home of the "snow monsters"

Zao's "snow monsters" are trees covered in ice and snow whose otherworldly beauty transforms the entire mountainside. Zao Onsen combines excellent skiing and snowboarding with the fantastic beauty of its famous snow monsters, and onsen. After a long day on the slopes, take a dip in one or more of many rejuvenating hot spring baths.

Getting to Zao Onsen

The Yamagata Shinkansen runs most of the way from Tokyo to Zao Onsen. It’s about two and a half hours to Yamagata Station. From there, buses to Zao Onsen take about 40 minutes.

Nearby Sendai Airport has regular flights to many major cities around Japan, as well as Seoul and Taipei. From Sendai Airport, highway buses reach Zao Onsen in just under two hours.

Visit the snow monsters

Snow monsters cover the top of Zao Onsen’s ski slopes, the 1,736-meter summit of Mt. Jizo. To get there, ride the Zao Ropeway Sanroku Line from the foot of the mountain and then, at Juyokogen Station, transfer to the Zao Ropeway Sancho Line to the top. The ropeway operates within the ski area, but you don’t have to be skiing or snowboarding to use it.

For the most immersive experience, trek or ski through the trees. Alternatively, view the snow monsters from the ropeway, observation deck or mountaintop restaurant.

Illuminated monsters

Illuminated monsters

Usually, the best time to see the snow-caked trees is from the second half of December to mid-February (though this changes depending on the weather). During this period, the area is illuminated from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. The lights cast on these trees in the darkness of night creates a ghostly scene that stands in stark contrast to its appearance during the day. Both the Zao Ropeway Sanroku Line and Sancho Line operate during illumination.

Illuminated monsters

Heated snowmobiles also take guests on the Rime Corridor of Illusion Tour. Get close to the illuminated snow monsters to best appreciate their scale.

Zao jizo statue buried in snow

Zao jizo statue buried in snow

Not far from Zao Ropeway Jizosancho Station is the stone Zao jizo statue, buried up to its neck in snow during winter. The full statue is 2.34 meters tall, so its whole body being covered is a sign of prodigious snowfall. Created in 1775, the statue is said to protect the area from mountain accidents.

Ski the expansive slopes

The slopes at Zao Onsen cover a wide area. Roughly 80% of the slopes are for beginners and intermediates, including one of the main joys of Zao — skiing through the snow monsters on the Juhyogen Course. Experts can get their thrills on steeper zones: the upper part of Zangesaka, Yokokura no Kabe and Omori no Kabe. The large area means the layout of trails is a bit complex, so first-timers should carry a trail map.

A shrine for Zao Daigongen

In front of Zao Sky Cable Chuo-Kogen Station is a shrine, built in 2002, where visitors can pray to this important mountain deity. Although Zao wears a scary expression, the god is a symbol of peace, and is worshipped as a protective deity of agriculture.

A shrine for Zao Daigongen

Hot springs with 1,900 years of history

Hot springs with 1,900 years of history

Established in A.D. 110, Zao Onsen has strongly acidic and sulphuric water which is said to promote good circulation and kill bacteria. It is also good for rejuvenating skin and blood vessels, earning it the famous nickname, “springs of beauty."

Steam from the burbling waters float above the streets of the town, which has three public baths, three foot baths and five daytrip baths, in addition to baths in accommodation facilities. Kawarayu is a particularly noteworthy public bath as it is situated on a spring source and filled with water flowing directly into it.

The gift of hot spring mineral deposits

The gift of hot spring mineral deposits

Hana no Yu are mineral deposits left in the bottom of the hot spring baths. Sold as hot spring gifts, Hana no Yu are dried and then clumped together. Once you get home, you can put them in your own tub to bathe like you're in a natural hot spring.

Hana no Yu is safe to use in most Western-style tubs, but shouldn't be used in traditional Japanese tubs that recirculate water while heating it. Also note that they can change the color of precious metals.

Feast upon Zao cuisine

Tama-konnyaku is Yamagata Prefecture's signature comfort food. These delicious bites of konnyaku are typically round, flavored with a little oil, and served on bamboo skewers. You’ll find them for sale throughout the town of Zao; storefronts have them in large stew pots so the aromas whet the appetites of passersby.

Zao’s most famous Japanese confectionary is called Iga mochi. It is a white rice cake with subtly sweet bean paste inside, served on bamboo leaves and topped with a little yellow mochi rice.

Zao-style lamb barbecue

One of Zao’s more unusual specialties is lamb barbecue, called Jingisukan or "Genghis Khan." The experience involves cooking lamb on a special iron grill on the table before eating.

According to legend, this dish is what the Mongolian empire-builder Genghis Khan fed his troops while on the road. In truth, it is far removed from actual Mongolian food; instead it's the result of unique elements of Japanese cooking. Whatever the case, Jingisukan was first popularized in Hokkaido, but some speculate that its origins are actually in Zao. It remains widely served in Japan's snow country.