Visiting Zao ski resort was such a breath-taking experience. Not only did it bring me joy, but also many surprises! Arriving at the site I was amazed by the super thick snow covering the whole of the resort. It looked like a scene from an anime set in winter such as ‘Frozen’, ‘Kyoukai no Kanata’, ‘Naruto the Movie: Ninja Clash in the Land of Snow’ etc. Looking at the roofs of buildings covered by almost one hundred inches of thick snow and walking along the roads of pure white were such fabulously awesome sights that if made me forget that the temperature was actually down to minus degrees! A two-day visit to this scenic ‘frozen’ place felt like living a world of fantasy.
Having fun at Zao-Onsen ski resort was indeed a wish come true! Visiting this place, I felt a sense of completion, as it means another check marked on my ‘’must-visit places in Japan’’ wish list. This is the place that will turn the feeling of being ‘’unbearably cold’’ into something to rejoice. Believe me!
Zao is the name of a mountain that stretches from North to South, bordering two prefectures: Miyagi and Yamagata, in the Tohoku region, Japan. On this mountain, there are many ski resorts and onsen (hot spring). The part of Zao I visited was Zao-Onsen Ski Resort in Yamagata. It is just 45 minutes from Yamagata Station by bus. This resort is not only well-known for skiing, but also its iconic Snow Monster Light up Festival or ‘Juhyo Illumination’, and outdoor onsen (Hot spring). Outdoor hot spring is open all year, while the ski resort and Snow Monster Light Up festival are only open during winter – late December until the beginning of March.
Arriving in Zao-Onsen at 12.30 in the afternoon, I immediately headed to the hotel where I would spend the night: Hotel Matsukaneya Annex. With traditionally designed Japanese-style rooms, outdoor Onsen (hot spring), excellent service and a ‘friendly’ price, it was an easy choice! Booking online is highly recommended as (apart from its convenience) it also often offers an online discount. You can book in advance and pay the bill when you check in or check out.
Thrilling experiences at Zao Ski Resort
The first thing to strike is enjoying the ‘Snow Monster Light Up Festival’. Snow Monster or what the Japanese call ‘Juhyo’ are a unique icon of this resort for winter tourism. Many tourists (both domestic and international) were flocking to see the Snow Monster Light Up Festival on the night that I was there. The Snow Monsters themselves are actually located close to the top of the mountain of Zao. To get there, visitors have to take Ropeway/Cable car. The ticket for the ropeway (¥2600) is available from both the Ropeway Station and the hotel. I purchased the ticket in the hotel where I stayed as it also offered a shuttle service to the station by a car for free.
It was not first time I rode a cable car, yet it was really thrilling to try this one! Getting to the top cable car itself took 20 minutes. Finally I hit the peak of Zao mountain where I was confronted with a forest of magnificent ‘Monsters’ with such an awe-striking look. Seeing the Snow Monsters in illumination was something jaw-dropping. Even now, it cannot fade away from my memory. The temperature on the spot dropped to some -10 degree celsius. However, the thrilling experience of seeing the Snow Monster Light Up Festival was a sufficient distraction from the cold. I had seen such Snow Monsters in anime movies when I was child. This time I could see how they really existed with my bare eyes – it was so wonderful! I felt like I was living in a fantasy world.
Relax in the hot-spring
The following morning, I took a bath in outdoor hot-spring. Hot spring baths are scientifically proven to be good for your body. Besides relieving muscle tension, they also contain minerals which are good for your physical well-being, especially your skin. Looking at the white of snow outside and feeling the warm of the water was a truly therapeutic sensation.
Food for everyone
Finding good food is sometimes a problem for travelers who have dietary restrictions. However, at Zao-Onsen it is possible to find tasty food which is friendly for those with dietary restrictions like Moslems or vegetarians. There are so many restaurants in the vicinity! I managed to taste Tuna Spagetti (¥950) in a Turkish Food Restaurant which was located just a few meters from the Ropeway station. The prices of food there are pretty affordable too!
How to get there
Zao ski resort is easily accessible. Pro-tip: For travelers from abroad, I recommend buying a JR Pass as it is both convenient and economical.
As I am living in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, I jumped on a train from Sendai to Yamagata, taking just 1 hour 15 minutes (¥1140 for one way). At Yamagata Station a bus to Zao-Onsen is departs from bus stop number 1, from 6 o’clock in the morning until around 8 o’clock in the evening. The bus fare itself costs each passenger just ¥1000.
When traveling to Yamagata from Tokyo, there are at least two modes of transportation, train and bus.
From Tokyo Station, you can take the Akita Shinkansen or Tohoku Shinkansen to Sendai for ¥11,930, one way. The trip by Shinkanshen itself only takes 1 hour 35 minutes. From Sendai station, you can continue the trip by local train (JR) to Yamagata station.
The second mode of transportation is bus. From Shinjuku station in Tokyo, you can purchase a bus ticket either online or by paying cash. The ticket fare ranges from ¥6,500 up to ¥8000 for one way.
Other useful links:
Bus Ticket and Bus Pass: https://japanbusonline.com/CourseDetail/index/10402880001
Booking Hotel: www.booking .com