Zao Onsen in Winter
Mount Zao (蔵王山), just forty minutes outside of Yamagata City and rising over 1,700 meters on the border between the Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures, is not only one of the region’s most revered and sacred power spots, but also a popular destination year around for outdoor activities. While from spring to autumn, visitors enjoy a variety of trekking and sight-seeing opportunities, from December to April Zao becomes one of Tohoku’s premier winter sports destinations. Heavy, continuous snowfall transforms the area into a winter wonderland that is also famous for its juhyou, or “snow monsters”. From the highest station at 1,661 meters, skiers and snow trekkers get to share the slopes with these silent, surreal giants.
Apart from thrills on the hill and jaw-dropping scenery, on other thing brings droves of national and international visitors to the mountain each year: Zao has got some of the finest onsen (natural hot springs) in all of Japan.
From Yamagata City, you’ll pass beneath the massive vermillion torii, signaling that you have begun your assent toward hallowed ground. Quaint, countryside farmhouses and terraced, snow-covered rice fields stream by as you gain elevation. Zao Onsen ski resort offers numerous courses and slopes that accommodate a variety of levels of ski or snowboard experience. Additionally, three ropeways and a gondola (Zao Sky Cable), as well as innumerable lifts take you up the mountain from the village. You’ll also find plenty of amenities, from ski schools, to rental shops, restaurants, bars, and lodges in town to make for a comfortable overnight or multi-day stay. Lift and ropeway tickets can be purchased at any station, and area maps can be picked up at the Information Center at the Onsen Bus Terminal in the center of town, or back in Yamagata at the Prefectural Tourism Office.
The two ropeways (the Zao Chuo Ropeway and Zao Ropeway Sanrokusen), as well as the Zao Sky Cable make a quick assent of the mountain, and whether or not you’re into winter sports, the ride alone is worth the trip. The ropeways provide epic, sometimes otherworldy views out across the valley and down into the frozen forest below. On a particularly frosty day, the ropeway towers themselves look as if they were made of ice. Clear sunny days are a skier’s paradise, though windy, white-out days also dazzle the imagination.
Mt. Zao is actually an active volcano whose thermal activities have bestowed the area with hot springs that are considered legendary, in part because they are also some of the most acidic. On the main road, between the bus terminal and the Zao Chuo Ropeway station you’ll cross several small rivers pluming with steam, and a faint, sulfuric scent hangs in the otherwise freezing winter air.
Whether for the sports, scenery, onsen, or just wanting to get away from the teeming tourist crowds down south, Zao Onsen is the gateway to your winter escape.
The garden also features a bamboo forest
Zao Onsen is a 30-40 minute drive by car from Yamagata City, and roads are maintained throughout winter. You can also take a bus from Yamagata Station.
Lift passes can be purchased at any of the ropeway or cable car stations and can be purchased from 2 to 4 hours (￥3,000 and ￥4,000 respectively), as well as for the full day (￥5,000). You can also purchase passes for durations of 2, 3, 4, and 10 days (10 day passes don’t need to be used on consecutive days), and for the full season.