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 its 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-kilometres 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.
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, into 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 will have been epic anyway! 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 right thereand so obviously brilliant - if only you an English-speaking guide to take you. There are only a handful, and we're not too modest to tell you we know them.
There are only a few black runs, and one or two are fiercely steep. The Yokokura Wall is legendary; at 38 degrees and often covered in moguls it certainly gets the adrenal glands working! The fresh tracks accessed from the sides of the trail will appeal to experts. Stay on the left of the mountain and it's often a powder nirvana from the top to the bottom, and all through the day!
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.
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.
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 spaced well and the powder is (very often) all yours!
You are not - repeat not - in Zao Onsen for the nightlife. This is a low-key Japanese resort (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 speakeasy-like joint with no signage, so ask Nick in the office and he'll give you directions.
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.