Zao Onsen3.5 out of 5 based on 9 reviews
  • Recommend
    78%
  • Would Revisit
    67%
Powder Odyssey - chase the powder in Northern Honshu

Zao Onsen Japan
Zao Onsen Japan
Zao Onsen Powder
Zao Onsen Powder
Zao Ski Resort Japan
Zao Ski Resort Japan
Zao Snow Monsters
Zao Snow Monsters
Zao Onsen Japan
Zao Onsen Japan
The Zao Onsen village is somewhat spread out
The Zao Onsen village is somewhat spread out
Most of the Zao hotels and ryokans have an onsen
Most of the Zao hotels and ryokans have an onsen
Zao Ski Resort
Zao Ski Resort
Zao Onsen Ski Resort Japan
Zao Onsen Ski Resort Japan
Zao Onsen Ski Resort
Zao Onsen Ski Resort
Some of the Zao accommodation is ski-in ski-out
Some of the Zao accommodation is ski-in ski-out
The famous Zao snow monster run
The famous Zao snow monster run
Zao Japan
Zao Japan
Zao Onsen Snow Monsters - Popular With Tourists!
Zao Onsen Snow Monsters - Popular With Tourists!
Zao snow monsters are at their best from mid Jan to late Feb
Zao snow monsters are at their best from mid Jan to late Feb
Zao Onsen
Zao Onsen
Challenging Tree Skiing at the Top!
Challenging Tree Skiing at the Top!
Zao Japan
Zao Japan
Zao Onsen
Zao Onsen
Powder skiing Zao Onsen
Powder skiing Zao Onsen

Zao Onsen

Zao Ski Resort Japan

The word “Zao” in the Serbo-Croatian language means “evil”, and in the James Bond movie “Die Another Day”, Zao is a North Korean villain who becomes Bond’s arch-nemesis. Yet when it comes to Zao Onsen Ski Resort in Japan there’s nothing evil, although the renowned Zao snow monsters could be described as a little creepy. The famous Zao snow monsters (aka Juhyo or snow ghosts) are fir trees clumped with ice and snow as a result of the bitter Siberian winds – the bizarre shapes they take on are probably more spectacular than spooky.

Zao Onsen Japan is not just well known for the snow monsters and the Zao ski resort, but also as an onsen resort town. The distinctive smell of sulphur throughout the town highlights the presence of the many hot springs. Onsens can be found in many of the ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) and there are also public bathhouses and open air hot springs (rotenburo). The therapeutic waters are a great place to soak weary muscles.

Zao Ski Resort Terrain

Zao Onsen ski resort is medium sized (305 hectares) with an impressive vertical drop of 881 metres and a 10km run that is likely to build up lots of lactic acid in the legs. The Zao ski resort has 42 lifts including a few ropeways and a gondola, yet even with that many lifts the layout is not particularly ideal and some poling or skating may be required in places.

The below tree-line terrain is reasonably mellow and very well suited to beginners and intermediates. Only twenty percent of the piste at the Zao ski resort is rated as black, but in reality it seems much less than that.

Going off-piste into the trees to find powder is somewhat discouraged but not heavily policed, particularly if you camouflage yourself as a snow monster! Actually the Zao ski patrollers seem to turn a blind eye and one of the advantages of Zao Onsen Japan is that there aren’t many powder hounds around to leave their dirty paw prints on the slopes, so freshies generally abound on weekdays.

Where is Zao Onsen Japan?

Zao Onsen ski resort is located in the northeastern Tohoku region of Japan in the Yamagata Prefecture, about 400km north of Tokyo. The Yamagata Shinkansen train takes about 2.5 hours from Tokyo to Yamagata Station, and then a 40 minute bus ride to the Zao Hot Springs Resort is required. More information is available on the travel to Zao Japan page.

Zao Onsen Accommodation

The Zao Onsen village that sits at the base of the ski area is not a purpose built ski town, so thankfully it’s retained the charm of a traditional Japanese onsen village.

Zao Onsen accommodation options include Western style hotels, deluxe ryokans (Japanese inns with rooms where you sleep on the floor on futons), simple ryokans, and more economical pensions. Many of the Zao accommodations have their own onsens.

Zao Ski Resort Facilities

Zao Onsen has various facilities for skiing and snowboarding including equipment rental shops, although some of the shops have limited gear for big sizes or rent out ski gear from the 80s! Ski lessons in English are only available in a private format.

Despite the abundance of beginner terrain, Zao Onsen is not particularly well set up for families with small children, particularly in comparison to nearby resorts such as Appi Kogen.

