The snowy white realms of Japan have been pulling in tourists for decades and besides its popular ski resorts of Hokkaido and Nagano, there are other relatively undiscovered spots like Zao Onsen in Yamagata which offers the same world class ski slopes and premium attractions with less crowd and a more distinctively local flavour.
Here are the top 5 attractions for this relatively low-key snow resort in a country big on wintry fun.
1. Location and Access
Zao Onsen may not be Japan’s most famous ski resort at present, but its stunning beauty will soon attract visitors from all over the world.
Set high amidst the apex of Jizo-dake that rises 800 meters above sea level, Zao Onsen in Yamagata is the largest ski resort in Japan’s Tohoku region with winter attractions that rival that of Hakuba and Niseko. Located 40 mins by bus from Yamagata city, which is about 2.5 hours from Tokyo by train, this snowy wonderland is easily accessible from the nation’s capital. As Zao Onsen is relatively unknown to foreign travellers, it has retained a distinctively Japanese air as establishments here still cater largely to local visitors with just a splattering of Taiwanese and Hong Kong tourists over peak seasons.
2. Chilly Snow Monsters
The soft rimes or Juhyo of Zao Onsen looking even more dramatic at night
The freezing wind and heavy snowfall here have conspired to create the most spectacular of 3 spots in Japan where one can find ‘Juhyo’ or snow monsters. These dramatic rimes take shape when snow on trees is rapidly frozen by the strong winds that constantly sweep through the mountain. Over the peak season from January till early March, there are scheduled night illumination where vivid spectrums add to the insta-worthiness of these remarkable snow sculptures forged by nature.
3. The Sulphur Soak
Sulphuric onsen provide warmth and restoration after a day of skiing
Unlike many regions in Japan where the hot springs are filled by clear thermal waters, Zao onsen is renowned for its turquoise blue sulphuric spring water that are believed to have wonderful healing properties that can treat a host of ailments from bronchitis to heart and skin diseases. The odour of the water is however an acquired taste and can linger on clothes even after a few wash.
4. The Gourmet Factor
Yonezawa beef is one of Japan’s most celebrated beef and a speciality of the Yamagata prefecture
There are only 2-3 casual restaurants in this small town that offer hearty meals like ramen and tonkutsu bento boxes in the day but the onsen hotels here all deliver heavenly multi-course dinner ryori (cuisine) that feature local ingredients like the famous Yonezawa beef and Yamagata pork. The marbling on the Yonezawa slivers typically served on the shabu shabu course is simply sensational.
5. The Downhill Rush
A series of lifts at Zao Ropeway traverse the gorgeous snowscapes of Mt Jizo
From now till the end of March, it is ski season at Zao Onsen and the Zao Ropeway provides an impressive array of slopes that cater to all levels of skiers and snow-boarders with over a dozen downhill courses and the longest one stretches over 10km from the top of the mountain. Non-skiers can also visit the Jizo Sancho station via the Zao Ropeway Sancho line to ring the lucky bell there before setting off for a dramatic view of the snow monsters looming over the peak or the half submerged Jizo statue, weather permitting.