Zao Onsen Activities & Tours

Wagner Custome Skis

Zao Onsen Activities

Drop into the Zao Tourist Information Centre which is a few doors up from the bus terminal. They can provide maps and brochures for the area, and they speak English so they can help with any queries about Zao activities.

Zao Snow Monsters

Many Japanese flock to Zao Onsen during winter, not to ski or snowboard, but to see the rime encrusted snow monsters (Juhyo). Zao is one of the few places in Japan where this phenomenon occurs whereby the fir trees become caked in snow and frozen rain. Due to the unique combinations of weather patterns, water droplets become super-cooled within the clouds but don’t freeze, even though it’s colder than zero degrees. These droplets are mixed with snow and are blasted by the wind onto the trees, so they take on bizarre shapes.

During December and January the trees start to form “shrimp tails”, and prime snow monster season is late January to early March when the trees really take on unusual and eerie forms. Non-skiers can reach the Zao snow monsters area at the top of the mountain by taking the Zao Ropeway Sanrokusen and then the Zao Ropeway Sanchosen.

A popular evening activity is to head up there for the Zao snow monster illumination. The ghostly trees are lit up with multi-coloured lights which make them look even more surreal. The snow monster illumination is on every night in late January and February, but in other parts of the season it’s only on Monday nights and weekends. Double check with the tourist office regarding the schedule.

Zao Hot Springs

First and foremost Zao was an onsen (hot spring) resort town, so it’s not surprising that lots of non-skiing tourists also come to Zao for the onsens. However if you have been out skiing or snowboarding, a soak in an onsen to remedy fatigued muscles is particularly superb.

Zao Onsen is one of the oldest hot springs in Japan with a long and revered history. The hot springs are said to cure all sorts of ailments and injuries including digestive disorders and women’s problems! The water supposedly cures skin conditions and makes you gorgeous too, hence why it’s sometimes called the “Springs of Beauty”. I soaked in a few of the onsens at Zao and I’m not sure about this one!

Zao has three public baths and four rotenburo (open air springs), one of which is closed during winter. There are also a few foot baths which are divine after a day skiing, but the floaty bits in the water are rather suspicious! Many of the Zao hotels and ryokans also have their own onsens if you don’t want to venture outside in your yukata (cotton kimono). These range from exquisite and elaborate hot spring baths at the deluxe hotels/ryokans to very simple indoor baths at the inexpensive lodgings.

See our Japanese onsen page for tips on etiquette when using an onsen. And unlike some photos you may see from the Zao tourist centre (where girls wear a towel in the onsen), you definitely don’t wear your towel in the hot spring! And the Zao water is generally milky white and strongly acidic, so take off any jewellery as it may discolour.

Other Leisure Activities

Wander up to the top of the steps above the main tourist street to check out the onsen shrine. You can go there to pray that the onsen water will make you look beautiful!

Sightseeing near Zao

There are a few culturally interesting sightseeing trips near Zao Onsen, which is fantastic for non-skiers in the group or if you want a rest day from the slopes.

Yamadera Temple (officially called Risshakuji Temple) is a fabulous looking mountain temple which is a major tourist attraction and spiritual site in Tohoku. It was founded in the year 860 by the monk Ennin. The temple is gorgeous and the views spectacular, but you’ll have to ascend and descend 1050 steps for your reward. So much for the rest day! To get there, catch the bus from Zao Onsen back to Yamagata Station (40 minutes) then catch the train on the JR Senzan line to Yamadera Station (20 minutes).

Warabenosato Gallery is the relocated residence of Emperor Meiji when he visited the area. The gallery includes the 200 year old home with displays of arts and crafts from that era, as well as a traditional rice warehouse. It’s only ten minutes by bus from the Zao Onsen bus terminal.

Another option is to head to Yamagata for a dinner show of the maiko (geisha) performance arts.
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