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Zao Onsen offers an authentic Japanese experience to travellers, with traditional ryokans, small hotels and beautiful onsen all making this a unique place to visit in Japan. The onsen are one of the reasons many people come, and the other is the large range of skiing and snowboarding options, with nine different ski areas, 42 lifts and 741 acres of snow to enjoy. Located in a spectacular mountainous area, visitors are also treated to stunning views and fantastic scenery. This also means that it’s worth visiting throughout the warmer months, too, with hiking tours and fantastic greenery to be enjoyed.
The small size of Zao means that almost everything is within walking distance, including the slopes and public onsen. Although most of the hotels have private onsens for guests to use, the public onsen offer a traditional experience and a beautiful environment to relax in. All of the hotels and ryokans, while small, will offer services for skiers and snowboarders, such as complimentary shuttles, drying services and delicious hearty meals to energise you. There isn’t much nightlife in Zao, but there is some delicious food well worth trying as well as a great range of more traditional Japanese restaurants that will be memorable for all guests.
The ski resort itself contains plenty of different terrain to keep skiers and snowboarders of all levels diverse and interesting. The steepest run is the Yokokura Wall at 38 degrees, and the longest is 10 kilometres long, and there are plenty of ski schools throughout the area for beginners. There are also nice base areas in which to practice, protected from wind and harsh weather. For the more experienced, back country runs are also available with guides and there are plenty of more exciting opportunities available to those who seek them out.
One of Zao’s largest attractions is the field of ‘Snow Monsters,’ frozen fir trees located at the top of the mountain, which can be toured in the evening, the town uses beautiful lights to create stunning visual patterns across the fields. There’s also the Festival of Fire and Ice that happens yearly, celebrating with flames and torches and – of course – fireworks. The date changes yearly, but is generally held in the month of January. The location of Zao also makes it a great spot to do some day trips in an out of town, such as to Yamadera Temple, Yamagata City or Sendai City, and the nearby mountains make for great hiking trips during the warmer months – all of this makes Zao a spot to visit any time of the year.
Like most of the resort, the accommodation options here are largely steeped in tradition, with guests having a large range of traditional Japanese ryokans and simple pensions. There are also a handful of larger hotels with western-style rooms, and western food is available at some of the restaurants, but be prepared to sleep on tatami futon bedding and enjoy some delicious Japanese food should you pay a visit.
The hotels and ryokans on the right side of Zao have easiest access to the slopes, but the left side caters to a more aesthetic crowd with stunning traditional designs and architecture you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere. Almost all of the ryokans and hotels offer stunning onsen free for guest use, too. As the resort is quite spread out, a lot of places will offer shuttle buses or transport services, and this can be a great help getting around in the snowy weather.