Zao Onsen Skiing Terrain

Zao Onsen Skiing Terrain

Our Terrain Ratings

Powderhound rating = advanced/expert terrain + powder + freshies + uncrowded

Our Terrain Ratings

Powderhound rating = advanced/expert terrain + powder + freshies + uncrowded

  • Vertical (m)
    780 – 1,661 (881)
  • Average Snow Fall
    ?12  metres
  • Lifts (42)
    1  gondola
    3 ropeways
    5 quad chairs
  • Ski Hours
    8:30am - 9:00pm
    early Dec - early May
  • Terrain Summary
    Runs – 27
    Longest run – 10 km
    Beginner - 40%
    Intermediate - 40%
    Advanced - 20%

Zao Onsen Ski and Snowboard Terrain

Zao Onsen Ski Resort is largely mellow. The Zao ski terrain is most suited to high end beginners and intermediates. Steep fall line runs are not particularly common and there are only a few black on-piste runs.

Zao Japan is a medium to large ski resort by Japanese standards at 305 hectares, and because the Zao Onsen ski resort is really spread out, it takes a good couple of days to fully explore the whole area. There are two distinct sides to the Zao Onsen ski resort and the transition between the two sides is very clunky, so until you’re adequately oriented it may be easier just to stick to one side or the other. Particularly around the Paradise area where various lifts converge, navigation can be a little tricky, and in general the lift layout is dreadful.

Zao Ski Season

The Zao Onsen ski season generally goes from early December (or late November) until early May. The long season is thanks to abundant snowfall, and the top being at a high elevation.

See the when to ski in Japan page for general tips on when to visit. As with other Japanese ski resorts, January and early February is best for chasing the powder at Zao Japan, and is also when the weather is likely to be the foulest! And if you’re keen to visit the Zao snow monsters, late January and February is the best time to see the trees in all their glory.


Zao Japan has a huge number of lifts considering the size of the resort. The lifts are owned by nine different lift companies who generate revenue based on how many times you ride their particular lifts. They want you to stay on their lifts so negligible planning has gone into the integration of the areas. Commonly you have to travel uphill to transit between zones. Eat all the chocolate macadamias you desire because you’ll burn off plenty of calories skating, poling and walking, especially if there is fresh powder!

The quality of the lifts varies significantly. The Omori area has high speed quad chair status, and the Zao Sky Cable gondola is really good. At the other end of the spectrum are lots of dinky double chairs that are sluggish, and the chair lifts in the Diamond and Chuo areas are painfully slow (unless you’re in desperate need of some rest). The ropeways are also not particularly fast. The Zao Ropeway Sanrokusen looks like something James Bond would have ridden in the 1960s and the ropeway up to the snow ghosts is also really slow, which is probably nice for the many pedestrian tourists who are oohing and ahhhing at the snow monsters.

These two ropeways commonly have lift queues, in part because of the snow monster tourists. Other lifts can also experience short lines on the weekends.

Two areas at the lower elevations of the resort have night skiing, the Yokokura and Uwanodai slopes.

Lift Tickets

All lift tickets are an electronic chip for which a deposit is required. Lift ticket prices are towards the high end relative to other Japanese ski resorts, and they come in a huge range of configurations. Some hotels provide discount vouchers for lift tickets.

Like elsewhere in Japan, there is no financial advantage to pre-purchasing lift tickets.

Zao Snow and Weather

Although not officially cited, Zao Onsen receives about 12 metres of snow fall on average per season.

Whilst Zao has quantity of snow covered, the Zao snow quality can vary somewhat. The area has cold temps and the top of the Zao Onsen ski resort is at a high elevation which aids snow quality, although many of the slopes have a westerly orientation and not many slopes face north.

We’ve experienced a couple of very different powder days. One day the snow was wet and claggy like a sticky rice ball, which sort of makes sense when you know that the Zao snow monsters thrive on frozen rain and other yucky types of snow. Yet on another powder day, the snow was deliciously dry!

In the height of winter be prepared for any type of weather. All of that bountiful snow doesn’t come from blue skies, and you could easily score blizzard conditions, frigid temperatures and low visibility.

Ski Zao Japan - for the Beginner

The Zao Onsen ski resort has a huge amount of beginner terrain, but lots of it is dark green. Hardy kids seem to cope with the popular yet steep green runs near the base areas of the Uwanodai and Nakamori slopes, whilst adult novices may freak out a little!

The mellowest runs are in the upper reaches of the resort. Novices should catch the Zao Sky Cable or the Zao Chuo Ropeway up to the Diamond or Chuo areas and download at the end of the day.

Beginners should keep a close eye on the trail map because the signposting is not always obvious as to whether you’re about to go down a green, red or black run!

Zao Skiing - Intermediate

Zao is incredibly well suited to intermediate skiers and boarders. Forty percent of the piste trails are rated as red, and many of the green runs would also be fine for apprehensive intermediates. If it weren’t for the unwieldy transitions between areas, we’d give the Zao Onsen ski resort full marks for the intermediate terrain.

The most famous red run at Zao Japan is the Juhyogen Course that travels between the snow monsters. It starts at Jizo Sancho Station on the peak of Mt Zao – just take care of the gapers attempting to ski and take photos on the way down! If you want some awesome thigh burn you can continue all the way down to the Omori slope at the base of the ski resort.

Terrain Park

Zao ski resort has a small terrain park for kids so you definitely don’t go to Zao to ride the park. If you’re a keen shredder you’ll need to take a shovel and build your own features.

Advanced and Expert Skiing Zao

A Zao rite of passage is to ride the Yokokura no Kabe (ie Yokokura wall) piste. It’s not really steep enough to be called a wall, but at a maximum of 38 degrees it might get the pits a bit sweaty, especially if the run is covered in nipple high moguls. Other than that, black piste runs are a bit of a rarity at Zao, so most advanced and expert riders will hit the off-piste areas to sniff out some Zao pow.

Zao Off-Piste Skiing and Boarding

Off piste skiing at Zao Onsen seems to be tolerated by the patrollers. There are some fences in places that send a reasonably strong message, but if you interpret the fences as being there for wind purposes, then the off-piste is yours for the taking! Typically the resort needs a base of more than 2 metres before you’d consider tackling the off-piste.

Possibly because of its reputation for being a resort for beginners and intermediates, Zao Onsen doesn’t seem to attract many powder hounds. The resort has some limitations but the upside is that especially on weekdays, the place is almost deserted. Zao scores 5 out of 5 from us regarding the likelihood of finding lunchtime freshies!

Zao has a myriad of great off-piste lines, although it’s not the easiest of resorts to self-navigate to find the best spots. Just for the kudos you could try to pick a line through the snow monsters, but the snow quality here may be dodgy, and icy deep tree wells can be a bit hairy! Better powder can be found lower down amongst the steep trees either side of the 38 degree run, and other steep lines can be found off and under the Zao Chuo cable car. Steep lines and chutes can be found to skiers’ right of the snow monsters. More mellow powder lines can be snorted in the Paradise trees or the Kurohime area.