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Zao Onsen

Tokyo Narita or Sendai Airport
Bullet train to Yamagata City
881

An authentically Japanese hot-spring resort village ... and full of snow monsters!

The choice for those who want to immerse themselves in the Japan ski experience just as you imagined (or hoped?) it would be. Rich in history and famed for its many traditional onsens (hot springs), it’s easy to forget that this is also one of Japan’s largest ski resorts with over forty lifts and gondolas. Zao Onsen has another major draw up its sleeve – Snow Monsters are created high on the mountain each season when the fir trees are covered with ice and then snow, creating something unique, weird and, if truth be told, slightly spooky. 

If you want to go to a Japanese ski resort that is largely devoid of foreigners, then Zao Onsen is the pick of the bunch. You’ll only see a handful of other Westerners; this is a Japanese resort for Japanese people, and therefore a wonderfully authentic and atmospheric experience.

In the evenings, therefore, one does as the Japanese do. This usually involved bathing in the onsens, eating dinner in your hotel and otherwise quiet nights. You are not - repeat not - in Zao Onsen for the nightlife. There are a handful of bars and restaurants in the village, though you need to pluck up the courage to go in - but once you do, it's a very friendly and your novelty assures plenty of interaction with the locals.  It may be hard to find a late night drink in Zao outside of your hotel...although we do know where there's a secret little speakeasy-like joint with no signage, so ask Nick and he'll give you directions.

Zao Onsen

Resort Card

Beginners:
Intermediate:
Advanced:
Snowboarders:
Après Ski:
Families:

Our Opinion

"A ski resort only for Japan aficionados only. You really need to be pretty confident on the ground in Japan as Zao Onsen makes precious few concessions for overseas guests. But if you are onsen savvy, love Japanese food, like to sleep on futons on tatami, can make sense of the world’s most bewildering ski map and really don’t want to share lifts with other foreigners…then you’ll love Zao Onsen as much as we do. Because this is one of for the adventurous independent travellers, we're always reasonably careful about which client we will suggest it to. But if we think it's right for you, chances are you'll absolutely love it in Zao."

Nick Coates Founder
Zao Onsen
38.1705°N 140.4017°E

Skiing & Snowboarding in Zao Onsen

By European standards Zao is a mid-sized ski mountain. Having said that, the longest trail begins up in the land of the snow monsters and then it’s about 10-kilometres down to the base station - the longest single run in Japan. There are 42 lifts including a few ropeways and a gondola. On the whole, it’s best suited to suited to beginners and intermediates and both will be happy for several days. Zao is famed for its excellent quality snow, receiving an annual dump of consistently over 12 metres of luxuriant powder.

Expert & Off Piste

There are only a few black runs, and one or two are fiercely steep. The Yokokura Wall is legendary; at 38 degrees and often covered in moguls it certainly gets the adrenal glands working! The fresh tracks accessed from the sides of the trail will appeal to experts. Stay on the left of the mountain and it's often a powder nirvana from the top to the bottom, and all through the day!

Stay within the resort boundaries and, notwithstanding one or two small roped off areas, the whole mountain is fair game. This gives you plenty of scope to get off the pistes, into the trees and cut loose. And because there are very few others doing the same, it soon becomes the stuff of dreams. The ski mountain and, more pointedly, the trail map can be utterly confusing (certainly not designed with those heading off-piste in mind) and you don't always end up where you think you will - no worries, it will have been epic anyway! Wonderful stashes of untracked powder are to be found everywhere and, up top, skiing amongst the snow monsters is the stuff of Warren Miller movies.

Heading backcountry, outside the resort boundaries, is more difficult. Which is so frustrating, because it's right thereand so obviously brilliant - if only you an English-speaking guide to take you. There are only a handful, and we're not too modest to tell you we know them.

Intermediate

Zao offers up miles-upon-miles of gratifying carving on beautiful pistes, cut through the trees. Many of the runs intertwine, part, join up again, and then drop off to different base area - there are so many ways to get down the mountain. It's a hugely entertaining several days of skiing, although it can be frustrating plotting a route from resort-left to resort-right as it doesn't all quite flow together as neatly as you'd like. But this doesn't spoil the fun - Zao is full of long cruisy runs, a few steeps when you feel like challenging yourself, deep powder off the sides and in the trees and snow monsters to ski between up top.

