In recent years Japan has become very famous for its amazing ski slopes and unprecedented powder snow.
People are flocking to places like Hokkaido to visit their well-known ski resorts.
However, what many people don’t realise is that Yamagata Prefecture in the south-west of the Tohoku region
contains some hidden gems that are arguably as good, if not better than, their northern rivals.
The area boasts some of the longest ski runs in Japan,
and a wealth of history and culture that make a unique and compulsory addition to your Japanese ski holiday.
This resort is like no other in Japan. Inaccessible by car in winter, the ski area is accessed by a ropeway to its base, where another three consecutive pair lifts carry you to the top of the resort at 1,820 meters. If you felt so inclined, you could even ski tour or snowshoe the last 215 meters to the summit at 2,035 meters. The entire resort offers spectacular views of the nearby mountains and Yonezawa Basin, as well as Tengendai’s beautiful “snow ghosts” (snow-covered trees).
Tengendai is one of the earliest ski resorts to open in the area and has quite a long season from December until May. Due to its altitude, the snow also tends to stay soft and powdery for the majority of winter—hence their motto, ‘100% Powder Snow’.
The resort is situated on the narrow terrain of a ridge line, with fun runs for all levels; however, it can be difficult to venture too far off-piste on the top zones, due to very steep, inaccessible terrain on either side of the runs. In peak season you can ski a 6 km run from the top lift all the way to the cable car base/car park at 920 meters elevation, which also offers some great tree skiing.
On a bluebird day the views are extraordinary, and if you are really lucky you can see the other peaks of the Tohoku region showing their summits through the sea of clouds (unkai in Japanese).
Lift passes are still less than 5,000 yen for a day pass, and one of the best ski resort pork cutlet curries in Japan will run you approximately 1,300 to 1,500 yen. Servings are huge, and will have you fueled up and ready to return to an endless day of fresh turns.
The resort also has a wonderful 80’s vibe with pink cable cars, retro orange or blue bathrooms, and bright purple lockers. All the facilities are well cared for, however, and with barely any foreigners here, let alone Japanese visiting the resort, it can feel like your own personal mountain..
Another highlight of Tengendai Kogen is the snow monkeys that live naturally in and around the resort. A chance encounter to see one here is far more special than other more touristy snow monkey destinations.
Surrounded by the Azuma mountains, and only a 40-minute drive from the heart of Fukushima City, is the 400-year-old Takayu Onsen Village. Recognized by multiple awards, this is widely considered one of Japan’s best hot spring resorts, and on a visit here, you can quickly see why.
The village is home to 10 traditional ryokan inns with onsen (hot spring) water from 9 free-flowing sources. Free-flowing means that only the temperature of the water is regulated, so it is 100% natural spring water that doesn’t impact on the medicinal effects of the onsen in any way. The water is also high in hydrogen sulfide, which gives it a beautiful bright blue colour that looks stunning against the contrasting snow.
The hotel at Takayu Onsen has two outdoor private onsens that can be booked for you and your friends or family to enjoy a blissful steamy time in the snow. Alternatively, you can use the hotel’s public bath facilities, which offer an array of different outdoor pools and waterfalls. Without a doubt, this is one of the most beautiful and indulgent onsen experiences available.
After your onsen, the hotel provides a complimentary glass of wine or whiskey to enjoy in one of their lounge areas, which are beautifully appointed with lovely big arm chairs, historic Japanese artifacts, and other decorations. It is a complete immersion in history and culture.
The public bath at Takuyo Onsen, the Attakayu, is equally as nice, with another large private onsen that can be booked by groups of 2 or more. This onsen is rare in Japan, as it also admits visitors with tattoos.
Hidden on a little back street in the heart of Fukushima City is Enban Gyoza restaurant. It is owned by a lovely Japanese couple who, after 15 years, are still as passionate about making delicious gyoza and ramen as they were when they first opened.
The Fukushima style of making gyoza (fried Japanese dumplings) is to place multiple gyoza in a circular pattern, filling the whole pan, and fry them without any gaps between the dumplings. It is quite an art form. The largest serving is 50 gyoza, and has only ever been ordered by one person before….. although the story goes that this person ordered a plate of 30 on their first visit as a warm-up before attacking 50 the second time around.
These delicious pork and vegetable-filled crunchy gyoza are best enjoyed with a beer. If you feel so inclined, you can attempt the Enban Gyoza record of a plate of 50 eaten in a single sitting.
However, you’re encouraged not to stuff yourself on too many gyoza straight up, as their ramen is equally as delicious. With soy, miso, and even a very unique lemon soup-based option, rest assured that following a visit to this quaint restaurant, you are going to need to plan a long nap or onsen bath.
