Zao Onsen is a small town located in Yamagata prefecture, Tohoku, close to the main hub of Yamagata city.
The village attracts visitors throughout the whole year, but in winter, during the skiing season that goes from November to March, the area becomes really magical.
Zao Onsen: One of the Best Skiing Destinations in Japan
Being one of the most famous skiing resorts in the whole country with its stunning nature and extensive skiing course, Zao attracts both skiing and snowboarding aficionados as well as snow and mountain lovers from all over Japan and abroad.
Zao Onsen Climate and Weather
Zao Onsen is located at an altitude of 880 meters, with temperatures that can go as low as -10 degrees in winter. The weather can change very quickly, as it frequently happens in the mountains, and snow blizzards can start unexpectedly, especially during December and January.
Skiing Facilities and Skiing Courses
With 31 lifts and 300 hectares of skiable terrain, Zao Onsen ski resort offers a wide range of courses for skiers and snowboarders who have just started to those more experienced looking for the more challenging slopes.
The courses are easily accessible from the center of Zao Onsen, and most of the lifts going up are a short walking distance from one another.
The intermediate Juhyogen Course is the longest one in the area, around 10 km long.
The daily pass to take unlimited lifts and gondolas all day long costs 5,500 yen per day, but you can get a small discount if you purchase a multiple-day pass. Be aware that lifts start running at around 9 AM and the last lift up, which varies depending on the lift, is usually right before sunset at around 4.30 PM.
If you feel like you still have energy in the tank for the day, you should definitely consider spending an extra 2,500 yen to experience the “nighter,” how it’s called in Japanese, to ski under the starry sky.
If you just want to go straight to a warm hot tub, make sure to check when the last lift is, especially if you want to avoid getting stuck on the other side of the mountain.
I recommend purchasing the additional ticket, especially on a be sunny day; from the slopes, the golden hour offers some breathtaking pink-tinted views perfect for any Instagram feed.
The best point about Zao’s slopes is that every course has an easier alternative for beginners who don’t want to dig into the more advanced courses yet. And it’s ideal for groups of people with different skiing and snowboarding levels who still want to spend the day skiing together.
Lockers and Rental
If you don’t have your own gear, you can grab some at rental shops scattered around town. Great rental shops include Best Rental Pro Shop, which also offers an English and Chinese website, and Jupeer, located right at the bottom of one of the main courses.
If you are a woman, definitely consider booking your gear in advance at Swallow Rental, where you can redeem a ladies discount that will get you boots, skis, and sticks for as low as 2,000 yen per day. The gear is a little rusty but with some wax, you will slide down with no problem.
Lockers are also conveniently located at the bottom of two of the main lifts, as are gondola areas where you can store your backpacks and bigger pieces of luggage for the day, for a mere 500 yen per locker.
How to Get to Zao Onsen Ski Resort
While a car is ideal for moving around, Zao’s snow and ice make driving challenging. The town is easily accessible by bus from Shinjuku bus terminal. The JR Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo station will get you to Yamagata city, and from there Zao onsen is just a 40 minutes bus ride away.
Pack warm clothes, gloves, and hat, some extra “kairo” and you are ready to immerse in one of the best skiing destinations in Japan.
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