Zao Onsen, Yamagata

Not impossible without a car but whichever way you go it won`t be quick. By shinkansen it’s going to take 6 hours via Omiya and Yamagata, followed by a short ride on a local train. This will take around 3 hours and set you back over 10,000yen.
When I tried to search for local trains I was recommended to fly to Yamagata Airport  instead – not surprising since it would take over 7 hours and cost nearly 6,000.

The easiest way is to take a bus from Shinjuku Bus Station. These are mostly overnight buses, which take about 7 hours and cost 6000yen. An alternative is to join a large organised tour which has hired a private bus – snow sports clubs like Tokyo Snow Club ( or Tokyo Gaijins ( run package tours. These are usually done over a weekend, and they will also arrange accommodation, lift passes, and rentals if required. Although it can take away some of your freedom over travel times, going with a big group has advantages like getting discounts on passes or bus fares. 


Obviously if you’re planning on skiing or snowboarding then winter is best. The peaks are usually open and snow covered from December to late February, but you might get a longer season during cold years.


Where to stay
Zao Onsen has some ski-in hotels right at the bottom of Uwanodai, one of the main slopes, and these are by far the best places if you want to avoid walking up to the slopes, or waiting around for shuttle buses. They serve meals and have drying rooms or gear storage areas. There aren’t many independent restaurants, so try and get a hotel which does food.

I stayed in Jingisukan Lodge, which had beautiful tatami rooms. It was warm and comfortable, had great service, and the food was mostly good.

Skiing or snowboarding  are the sports most travellers come for. There`s a range of courses to suit all abilities, ranging from bunny hills to suicidally steep, and lots of ski lifts to take you up. The longest run goes from the peak of Mount Sanpokojin, standing at over 1,600 metres high, but requires using more than 1 lift to get up. The most direct route uses only 2 lifts, but expect waits of over 40 minutes for both of these at peak times. Sanpokojin has a landscape of `Ice Monsters`, trees so thickly covered in snow that they look more like surreal sculptures or bizarre sleeping creatures.  Not much on the slopes themselves except the occasional restaurant tacked onto a ski lift, but on the positive side the slopes look much more wild and natural.

I went during an unexpected warm spell during the peak season, so the lift waits on the most direct route were around an hour. Apparently all the snow on the Ice Monsters had melted off anyway

Lift passes are around 5000yen for an adult 1 day pass during the `regular season`, but cheaper if you go outside this time: either before late December or after late March. 2 day passes are around 9000, 3 days 12,500, and 4 days will set you back around 15,000.  Children under 12 are half adult price. Theres another option, the `Exciting 10 day Pass`, but sadly I couldn’t find out why it was so exciting – although you can use it any time during the season. Lifts are mostly open 8.30am – 4.30pm. Night skiing passes are available from the end of December to the end of March for a few of the slopes which stay open until 9pm.

There`s also a snowboard park for those looking to practise jumps, a family snow park for small children, and the chance to try snow shoeing. Snow shoeing tours run between late January and late March. Zao Wakanjiki offers guided tours conducted in Japanese on 2 routes, both of which cost 4000yen and take up to 5 hours. Zao Chuo Kogen Kanjiki don`t offer guided tours, and cost 2500yen.

The onsen has a reputation for being very hot and acidic, but is rumoured to aid some skin conditions and will probably feel great after a long day out too.



The Zao Juhyo Festival offers an incredible fireworks display right on the slopes at Uwanodai in early February, as well as the chance to watch jumping (I don’t know if confident bystanders can join in)

Moonlit walking tours are available on late February weekends with a full moon, which cost just over 2000yen. The tour is conducted in Japanese


There aren’t many shops in Zao. There`s a few restaurants in the village, which are all pretty far apart, and one convenience store near the bus station, and … that’s about it. Take a lot of cash and snack food with you, and don’t expect nightlife

Zao is fantastic for snow sports, but there isn’t a lot more going on here – no museums or things like that. It’s a very small town, so either go out on the slopes or be prepared to make your own fun.


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