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Zao Onsen


An authentically Japanese hot-spring resort village ... and full of snow monsters!

The choice for those who want to immerse themselves in the Japan ski experience ... just as you imagined (or hoped?) it would be. Rich in history and famed for it’s many traditional onsens (hot springs), it’s easy to forget that this is also one of Japan’s largest ski resorts with over forty lifts and gondolas. Zao Onsen has another major draw up its sleeve – Snow Monsters are created high on the mountain each season when the fir trees are covered with ice and then snow, creating something unique, weird and, if truth be told, slightly spooky. If you want to go to a Japanese ski resort that is largely devoid of foreigners, then Zao Onsen is the pick of the bunch. You’ll only see a handful of other Westerners ... this is a Japanese resort for Japanese people, and therefore a wonderfully authentic and atmospheric experience. 

Skiing in Zao Onsen

By European standards, Zao is a mid-sized ski mountain. Having said that, the longest trail begins up in the land of the snow monsters and then it’s about 10-kilometers down to the base station - the longest single run in Japan. There are 42 lifts including a few ropeways and a gondola. On the whole, it’s best suited to suited to beginners and intermediates and both will be happy for several days. Zao is famed for its excellent quality snow, receiving an annual dump of consistently over 12 metres of luxuriant powder.

Off Piste

Stay within the resort boundaries and, notwithstanding one or two small roped off areas, the whole mountain is fair game. This gives you plenty of scope to get off the pistes, in to the trees and cut loose. And because there are very few others doing the same, it soon becomes the stuff of dreams. The ski mountain and, more pointedly, the trail map can be utterly confusing (certainly not designed with those heading off-piste in mind) and you don't always end up where you think you will - no worries, it was epic anyways! Wonderful stashes of untracked powder are to be found everywhere and, up top, skiing amongst the snow monsters is the stuff of Warren Miller movies. 

Heading backcountry, outside the resort boundaries, is more difficult. Which is so frustrating, because it's just there and obviously epic - we just need to find you an English-speaking guide to take you. We only know of a handful...

Advanced

There are only a few black runs, one or two rather fiercely steep (the Yokokura Wall is epic, at 38 degrees and often covered in moguls it might gets the adrenal glands working) and the fresh tracks accessed from the sides of the trail will appeal to experts. Stay on the skiers left of the mountain and its often a powder nirvana from top to bottom..all the way through the day.

Intermediate

Zao offers up miles-upon-miles of gratifying carving on beautiful pistes, cut through the trees. Many of the runs intertwine, part, join up again, and then drop off to different base area -  there are so many ways to get down the mountain. It's a hugely entertaining several days of skiing, although it can be frustrating plotting a route from resort-left to resort-right...as it doesn't all quite flow together as neatly as you'd like. But this doesn't spoil the fun - Zao is full of long cruisy runs, a few steeps  when you feel like challenging yourself, deep powder off the sides and in the trees and snow monsters to ski between up top. 

Beginners

This is a ski mountain anyone can enjoy, as there are easy slopes from top to bottom and all well-signposted in English. Grooming is exceptional.  However, finding a ski school with English-speaking instructors is more of a challenge, so it may not be the place to come for your very first foray in skis.

Snowboarders

Every bit as good for snowboarders as it is for skiers, both on and off-piste in the trees. Nice mellow lines to be found all over the mountain, the trees are well spaces apart and the powder is (very often) all yours!

Après Ski

You are not - repeat not - in Zao Onsen for the nightlife. This is a low-key Japanese resort (repeat very Japanese) and nightlife is usually restricted to your hotel. After skiing, it's time for onsen - soak in the hot tubs of your hotel (or one of the several public onsens in the village), then dinner and early to bed. There are a few restaurants in the village (including Robata - a wonderful BBQ eatery), though most stay in their hotel. Indeed, it's hard to find a late night drink in Zao outside of your hotel...although we do know where there's a secret little no-signed speakeasy-like joint, ask Nick in the office and he'll try give you directions. 

Family Suitability

A friendly ski mountain, without lurking surprises and hidden drop-offs. There may not be a great English-language ski school, so you'll need to stick together as a family - not least because it is so easy to get lost with the confusing trail map. But it's beautiful, it can be reasonably gentle from top to bottom, there's fun to be had playing off the sides of the piste and the snow monsters up top are the stuff of happy childhood memories.

