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
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
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
- 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.
Pro or Con Depending On Your Perspective
- 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.
- 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