Novice

This is a ski mountain anyone can enjoy, as there are easy slopes from top to bottom and all well-signposted in English. Grooming is exceptional. However, finding a ski school with English-speaking instructors is more of a challenge, so it may not be the place to come for your very first foray in skis.

Where to stay in Zao Onsen?

The accommodation is dotted throughout the village, a mix of ryokans (Japanese inns) and hotels. That said, most of the 'hotels' are very distinctly Japanese in character with most of the bedrooms featuring tatami floors and futon beds. Every place has its own in-house onsen, an essential part of the experience and, truth be told, the main reason most Japanese visit. The usual routine when you come off the ski mountain is to change in to your cotton yukata (Japanese dressing-gown), head to the onsen for a relaxing soak and then enjoy dinner in your hotel / ryokan. It's an early-to-bed kind of place, no hardship as the ski days on the slopes are just magical!

Hotels & Ryokans

Pleasant, modern ryokan on the edge of the village. Great value.

First Class
Zao Onsen Village

The only ski-in, ski-out option, set just above the village. Homely & friendly.

Medium
Zao Onsen - on the slopes

A 300-year-old inn in the heart of the village, offering luxury & authenticity.

Deluxe
Zao Onsen Village

The budget option is surprisingly pleasant, with onsens, comfortable rooms & decent food.

Budget
Zao Onsen village

The solid choice in Zao; location, comfort, dependable...and very Japanese!

First Class
Zao Onsen village

what to do in Zao Onsen...

Ski guiding is not a 'thing' in Zao as yet...at least, if you want an English-speaking ski guide it's not. However, this is not as much of a hindrance as you may think - simply head out from your nearest base station to your hotel (there are four bases across the village), get on the mountain and be prepared to get lost (the piste map is very confusing, quite unnecessarily so), and stay within the resort boundaries where there are no nasty surprises. Whatever your level, either staying on the wonderful long pistes or diving off the sides and between the trees, it is a hugely enjoyable ski mountain.

 

Off the mountain it's all about the onsens in your hotel or the public onsens in the village itself. Yamagata City is just down in the valley bottom and, as a provincial Japanese centre in a particularly beautiful region, it holds plenty of attraction.

sample itineraries featuring zao onsen

These suggested itineraries will give you a starting point for what your ski holiday to Japan could entail. Sometimes we combine ski resorts and we often cherish the opportunity to explore and experience Japan beyond the ski slopes. We hope these itineraries will inspire, excite and inform you as we begin the planning process. They’re not set departures or tours, as every holiday we plan is completely tailor-made for you - treat them as inspiration only.

Zao'Tastic - Itinerary
Itinerary

Zao'Tastic

A Japanese adventure - ski in Zao Onsen, the most authentic ski resort, and then explore Honshu Isl...

10 days
Zao Onsen - Tokyo - Hakone - Kyoto
Find out more
Ski & Beach - a honeymoon - Itinerary
Itinerary

Ski & Beach - a honeymoon

Powder skiing & tropical beaches - the ultimate itinerary often requested as a honeymoon...

2 weeks
Japanese Ski Resort - Tokyo - Asian Beach
Find out more

Ski Concierge

Different Snow can book your accommodation, get you there from Tokyo (including transfers from Yamagata City) and we can even pre-purchase your lift pass. But that's about it with Zao Onsen - whilst we will equip you with pointers on where, how and why - you are better placed organising everything else locally. This is not because additional services such as ski / snowboard hire and guiding don't exist, it is simply the case that reserving and administrating from afar is unreliable. Best to shop around once you are there and get exactly what you need locally.

Lift Passes
Equipment Hire
Lessons
Getting to and from Zao Onsen
What our customers say

4.5 star rating

Our customers rate us 'Excellent'

I cannot recommend them highly enough

Once in a lifetime trip to Japan and they where fantastic. The itinerary was the most detailed itinerary i have ever seen, they even included things that they had found while living in japan that would not be in the tourist guide books. They kept in contact with me every step of the way. I will definitely use them again.

Nicola  ·  TrustPilot (verified review)

Different Snow - Different Class!

Late last summer we decided on a family ski trip to Japan. It was late notice really but we thought it worth a try. Different Snow somehow managed to put together a great holiday. DS organised all transfers, and provided a brilliant itinerary. We would thoroughly recommend them.

Stuart  ·  TrustPilot (verified review)

Please visit our TrustPilot page to read the full reviews.

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Itinerary

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Deposit

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Travel Pack

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