RESORT SCORECARD

Snowsure:  

Beginners:  

Intermediate:  

Advanced:  

Snowboarders:  

Après Ski:  

Families:  

Season:  December - early April

Base elevation:  780 metres

Top elevation:  1,661 metres

Vertical drop:  881 metres

Number of lifts:  42

Number of runs:  28

Longest run:  10 kilometres

Access:  Fly to Tokyo and catch the shinkansen 'bullet-train' to Yamagata City. From here its a 45-minute drive up out of the valley bottom to Zao village - we can arrange private transfers and you can use the public bus from Yamagata Station.

Suggested Itineraries featuring Zao Onsen

These suggested itineraries will give you a starting point for what your ski holiday to Japan could entail. Sometimes we combine ski resorts and we often cherish the opportunity to explore and experience Japan beyond the ski slopes. We hope these itineraries will inspire, excite and inform you as we begin the planning process. They’re not set departures or tours, as every holiday we plan is completely tailor-made for you - treat them as inspiration only.

The Alternative Ski Safari

Appi Kogen - Zao Onsen - Tokyo

Duration: two weeks

Explore the Tohoku region to discover some the best skiing in Japan. Deep, untracked powder snow awaits in the remote north.

from £2,780 per person, including flights

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The Japanese Ski Week

Zao Onsen - Tokyo - and perhaps Hakone?

Duration: one week

A one-week ski holiday with a different flavour - there's no mistaking you're in Japan. Bullet-trains, snow monsters and neon cities.

from £1,860 per person, including flights

Read More

Snow & Beach - Honeymoon

Japanese Ski Resort - Tokyo - Asian Beach

Duration: two weeks

First the powder snow of Japan, then it's a city break in Tokyo, before heading to Thailand or The Philippines and a tropical beach.

from £3,250 per person, including flights

Read More

Prices are indicative only and include accommodation (low season), lift passes, transfers and – because we are ATOL-bonded – your flights from the UK. Different Snow can also include ski hire, backcountry and off-piste tours, rail passes, private transfers, English-speaking guides, cultural excursions and activities.

Accommodation

The accommodation is dotted throughout the village, a mix of ryokans (Japanese inns) and hotels. That said, most of the hotels have a distinctly Japanese character with most of the bedrooms being Japanese-style - tatami floors and futon beds. Everywhere has its own in-house onsen, an essential element of the experience. The usual routine when you come off the ski mountain is to change in to your cotton yukata (Japanese dressing-gown), head to the onsen for a relaxing soak and then enjoy dinner in your hotel / ryokan. It's an early-to-bed kind of place, no hardship as the days are just magical!

Miyamaso Ryokan

A 300-year-old inn in the heart of the village, offering luxury & authenticity.

This long-established traditional inn is what put Zao Onsen on the map when it first opened its doors in 1716. That it now finds itself in the heart of a ski resort is simply lucky coincidence - nowhere else in Japan does such serendipity exist.  Therefore, you can enjoy a memorable, traditional ryokan experience amongst its maze of corridors (there have been several extensions over the years), which reveal rooms that are beautifully furnished in traditional Japanese style.

In total there are 22, some of which are combination rooms with western beds on tatami mats. Outstanding are the mezzanine level rooms with western beds, a large living area and their own private outdoor hot tub (i.e. not natural hot springs). There are several natural onsen to choose from, including outdoor pools (called rotenburo), a foot bath, and a private onsen which you can rent. The food is equally part of the experience at Miyamaso - every dish from its appetizers to its main courses are beautifully presented and impossibly tasty! You can opt for a western or Japanese style breakfast.

Distance to…

Village centre: 5 metres

Ski lifts: 8 minutes' walk

Bus stop: 5 minutes' walk

Rurikura Hotel

It may be an ugly duckling externally, it's actually Zao's nicest hotel once inside.

With probably the nicest rooms of all the mid-range hotels in Zao, you get the feeling that the Rurikura is over-compensating for it's crude architectural stylings.

Just outside the main village, but just over the road from one of the main ski lift bases, this hotel has a selection of room options...all a little more contemporary that what can be found elsewhere, and the onsens and restaurant are also on point.

Distance to…

Ski lifts: 25 metres

Village centre: 8 minutes' walk

Bus stop: 12 minutes' walk

Meitoya-So Ryokan

Pleasant, modern ryokan on the edge of the village. Great value.

You may find nowhere here who can speak English at all...but it's a pleasant, immersive experience nonetheless. This is a ryokan in every sense - wonderful onsen (both indoor and a small outdoor pool for each sex), amazing kaiseki dining and tatami mat rooms, on which a futon is rolled out each evening. Having said that, there are a few rooms with Western beds and - whilst traditional - it's all quite modern and new.

