like skiing or snowboarding, Japan will be your paradise during the cold winter months from November to April. Japan landscape is 73% mountains and many of them are used as ski resorts in winter. Because Taka loves snowboarding I have started skiing again last year. While I am not any good, I manage to get down the mountain in one piece (mostly). In the last two years, we have explored different ski resorts all over Japan. And while we love the convenient ski area around Yuzawa (only 1 hour away from Tokyo by Shinkansen) it would like to introduce you to another one today: Zao Onsen Ski Resort.
If you are looking for an amazing ski resort for a short ski trip from Tokyo Zao Onsen Ski Resort in Yamagata prefecture might just be the perfect pic for you. We just spent a lovely two days there skiing and snowboarding. But Zao Onsen Ski Resort offers more than just a vast ski area with many slopes to explore. The area is famous for two things that you shouldn’t miss: Snow Monsters and Onsen.
Snow Monsters or Ice Monsters are trees completely covered in snow due to the strong winds, icy temperatures and heavy snowfall at the top of Mount Zao. There are only a few places in northern Japan where these wonders of nature form during the coldest months between December and March.
Apparently, the best time to see the Snow Monsters is on a sunny day in the early morning. But be aware that the gondola going up will be very crowded and you might have to wait for an hour or two, at least that’s what we heard from other travelers.
We visited the Snow Monster area twice. First after we just arrived around noon. Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy and at the top of the mountain, it was so foggy that it was hard to see even 10 meters in any direction. I tried to take some pictures with my phone but even the short seconds without my gloves on were incredibly painful because of the cold. But I really wanted to show you all these wonders of nature so I fought through the pain and managed to get some more or less good pictures (you can see how I suffer for my blog and my readers).
In the afternoon the weather cleared up and it was bright and sunny in the lower parts of the mountain. Still, when we reached the top it was cloudy but it was possible to see the Snow Monsters, with their impressive size and shapes, surrounding us, standing tall and unmoving in every direction as far as the eyes could see.
On the second day it was snowing and windy and it was really hard to see anything even in the lower part of the mountain, so we didn’t even bother to ride the gondola all the way to the top. Whether you are able to see the Snow Monsters depends completely on the weather so you should set your expectations accordingly.
Picture copyright of Zao Onsen Tourism Association
For an even more eerie experience, you can also book a night tour to see the Snow Monsters at night where they will be illuminated. The tour costs 3800 Yen but we decided not to do it. One reason is that we saw them by day and the other that we were tired after a long day of skiing that we slept very early that day.
If you are interested in doing the night tour you can find more information about it here.
Zao Onsen (Zao Hot Springs in English) has a more than 1900-year tradition and is one of the best and most famous Onsen resorts in Japan. The Onsen water is strongly acidic sulfur which is supposed to be good for your skin and blood vessels.
You can enjoy the Onsen water either at one of the 3 public baths that are located throughout the town (which cost only about 200 Yen) or use a free food bath after a stroll through town. Don’t forget to bring your own towel!
We had a big bath with open-air bath in our hotel and used the facilities there to enjoy the Zao Onsen. After a cold and long day of skiing it was the best feeling in the world to just soak in the hot water for a while and let all the little muscles relax.
If you are not used to the temperatures, Onsen in Japan are usually over 40 degrees Celsius, in some cases close to 50, stay in the water only for a short while and get out slowly in case you get dizzy.
Picture copyright of Zao Onsen Tourism Association
Now, let’s talk about the main reason to visit Zao Onsen Ski Resort in winter: Skiing and snowboarding. With 35 lifts and 3 ropeways and one gondola, the Zao Onsen Ski Resort is one of the largest in Japan. Some of the lifts and ropeways are quite old but for me, this is what makes up the charm of the Ski Resort.
There are many different areas and slopes to choose from. Most of them are suitable for beginners but some require an advanced skill in skiing (or snowboarding). We were only on the left-hand part of the ski resort, as indicated on the map below. Even though February is the main season the whole resort didn’t feel crowded at all. Because of its size, the people spread out quite well and there were never any lines at any of the lifts.
