‘Tis the season to frolic in the snow. All too often, though, the reality of skiing and snowboarding in Japan is a dash of powder, a hint of nature—and throngs of people. Most of your day is spent in endless lift lines, much like a trip to Disneyland, but colder. The key is to find a winter wonderland big enough to handle all these people, and then some. Zao is just such a place, with fantastic skiing, unique scenery and plenty of warm water to soak in afterward.
Located less than four hours from Tokyo in the south part of Yamagata Prefecture, Zao (whose name roughly translates as “keeper of royal treasures”) enjoys the distinction of being one of the first ski resorts in Japan. Beginning operations in the 1920s, it is now among the largest and most revered resorts in the entire country.
What initially sets Zao apart from other ski areas is its sheer size. Four gondolas and 38 lifts shuttle you up the slopes, and you can ski a 10km run that descends 880 vertical meters.
But the most renowned feature of Zao is the famed jyuhyo snow monsters. These looming white monoliths that stand at attention in the upper reaches of the mountain are actually trees that have been covered with snow—but it’s not hard to let the imagination run wild. In the lower elevations, a few bushy green limbs sometimes give away the trees’ identities, but at the summit they are completely sealed in snow and ice. This phenomenon occurs when blowing snow is quickly frozen by powerful Siberian winds, “cementing” it to the branches of the trees. The snow monsters rank among Japan’s most recognizable natural features, but you don’t have to be a skier to enjoy them. Just take the gondola all the way to the top of Mt. Jizo, where you can walk around these glacial beasts, then take the warm cable car back down the mountain and leave the powder-hunting duties to others.
Zao is dotted with rest areas and restaurants where you can warm yourself up with everything from curry rice to haute cuisine. One delightful treat is to stay at a hotel in the Paradise Slope area that’s perched literally three-quarters of the way up the mountain. The service is basic and a bit pricey, but you can’t beat the convenience—imagine arriving at your hotel for the night on skis. The nighttime ski lights bathe the mountain in an almost surreal glaze, resembling a giant, white Christmas tree.
Zao village is a fun place to look around, with European-style shops and cafés, and the requisite snowboard and ski services. The melting icing on the cake has to be the large number of local hot springs that let you soak away those skiing aches and pains. Here you can have the cliché but oh-so-enjoyable experience of relaxing in a rotenburo hewn out of rock as snow gently gathers on your steaming head. The village boasts three public bathhouses and three large onsen facilities with outdoor baths, and each hotel runs their own spa faculties.
If barreling down a hill on a board or on skis is not to your liking, the area also offers excellent year-round trekking, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. There are loads of entertainment options for children, as well as childcare services that give mom and dad some freedom to schuss to their heart’s desire.
Zao just about has it all; extensive ski and snowboarding runs to whiz down, lots of people-movers, unique natural wonders and some gentle, warm waters to relax your body. Certainly there are some royal treasures to be found at Zao that may just change your mind about skiing in Japan.
Zao’s snowboard/ski season runs until early May, with an average annual snowfall of 12 meters. The resort operates from 8:30am-5pm, with lift tickets costing ¥4,600 for adults and ¥2,500 for children. Night skiing (5-9pm) is ¥2,300 for adults and ¥1,400 for kids. To get there by train, take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Fukushima, then the Ou line to Yamagata (three hours). Zao is 30 minutes by bus or taxi. It is also possible to drive, but travel times can vary depending on conditions. For accommodation, try the comfortable Lodge Scole (www.ojisho.com/), which offers a room with dinner from ¥8,000, with free parking (dogs welcome). Another option is Pension Alm (tel: 023-679-2256), with private rooms from ¥5,000. For daily snow conditions and other information in English, see Snow Japan’s comprehensive website (www.snowjapan.com/e).