Winter Wonderland: What To Do In Zao Onsen | Guidable - Your Guide to a Sustainable, Wellbeing-centred Life in Japan
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Winter Wonderland: What To Do In Zao Onsen

By Margherita Feb 2, 2022

Zao Onsen in the heart of Yamagata prefecture is the perfect winter getaway for those who love being in the mountains in winter.

While Zao is one of the destinations of choice for skiers and snowboarders alike thanks to the variety of courses and ski facilities, it is also very popular among mountain lovers both in winter and in the summer.

Zao Onsen’s Main Attraction: Witness the Snow Monsters

In the Zao subalpine region, the mountains are covered with an evergreen conifer native to the north-central mountainous regions of Honshu that is hardy enough to withstand both the region’s hot summers and freezing winters.

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From late December to mid-March, Siberian winds cross the northern Sea of Japan and reach the western Yamagata Plains. These icy winds drop the snow from the trees onto the ground, where it accumulates and freezes in strange shapes and combinations giving rise to the phenomenon of “juhyo” (樹氷). This term literally means “ice-covered trees,” and refers to these towering surreal oddities of snow and ice, hence the English nickname of “snow monster.”

The snow monsters are one of the main attractions of the area and you can admire them from the top of Jizo mountain, accessible to skiers and non-skiers ​​via the Zao Ropeway Sanrokusen and then using the Zao Ropeway Sanchosen.

A popular activity from January to March is heading up to the top to take part in the evening illumination event. The light makes the atmosphere even more evocative –  like something straight out of a fairytale.

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Yamagata Top Winter Comfort Food 

Yamagata is also a spot where foodies will not be disappointed.

In particular, in Zao Onsen you should definitely try the local konnyaku. Konnyaku comes from a plant that belongs to the yam and taro family and in Yamagata is traditionally eaten in the form of tama konnyaku, in which small ball-shaped konnyaku is boiled and then smothered in a sweet and savory sauce.

This food by itself, which is grey with a jelly-like texture, doesn’t look particularly appealing but is never good to judge by appearances, right?

Jingisukan (ジンギスカン Ghengis Khan) is another dish typical of Yamagata. Even though this dish is most popular in Hokkaido, it also has a long tradition in Yamagata prefecture where many restaurants serve it as a local specialty. The main protagonist of this dish is mutton meat which is grilled with vegetables on a traditional metal skillet.

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Soak up in a Sulphuric Onsen

There is no better way to end up a day in the mountains than by resting ad warming up the body in a cozy onsen.

Zao is home to sulphuric hot spring water that is particularly acidic. The plethora of onsen scattered around town is also one of the reasons the area is so popular during winter.

Small public bathhouses are ideal for a quick dip since the facilities are also very basic. If you want to spend more time in the hot water and enjoy an outdoor bath, try one of the onsen that belong to a ryokan, a Japanese-style inn. Soap and shampoo are provided, but it is recommended to bring additional toiletries and larger towels.

Temperature Down, Layers Up 

One of the secrets of the perfect mountain outfit is layers!

This is important, especially if you are not planning to ski, but you just want to enjoy the snow and go on some light walks at the peak of the mountain, remember to bring with you lightweight, comfortable and warm clothes since the temperature can easily fall to -10 degrees – or even less.

snow monsters, zao onsen, yamagata, japan

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Layer up and don’t forget a hat, sunglasses and a pair of waterproof gloves!

If you want to give skiing a chance, check out our article about skiing there and discover why Zao Onsen is also a favourite among skiers and snowboarders!

Whether you’re skiing or not, do not miss out on Zao Onsen, one of the most fairytale-like locations in the whole of Japan!

For More Related Articles:

Zao Onsen: Get your Ski Fix in Yamagata this Winter

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