At the base of Tengendai Ski Resort, sitting on an 850-meter plateau, is the 700-year-old traditional Shirabu Onsen village. This village has a rich history going back to the beginning of the 14th century. The name Shirabu is said to mean “white cloth,” reflecting the blanket of snow that covers the area in winter.
The locals have an even more imaginative explanation for the name. Legend speaks of a hunter who discovered a wounded white-flecked eagle and healed it with the local takayu (hot spring in a high place). So its original name was in fact Shirabuchi Takayu, meaning White-Flecked Eagle Spring.
This name could not be more apt and poetic for such a stunning location. Imagine three large thatched roof ryokans, an ancient waterwheel, hot and steamy onsen water drifting around the village, sculptural gardens and—wait for it—snow monkeys! This village is truly the epitome of a perfect Japanese ski holiday.
Its relative closeness to the ski resort is also unreal—it’s only a kilometer from the Tengendai Ropeway. There are not many places in the world where you can ski fresh powder all day, then jump into an onsen to ease your fatigued powder skiing muscles within 5 minutes of getting off the lift.
It also has a lot to offer in summer, including trekking, mountain biking, and even grass skiing.
There are only three traditional inns in the village—the west, east, and central ryokan inns. At Shirabu Onsen Higashiya, be prepared to have the warmest welcome imaginable. Still run by local families, this ryokan makes you feel like an emperor on arrival, with staff running around everywhere to make you as comfortable as possible.
Choose from the options of a traditional tatami style room, with gorgeous views over the surrounding village and charming Japanese furniture, or a western-style room with full-sized twin beds.
A typical evening at this hotel includes your own private dinner, with the never-ending arrival of plates and assorted dishes. Just when you think you’ve finished, more arrives. The hotel prides itself on using as much local produce as possible and one of the highlights is delicious, world-renowned Yonezawa beef. Hard to describe, it literally just melts in your mouth.
Following dinner, it’s straight to the onsen. There is the choice of the indoor pool with its thunderous waterfall, said to be over 400 years old, or the lovely outdoor snow-capped pools.
Alternatively, if you are a bit on the shy side or just want your own space, it is possible to relax in your own bath in one of two private onsens. Simply turn the handle on the door, an “Occupied” light comes on, and it’s yours for as long as you need to digest your delicious meal and dream of the next day’s skiing adventures.
If you want to really experience Japan, this is the place to visit for delicious food made from locally sourced ingredients and produce harvested wild amongst the mountains that make up the Zao Onsen Ski Resort.
The owners are a lovely elderly couple who have run the restaurant for a good portion of their lives. It is very entertaining to watch the chef/owner slice sashimi with surgical precision and his wife proudly serve you a steaming hotpot of fresh-picked mountain mushrooms.
They offer a warm, comforting home-style eating experience with traditional Japanese seating and low tables. They also have a diverse English menu, with something on offer for everyone, including fresh sashimi, nigiri, and donburi.
The food itself, particularly the sushi, is extraordinary and the owners’ pride is evident in every dish they produce. Match it with local sake and you’ll sleep well, ready for a big day on the slopes at Zao Ropeway.
Zao Onsen is located in Yamagata Prefecture, about 30–40 minutes from Yamagata City by car and around 2 hours from Sendai Airport by bus. Sitting at the base of the Zao Onsen Ski Resort, this popular year-round onsen village still retains its traditional Japanese charm.
This amazing village was established 1900 years ago (in the year 110), and walking its streets is like walking through time. The streets are narrow, lined with ancient Japanese ryokans and smoky, burbling onsen water steaming up from the open streams that criss-cross the village. In the snowy peak season, it is incredibly picturesque, like something straight out of an ancient Japanese painting.
One of the highlights of Zao Onsen, which is rarely on offer in other Japanese ski towns, is the fact that this old world experience is matched with modern offerings. There are trendy cafes, bars, and shops at every corner.
Zao Onsen has a variety of accommodation styles on offer, most offering an onsen experience, although there are 3 public baths that can be used by all. Alternatively, you can just dip your toes in one of the many foot baths dotted throughout the village—a nice way to warm up on your way home from the Yamagata Sake Museum and Bar (see below) on a cold winter’s night.
The Zao Ropeway provides access to one of the largest ski resorts in the Tohoku area. The resort boasts 14 different slopes and 12 courses served by 36 lifts, including ropeways and cable cars. Its variety can accommodate all skiing levels. In fact, it also has the longest ski run in Japan at 10 km. Known as ‘Utopia,’ this appropriately named run is a top to bottom experience that will leave you in need of a foot bath when you do finally get down. Jump on the Zao Ropeway network, and you’ll get back to the top in no time to do it all over again.
