Zao Onsen is particularly well known for two things. Firstly as a hot spring resort as the name suggests and secondly for the Juhyo or 'Snow monsters' that appear every winter on the upper slopes. It is a large fairly spread out resort with plenty of cruisy intermediate terrain. There are also relatively few foreigners - this may be a plus or a minus depending on your viewpoint.
- 1 Location
- 2 Pros
- 3 Cons
- 4 Contacts
- 5 Planning
- 6 Resort Facilities
- 7 Ride Guide
- 8 Other
- 9 Resources
Yamagata prefecture, about 45 mins by bus from Yamagata city.
The hot springs are very nice. The snow monsters are interesting to see and there is plenty of cruisy terrain.
Not all that much steep terrain. A number of flat spots in some of the transition areas which won't suit snowboarders.
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Catch the Tsubasa Shinkansen from Tokyo to Yamagata city. Runs about once an hour and takes a bit under 3 hours. Then catch the Yamako Bus outside station from bus bay 1. There is an information counter in the station where you can check this. These also run about once an hour and take about 45 mins. Zao Onsen is the final destination. Cost (2009) is Y980 one way.
There is an information office next door to the Zao bus station where you can get village and trail maps etc. You may also get these from your accomodation.
There are many hotels, ryokans and pensions and lodges. Many are resort hotels which generally mean they will have outdoor onsens and will be expensive, but if you have a group of around 4 sharing a japanese style room it may work out to be reasonable. The village and resort is quite spread out with many lift access points. There are some ski in / ski out places, but generally wherever you are it will only be a walk of around 5-10 mins or less to the nearest lift.
One issue is finding a place an with english web page. The ones generally listed on the hotel booking site will be the more expensive resort hotels. One very nice place and good value is Miuraya Ryokan. Very traditional Ryokan with excellent japanese meals served in your room. They have an english page on their website. The owners do speak a little english, although find it easier in the written form.
It would be possible to stay in Yamagata city in say a business hotel and just do a day trip using the bus. But then you would miss out on the Onsens. And Zao is worth visiting for a few days.
You can get 4 hour tickets as well as 1, 2, 3 or 4 day tickets. Accomodations will usually have discounted tickets, so make sure you ask them about this. eg. discounted 3 day pass was Y11700 in Feb 2009. These tickets are exchanged for Ski Data cards at the lift office with a Y500 deposit which you get back via a vending machine when you have finished. These are credit card size so can fit in your wallet inside you jacket which the sensors can easily detect.
There are plenty of ski schools. Each little area seems to have one and they are usually busy teaching school kids. Don't know if there are any english speaking instructors.
There are a number of places in the village at the base of the lift stations.
Generally by foot. Hotels, Shops, lifts etc will generally be within 10-15 walk of the bus station. Some hotels will pick you up from the bus station by arrangement, otherwise taxi.
Firstly there are the onsens. Resort hotels will have indoor and outdoor ones. There are also public ones including a public foot bath. Worth a walk aroumnd the village to check out the springs.
Then there is the onsen shrine which is at the top of the steps above the main city street.
And of course the Juhyo (Snow Monsters) at the top of the mountain. To get there either ride the no 1 Ropeway from the bottom and then the no. 2 to the top. Alternatively if you are starting from the left side of the resort, get to the Paradise area and ride the no. 17 lift and ski the trail to the no. 2 ropeway. From the top if it is fine you can walk to the summit (about 10 mins) and amomgst the rime-encrusted trees.
There are a number of hotels and restaurants but generally people have dinner at their accomodation.
Bars & Entertainment
There are a few bars but these are generally fairly quiet during the week. Possibly busier on the weekend.
There are lots of souvenier shops. A speciality of this region is wood carving and in particular Kokeshi dolls. And like everywhere else in Japan there is always plenty of packaged confectionary.
Most of the resort is well groomed. There are plenty of runs on different aspects so there is variety in scenery. Runs are mostly intermediate, some fall line, others gentle winding trails. Only a few steeper fall line pitches.
It can be a bit confusing to navigate at first with the number of lifts and some of the areas don't link up very well. Easiest way is to note the lift numbers. This is particlarly the case with the Paradise region which is a flat area with lifts heading off in 3 different directions. If you are transitioning through this area to another part of the mountain it will require a bit of a skate / shuffle and sometimes a sidestep if you are on skis or a short walk if you are on a board. Otherwise if you are just riding a particular lift there is no problem.
The run from the top amongst the Juhyo is very scenic, but not really great skiing. It is a long fairly gentle narrow trail and can be busy with large beginner ski school groups slowly working their way down.
Off piste is fairly limited. Skiing in the trees is not allowed, although there are a few possibilities.
Out of Bounds
There is a 5 km langlauf course.
Parks & Pipes
Don't appear to be any.
Only on a few runs. There were some in the Chuo area.
There are 2 areas open for night skiing.
1. Uwanodai - lifts 5, 6 & 7.
2. Yokokura - lifts 23, 26 & 27.
Cost is around Y2000. The pensions will have discount vouchers.
There is a track where you can ride big snow tyres. From memory this was around the Paradise area by lift 20.
The peak can get very windy at times.
 Ski area website including trail map in english
 Train timetable
 Yamagata - Zao bus timetable (japanese)
 Miuraya Ryokan (english page)