Activities

The main après ski activity is related to the onsens. A therapeutic soak in the Zao hot springs after a day of ripping it up is hard to beat.

Once you’ve turned yourself into a dehydrated prune you can then head to one of the sedate Japanese bars or truly get into the Japanese culture with some karaoke. More vibrant nightlife can be found in nearby Yamagata City.

A popular evening activity is to ride the ropeways up to the top of the mountain to view the illuminated Zao snow monsters.

Summary of Pros and Cons of Zao Onsen

Pros
  • Combined with the delightful lack of towering monstrosity hotels, Zao Onsen offers a traditional Japanese vibe, lots of onsens (with beautifying water!), and a delightful cultural experience.
  • If you want to go to a Japanese ski resort that is largely devoid of Australians, the Zao ski resort is generally a good pick. Apart from a handful of Westerners, Koreans and Chinese, the major tourist trade is that of a domestic market.
  • Whilst the Zao ski resort can be reasonably busy on weekends, the resort is practically deserted on weekdays, and with few people venturing off-piste there are lots of opportunities to get some Zao pow!
  • The ski resort has excellent intermediate terrain and it’s pretty good for beginners too.
  • It's a decent sized by Japanese standards so there’s enough terrain to keep skiers and snowboarders entertained for a multi-day trip.
  • When the sun does come out, the views of the peaks, the fascinating snow monsters, and the other trees are just gorgeous.
  • There is a reasonable choice of ski in ski out accommodation at Zao Onsen, and unlike most other ski resorts, the ski-in ski-out lodging is not just for those on a deluxe budget.
Cons
  • Zao is very proud of the unique weather phenomenon that creates the juhyo (snow monsters) in the form of big snow, frozen rain and blasting winds. During the peak of winter the weather can be disgusting (unless you’re a storm chaser!) and fine days are a bit of a rarity.
  • The various areas of Zao ski resort are owned by different lift companies, and it can be a little clunky to get between them, which some snowboarders may not like.
Pro or Con Depending On Your Perspective
  • The nightlife is pretty quiet at Zao Onsen, although this is the case at all of the Japanese ski resorts (except the ones that have become westernised).
  • English is not widely spoken, but enough to get by, and you know you’re at a “real” Japanese ski resort.
  • There is nothing for those looking for Zao accommodation at the extreme ends of the budget continuum (budget or luxury 5 star), and no self-contained accommodation (e.g. apartments), as this is a western concept.
  • Somewhat unique for a Japanese ski resort, group snowboard lessons are offered with an English speaking instructor for ages 8 and up. Ski lessons with an English speaking instructor are only held in a private format (so it is charged at a premium).

Tours That May Include Zao Onsen

Safari (Road Trip) Tours
Powder Odyssey DETAILS
GUIDED SAFARI - TOHOKU
7 Nights | 6 Days Guided Skiing
From price based on twin/double-share option.
Base/invoice currency is in AUD inc taxes.
*Displayed price may vary due to currency fluctuations.
Price p/p
USD 1,888
Ability: Strong Intermediate to Expert
If you are looking to go off-the-beaten track in Tohoku (northeastern Honshu) where there are abundant lines of fresh powder and no foreigners, this tour is perfect! Visit Tohoku ski areas you've probably never heard of before and immerse yourself in the Japanese culture.
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Tohoku Powder Tour DETAILS
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK ROAD TRIP
Customisable Guided Tohoku Tour
From price based on twin/double-share option.
Base/invoice currency is in AUD inc taxes.
*Displayed price may vary due to currency fluctuations.
Price p/p
Enquire Enquire
Ability: Advanced to Expert
Tohoku skiing and snowboarding is all about heading to ski resorts that most people have never heard of, where there are freshies galore in the off-piste areas. With this Tohoku ski tour you can work with the guides to customise your own private powder adventure.
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Hokkaido - Honshu Expedition DETAILS
HOKKAIDO & HONSHU GUIDED BC TOUR
12 Nights | 11 Guided Ski Days
From price based on twin/triple-share.
Base/invoice currency is in JPY inc taxes.
*Displayed price may vary due to currency fluctuations.
Price p/p
USD 4,086
10% off advertised price. Must book via Powderhounds.com and pay deposit by June 15th 2017.
Ability: Advanced to Expert
This ADVANCED+ ski and snowboard tour starts with 4 days in the Southwest of Hokkaido and then heads south to Honshu where you will ski or ride some of Tohoku's epic hidden gems. The tour includes some ski touring / split boarding (or snow shoeing) but you don't necessarily need to have any experience in this area.
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See all Safari (Road Trip) tours that visit Zao Onsen here

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