When talking about winter resorts in Japan, most people’s minds automatically gravitate to Niseko in Hokkaido and Hakuba in Nagano. However, there’s another spot in Japan that boasts amazing ski slopes and scenery: Yamagata prefecture’s Yamagata Zao Onsen. Zao Onsen features fourteen slopes – one of which is an impressive 10km long – and twelve courses for all ages and experience levels. For beginners, multi-lingual instructors lead group and private ski lessons.
If you go in summer, the area also oﬀers beautiful trekking routes and gloriously coloured leaves in autumn. Arguably however, Zao Onsen’s most famous attraction is its “snow monsters”, aﬀectionately dubbed as “shrimp tails”. As the snow monsters only emerge on a few mountains under certain conditions, Zao Onsen’s scenery is a rare treat.
Naturally, you can see plenty of these snow monsters while you’re skiing or snowboarding down the slopes. However, if you still want more, you should reserve a ride on the Night Cruiser up to the top of the mountain during peak season. After dark, the brilliant, coloured lights illuminate the snow monsters. Additionally, you can board the Zao Ropeway and enjoy an unrivaled view and visit the Family Snow Park.
The history of the area stretches back over a staggering 1,900 years, when early Japanese people discovered it around 110 AD. Eventually, the resort opened in 1925, almost 100 years ago. Since then, it has grown to be the largest ski resort in Japan, in terms of area. It even hosts the FIS Ladies’ Ski Jump World Cup every January.
After years of pleasing international travelers, it’s really no surprise that the only thing warmer than the hot springs is the welcome from locals extended to all guests. Onsen lovers are going to be well taken care of at Zao Onsen. Its sulphur springs, known as the “Springs of Beauty”, appear to have rejuvenating properties. The healing waters also help strengthen both your skin and blood vessels.
For those looking to explore, the surrounding area has plenty of interesting shops to pick up souvenirs. Conveniently, the resort has signs in several languages – including English – so language barrier won’t be a problem for anyone hoping to visit.
With all these wonderful sights and activities to oﬀer, situated a mere forty-minute bus ride from Yamagata Station, it’s no wonder more and more people are choosing to ﬂock to this resort from overseas. For those of you looking for a great holiday amongst beautiful surroundings with friendly locals (and snow monsters!), you’ll deﬁnitely ﬁnd what you want here at Zao Onsen.
ZAO Wonder 1: Snow Monster
Snow monsters form when the wind blows cold water droplets onto the evergreen conifers on the slopes. The drops freeze into ice, and as more and more accumulate and are covered by snow, the combination of ice, snow, and wind create surreal creature-like shapes.
ZAO Wonder 2: Onsen
Although it may seem hard to believe, early Japanese people discovered Zao Onsen 110 AD. As a result, the traditions in this village of hot springs and mountain scenery 1,900 years old!
ZAO Wonder 3: Kokeshi dolls
A kokeshi is a traditional wooden doll and a popular souvenir in the Tohoku region. When you visit Zao Onsen you can meet one of the craftsmen who make and paint the dolls!
ZAO Wonder 4: Tama-konnyaku
Tama-konnyaku is Yamagata’s soul food. It’s simmered konnyaku served on a bamboo skewer.
ZAO Wonder 5: Yamagata Beef
Yamagata beef is one of the top three types of beef served in Japan. This tender delicacy is a must-eat for meat-lovers!
Tasting Yamagata’s highly-rated sake!
One of the most famous Japanese items is its rice wine sake, and some highly-rated sake comes from Yamagata itself. The best place for sake is the “Yamagata Sake Museum & Yukemuri Bar Tsumami”, on the way to Zao. You can try numerous sake ﬂavours and Yamagata delicacies, along with international food. The museum has menus in multiple languages.