Visit Zao Onsen

Since I moved to Japan, a friend from the UK who previously lived here told me to visit Zao onsen. And even if this is not a popular touristic destination among foreigners, it is well known among Japanese people for at least 3 reasons. The first one is for the ski resorts, the second are the onsen and the third one and the greatest in my opinion the snow monsters. And now, let’s take it one by one.


If you love skiing this is a great place for you. There are three main cable car points you can chose from: Zao Rope Way, Zao Chuo Ropeway and Zao sky cable, each of them with their opening hours and prices, but overall pretty similar. In total you can access 39 different slopes with different levels of difficulty, from beginner to intermediate or professional (or better known as green, red and black slopes). However, the split is almost half-half between green and red, so you can go with piece of mind, as you don’t have to be professional to enjoy the longest trails.

I personally went to Zao Sky Cable – Uwanodai Station (number 4 on the official map) just because they have a beginner slope right in front, very easy to access. As I had to teach myself how to ski with YouTube and after only 2 indoor lessons in the UK several years ago, I would say the slope number 5 out there is just great if you’re in the same situation. The price for ski rental was 3800¥ for a full day (ski, boots, poles) and the one day ski pass 5500¥ (3500¥ for half day), in high season. I would say are pretty similar to the ones in Gala Yuzawa, where you pay around 10k¥ for rental and pass.

With this is mind, please go and enjoy a few days at Zao onsen ski resort as you won’t regret it. Having the possibility to ski among the snow monsters is an unique experience hard to forget.


After a ski day you have all you need to relax in the town: a great selection of onsen. The Japanese public baths are just amazing and your skin will just be thankful for the treat. The natural waters contain sulphur, chloride, aluminum and have a remedial effect on those suffering of rheumatism or muscle pain. Basically, avoid entering with any open wound or let your eyes get in contact with the water to avoid any pain, to enjoy the experience.

There are several public onsen with showers that you can chose from:

  • Genshichi Roten no yu (open air bath),
  • Kawara yu,
  • Zao center plaza Yuyu (open air bath),
  • Shinzaemon no yu (open air bath),
  • Zao onsen big open air bath (closed in winter)

And a few public onsen with no facilities (no showers):

  • Kami yu
  • Kawara yu
  • Shimo yu

The prices varies from a place to another, with the ones offering no facilities being cheaper than the others, but none of them will make you rob a bank. That’s a great thing in Japan, as everybody can access these “spa” without having to pay a fortune to enter.

Junyo (snow monsters)

Last but not least, the best this resort has to offer for about 2 months a year are the snow monsters (juhyo in Japanese). There are only three places in Japan where this rare phenomenon can be seen: Mount Moriyoshi (Akita prefecture), Zao (Yamagata prefecture) and Hakkoda (Aomori prefecture). And I’ve been to two of them and I can tell you that Zao is the best for several reasons. First of all there are thousands of snow monsters. Second, you can enjoy them at your discretion. You can chose to walk around or ski among them. And there isn’t a trail to follow in order to see them closely. You can freely walk and explore by yourself which it gives you a terrific sense of freedom while being in the middle of the nature.

Now, you have to consider that the snow monsters aren’t at the base of the mountain, so you cannot see them from the town. They are on the top of the mountain and to get there you have to take the gondola from Zao Sanroku station (number 1 on the map). A return ticket costs 3000¥, and you’ll have to change once the cable car to get to the top. It normally gets busy and you’ll have to queue twice, so allocate about an hour for the gondola itself. Then, once you’re there, spend a few hours and don’t hurry to go down. In the end, is not something you can see every day!


Let your imagination go wild, as mother nature created each monster unique, one more interesting than the other. I think the only thing they do have in common is that they are all Japanese – as they all bowing hahaha!

Illuminated snow monsters

And now I have a tip to share. During the high season (January, February), the snow monsters are getting lighted up in some evenings, especially during the weekends. So allocate one full day for this experience by following my plan. Buy only a return ticket to see both. Leave around noon and spend all the afternoon up, trekking among the monsters. When you need a break or to heat yourself, get yourself into the restaurant and enjoy a hot meal.

Around 5pm occupy a seat near the window and wait for the night illuminations. Only the trees in front of the restaurant window will be lighted, so staying inside is a wise decision, as outside will be often cold and windy. Enjoy the view and once you had enough, just go back to the town. On the way back you’ll have the opportunity to see more snow monsters illuminated from the gondola – an image hard to forget!

Zao village

Last but not least, take some time to explore the village. Even if it’s small in size, you will be amazed of the amount of snow that covers it. The structures should be really strong to support such a huge amount of snow, don’t you think? And in contract to that, you’ll find the hot spring water crossing the town. Watching the hot steam and the snow in the same time is quite impressive, especially when you think of the temperature difference between the two.


To access Zao onsen is not a burden at all, but quite easy in fact. From Tokyo station board the shinkansen to Yamagata station. Then change for a local bus to Zao onsen in front of the station (stop number 1). A one way ticket costs 1000¥ but you can actually pay even less. At the ticket counter they sell passes for 4500¥, which provides a return journey between Yamagata station and Zao onsen, plus a return gondola ticket to see the snow monsters. This pass will help you save 500¥, so why not taking advantage of it? And for your piece of mind the ticket is valid for a long time, so you don’t only have to do a day trip if you don’t want to.


In general, the accommodation in the ski resort is quite expensive, but there are also some exceptions. If you book in advance, you can get better rates to the cheapest places which are normally filling very quick. So plan accordingly to save some money, as one bed in a shared room can be as little as 3500¥. And don’t let yourself tricked by where the accommodations are extremely expensive. Give a call to the tourist information and ask for their recommendation in town. Many properties are not listed online, so do a little bit of research.

I personally asked the tourist information to find me an accommodation in town for the same day, in high season. After a few phone calls, they found me a place at Bokuno Uchi, a great Japanese ryokan – traditional house where you sleep “on the floor”, on a futon (thick mattress). It wasn’t cheap, I actually negotiated the rate to 5500¥ for one night, but if you go in two it gets slightly cheaper, 5000¥ per person. However, in this price you get 24h access to a private onsen, which would probably cost 2500¥ an hour at least, so it’s really paying off. I would definitely go again!

Food & Drink

I simply felt in love with World Cafe Palette. I smelt the coffee from the street and this is what drove me inside to a great experience. The high quality coffee is offered in an unique way (see the pictures) and the chocolate cheesecake is as tasty as it looks.

The restaurant on top of the mountain offers a good selection of food. However, if you go too late, you will get whatever it remains in the menu for the day. It will close for about 2h between lunch and dinner (3-5pm), so plan accordingly to not get starving in such an inconvenient place.

The food at the Uwanodai Station is not good at all, so avoid eating there. Even the coffee is poor quality. On the other hand, just meters away from the station you’ll find Petit Resort Hotel der Barte, offering a great selection of food and drinks. So that’s the place you’d like to spend your money!

The End!

Well, that’s it from my side. I hope you enjoyed the article and one day you’ll visit Zao onsen by yourself. Meanwhile, get inspired from more articles across Japan and not only, here.

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