It's out on a limb a little from the main village, but still only a short walk.

Distance to…

Ski lifts: 10 minutes' walk

Village centre: 10 minutes' walk

Lucent Hotel

The solid choice in Zao; location, comfort, dependable...and very Japanese!

The Hotel Lucent is really well located in the middle of the villllage, opposite the Zao Chuo Ropeway. There are plenty of room options, including standard twin western, standard Japanese style rooms with full bathroom for 2 persons up 5. There are also large combination Japanese/Western rooms and large maisonettes with twin beds downstairs and Japanese style area upstairs.

Dinner is a Japanese joy, with some nights being shabu-shabu style, whereas other evening they serve kaiseki multi-course meals. Breakfast is buffet style with a huge variety of Japanese and western-style cooked items as well as various cold foods. As always, the onsens are a wonderful experience (and the village's best public onsen is next door) and to top it all there is Pub Sunset, the in-house bar.

Distance to…

Ski lifts: 20 metres

Village centre: 50 metres

Bus stop: 5 minutes' walk

Hotel Jurin

The only ski-in, ski-out option, set just above the village. Homely & friendly.

Set right on the slopes (the 'Uwanosai' slope, to be exact), this rabbit-warren of a hotel is utterly charming in its own understated, slightly threadbare fashion. With a mix of Japanese and Western-style rooms, they  all have a certain Japanese aesthetic - and then there are the inevitable in-house onsens (wonderful!), friendly restaurant and some wonderful night views to be had over the village proper, which lies below. 

Distance to…

Ski lifts: 20 metres

Village centre: 10 minutes' walk

Hammond Hotel

The budget option is  surprisingly pleasant, with onsens, comfortable rooms & decent food.

Most of the rooms are Japanese - tatami mat and futon beds...and not a lot else. However, there are a handful of rooms with Western beds also, it's purely a matter of taste and comfort as to which you prefer.

Other than that, this square block of a hotel is just down a short, sharp hill to one of the main base stations and assures you a warm welcome, several on-site onsens and hearty meals - both Japanese and Western.

We like the Hammond - good, honest, Japanese-style accommodation. Unpretentiously honest.

Distance to…

Ski lifts: 75 metres

Village centre: 5 minutes' walk

Activities

Ski guiding is not 'thing' in Zao as yet...at least, if you want / need English-speaking it's not. Just head out with the lift map, be prepared to get lost (it's a rubbish map), stay within bounds and get in between the trees. That's all the instruction you need.

Off the mountain it's all about the onsens, though Yamagata  is just down the road and, as a provincial Japanese city in a beautiful region, it holds plenty of attraction.

Ski Concierge

Different Snow can book your accommodation, get you there from Tokyo (include transfers from Yamagata City) and we can even pre-purchase your lift pass. But that's about it with Zao Onsen - whilst we will equip you with pointers on where, how and why - you are better placed organising everything else locally.  This is not because additional services such as ski / snowboard hire and guiding don't exist, it is simply the case that reserving and administrating from afar is unreliable. Best to shop around once you are there and get exactly what you need locally. 

Lift Passes

We can organise one / two / three and even four day passes - you don't want to be skiing in Zao any longer than that. Prices are very competitive, particularly considering the number of lifts and amount of terrain accessible. Night skiing is also included, peak season.

Equipment Hire

This can be the problem in Zao Onsen. There is plenty of kit for hire - skis, snowboards, boots, poles - and reasonably large outlets can be found at each of the three major base stations. However, quality should be a concern...the kit is old and, even when new, it was probably bargain basement. This is still the land of back-loading boots. However, if you head to Jupia Base Centre you'll find far better kit...not at the official rental outlet in the large building at the foot of the Sky Cable (same old), instead head to the row of small rental shops on 'pension row' just to the left of the station. In the first shop you come to we rented excellent, latest-model powder skis and a high-spec powder board. It's not cheap - circa ¥7,000 per day - but absolutely worth it. If you've got unusually large feet or prefer particularly long skis, then we may be in trouble.

Lessons

There are several ski schools in Zao Onsen, and most are actually very highly though of. They get lots of school groups passing through and standards of tuition are high....if you can converse in   Japanese. There are a handful of English-speaking instructors around - let us know if you want private instruction and we'll try hunt one down for you.

Travel Insurance

Winter sports travel insurance is an important part of your holiday booking and we strongly recommend that you have a comprehensive travel insurance policy to cover all your winter sports holiday requirements. We're happy to be able to offer our customers a 10% discount on all policies from Ski Club Travel Insurance.

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