On our first day, we were very lucky with the weather, it was mostly sunny or cloudy and it was quite nice to spend the day skiing. We especially enjoyed the Ryuzan Pair A and B ski slopes, where there were only few people and the powder snow was still largely untouched and fluffy. While I was exhausted around 4 o’clock (after about 4 hours of skiing) Taka used the whole time until the lifts stopped operation at around 5:30 p.m. to snowboard.
If you aren’t satisfied with skiing until the afternoon (or arrive late in the day), you might be interested in the opportunity to do night skiing at the lower part of the ski resort until 9:00 p.m. We were already quite exhausted and did not try it for ourselfes, but rather had a nice dinner at the hotel restaurant (included in our room fee) a hot, long and relaxing bath in the Onsen of our hotel and an early bedtime at around 9:00 p.m.
Let’s talk about how much the whole fun will cost you. The lift ticket will cost 4800 Yen for one day. We paid 8700 Yen for two days with hotel discount (the normal price for two days is 8900 Yen). If you would like to ski at night, you will have to pay a little more for your ski pass. It will cost 5500 Yen for one day. The key card that functions as the ticket has a 500 Yen deposit amount that you will get back when you return it on your last day. By the way, there is a machine to return it conveniently at the Zao Onsen Bus Terminal.
We stayed at the Takamiya Hotel Jurin a Japanese style hotel directly at the slope. Our room was half Japanese style tatami room and half western style room with beds. There are rooms with attached bathroom and without, but you don’t really need one if you are planning to use the public bath or Onsen that is provided.
The public bath at the hotel is gender separated. There are each 3 pools with different temperature water and it is the best feeling in the world to just soak there for a while after a cold day of skiing.
Why don’t you head over to booking.com to check for the latest prices and availability of the Takamiya Hotel Jurin.
While we both have ski wear we always opt to rent ski and snowboard at our destination, because it is just so much more convenient than having to carry it around on the trains and buses. The rental at our hotel was surprisingly cheap at 1500 Yen per day for a set of boots, ski, and sticks.
At the top of lift 16, we had a wonderful lunch. For 1200 Yen we got Sukiyaki Udon. The Udon noodles were cooked in a pot together with thin slices of beef, vegetables like mushrooms, leek and other greens and an egg. This dish will not only heat your body right up but is a real Japanese soul food that you really shouldn’t miss.
One week before our trip to Zao Onsen we watched a TV program about it. They introduced a restaurant that we really wanted to try. The interior has a lot of character and is located at the lowest point of the slope it is a perfect place to take a rest from skiing. Especially when the weather is as bad as it was on our second day with strong wind and snow.
The Zunda Mochi is a famous local dish and cost 700 Yen. One portion was quite volumy and so we ate it split up between the two of us. The green paste is made from beans and is sweet and delicious and matches perfectly with the warm mochi. Be careful to chew properly so you won’t choke one the chewy mochi.
If you are interesting in Japanese food expecially sweets you should check out my post about different ice cream flavors in Japan.
Yamagata the closest station to Zao Onsen is easily accessible from Tokyo using the Tohoku Shinkansen. The train ride will take just under 3 hours and cost 12000 Yen one way. From Yamagata station, you take a bus from bus stop 1 to Zao Onsen. This one costs 1000 Yen and will take about 45 minutes.
Most hotels will have a pick-up service from the bus terminal to the hotel. Because the roads are quite steep and hard to access on foot I can’t really recommend walking the distance to the hotel even if the hotel is only a couple of hundred meters away.
If you are lucky with the weather, you will have a lovely time skiing or snowboarding at Zao Onsen Ski Resort. And skiing among the Snow Monsters will definitely be a highlight, but if you aren’t that lucky don’t fret. Spending the day relaxing in an Onsen and trying the delicious foods of one of the many restaurants in town is also definitely an experience worth having.
If you have any further questions about the Zao Onsen Ski Resort let me know in the comments below. And if you have anything to add please don’t hesitate!