The second-longest run is 8 km and the steepest slope is called the Yokokura Wall, which tips the scales at a modest 38°.
The resort is renowned for its excellent powder conditions and its famous Snow Monsters (juhyo) which are actually snow-covered pine trees with an otherworldly feel. You can even ski between them on the Juhyogen Course.
>Zao Onsen offers an ideal ski holiday for a group of friends or a family, with loads of kid-friendly offerings such as the family fun snow park and snowboard park. It’s also perfect for those who want a winter getaway but aren’t big skiers. In the evenings, a light show is put on from the top in which snow-caked trees are illuminated in an array of colours. You can even take a heated snowcat tour to get a closer look.
Skiers and non-skiers alike can ride the ropeway during the daytime to see the Snow Monsters or visit the 246-year-old Jizo statue that overlooks the resort and marks the top of the 10 km Utopia run. Standing at 2.34 meters, this incredible masterpiece took over 37 years to build and was finally finished in 1775. Jizo is the Buddhist guardian of children, and the statue was erected at its 1736-meter elevation on Mt Jizo overlooking the valley towards Sendai to protect against disasters.
With its vast breathtaking views, the top of Zao Ropeway has to be one of the most beautiful places in Japan. After paying your respects to the Jizo statue, you can even snowshoe to the summit to view the surrounding Tohoku ranges, valleys, ocean, and the sea of clouds.
The resort has multilingual signage and the friendly people in the small village are always very welcoming to guests from overseas. Day passes are only 5500 yen for adults and 2800 yen for children.
This captivating store is Japan’s original onsen-themed souvenir shop. Situated on one of Zao’s narrowest and most nostalgic streets, Takuyu Street, this ornate store offers a variety of curated products to help you enjoy your trip to the onsen town or to take home as a high-quality remembrance of your visit.
In line with the “Your Onsen Style” concept, every product in the store is either locally sourced or designed specifically for the store with Zao Onsen in mind. They sell lovely organic onsen wear, cedar bath products, hand-made soaps, and endearing souvenirs such as bespoke kokeshi dolls available nowhere else.
The Yamagata Sake Museum and Bar is located in the heart of Zao Village, within walking distance of most guesthouses and hotels. It offers visitors a true taste of Yamagata with sake available from 49 of the region's finest sake houses.
Yamagata sake is best described as light, soft, and sweet. The prefecture is home to many rare labels with a reputation for being hard to obtain. The Museum and Bar lets you taste and try a range of these sakes, whilst educating you on the history of the area and sake production—so you can learn about a very complex art form and truly appreciate what you are tasting!
They have signage and menus in English, and with the recent addition of the Yukemuri Bar Tsumami, an izakaya style restaurant, you can now match your sake with an abundant selection of Japanese food, including local specialties from across Yamagata Prefecture. Take your time enjoying the delicacies that this amazing area has on offer, and gain a greater appreciation for sake.
Yamagata Prefecture is famous not only for sake, but also for wine, and it is home to some of the country's finest wineries—one of the most famous being Takahata Winery.
This grand building is located in the town of Takahata, in the southern part of the prefecture, a famous grape-producing area with a history of vine cultivation dating back to the beginning of the Meiji era. The Takahata Winery was founded in 1990 using principles from an expert wine-maker from the Napa Valley. They focus on quality and ensuring their wines are at a competitive international standard.
The winery goes to enormous lengths to ensure the quality of their products, including harvesting during the night in autumn to ensure the grapes retain their crisp, sharp flavour and the fermentation process does not begin too early.
You can take a tour of the winery or simply try what is offered by the highly skilled sommeliers—a huge variety of over 50 wines. From rich buttery chardonnays to light pinots and sweet, sticky dessert wines, there is literally something to tickle everyone’s tastebuds. Non-drinkers can even try their delicious grape juice with the nostalgic taste of blackcurrant Ribena.
They offer winery tours, and have an enormous gift store with all of their wines available to purchase at very reasonable prices, as well as a great array of other local delicacies and products. Pair your wine with local jams, cheeses, or charcuterie.
In the summertime, the winery holds music events in its expansive garden and vineyard, and operates 3 custom-made caravans for serving delicious food.
SnowsBest is an independently owned and published travel blog
by @misssnowitall for those addicted to the best kind of powder, nature’s ultimate drug, snow.
Seek out Tohoku’s most authentic experiences and walk in the shoes of a local in Iwate and Aomori.
Immerse yourself in the cuisine, lifestyle, and agriculture of the Tohoku region
Please Choose Your Language
Browse the JNTO site in one of multiple languages