Zao Onsen, located near Yamagata City, is undoubtedly one of the leading hot spring towns in all of Japan. It is relatively close to Tokyo, making it a popular getaway. Throughout the year, various seasonal activities draw all types of travelers: large families, couples, and even solo adventurers. As a bonus, the relaxing onsen is located within stunning mountains and exciting wilderness.
In Winter, Zao Onsen becomes the grounds of Zao Ski Resort, one of Japan’s premiere snow sports destinations. It attracts thousands of snow bunnies on a yearly basis. With the lure of steaming hot onsen pools only minutes from the slopes, as you can only imagine, it’s a heavenly match most people can’t resist!
The highly sulfuric waters are amongst some of the most acidic in the entire country, meaning that the health benefits surpass those of other onsens’. There are a wide variety of baths located at the Zao Onsen village, ranging from small, traditional community facilities with a single bath to contemporary onsen complexes.
During the majority of the year, the Zao Dai-Rotenburo (large outdoor baths) are the highlights of the town. These impressive, gender-segregated outdoor baths are unfortunately closed during winter ski season, however.
How to Get to Zao Onsen
Take the Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo to Yamagata station and board a direct bus to Zao Onsen. The trip will take between 2.5-3 hours for the (approximately) 11,000yen train ride and about 40 minutes for the 1,000 yen bus ride.
Another popular route, open only during winter, is the train from Tokyo to Sendai. The JR Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Sendai takes between an hour and a half to two hours and costs around 10,000 yen. You will then need to transfer to a bus at Sendai Station for another hour and a half ride that will cost 1,600 yen. The train ride in both cases is covered by the JR Pass, the JR East Pass, and the JR East South Hokkaido Pass.
The Best Ryokan in Zao Onsen
There are plenty of options in the Zao Onsen area to choose from. This may make it hard to decide on one that fits your needs, but we are happy to offer recommendations. Meitoya Sou is a ryokan that offers all the facilities and amenities needed for a clean, comfortable, memorable stay. The recently renovated inn offers a modern-style ryokan experience with a traditional Japanese ambiance.
The interior feels brand new, but there are small touches all around the ryokan that still provide the quintessential Japanese Zen. Free Wi-Fi and onsite parking are available to guests. Those who come for the full winter experience know that after powering through powder for hours, you need a good rest! A gorgeous onsen welcomes guests in this ryokan to relax and appease sore bodies.
Why Guests Love It: It’s rather secluded, but that just added to its charm. The Japanese breakfast is perfect, although the Western options may not suit everyone (this is deep Japan, after all!) Renovated, spacious rooms provide a comfortable stay for most guests.
Book It Now: Meitoya Sou
A wonderfully atmospheric ryokan that has it all, Wakamatsuya delivers the ultimate onsen experience without breaking the bank. This centrally located ryokan offers multiple indoor and outdoor baths including a private one that can be reserved in advance.
The excellent location means that guest rooms offer gorgeous mountain views, and heading out to the slopes means just a few short minutes to the lift. There’s even a dedicated karaoke area for those who want a bit of late-night fun!
Why Guests Love It: Plenty of satisfied quests rate this their favorite hotel in Japan! The staff are highly praised for going above and beyond even high ryokan standards, and the interior and baths are stunning.
Book It Now: Wakamatsuya
After these few tips, let’s now discover the best things to do in Zao Onsen!
Zao Onsen becomes a Winter Wonderland during the colder months. Thousands of visitors come to experience the wonders of the soft powder snow and the monsters that come with it. Zao’s ski resort is one of Japan’s oldest ski resorts. It offers a whooping 30-plus ski lifts, gondolas, and ropeways.
The 15 slopes and 12 courses range from wide and gentle for those who are just starting out, to long and steep for those with a bit more experience. The longest course, covering about 10km, starts at the summit, where the famous ‘snow monsters’ start popping up. There are enough slopes that crowds are generally not an issue.
Popular as it is, you don’t need to be fully geared up to enjoy Zao Onsen Ski Resort. Equipment can be rented day-of from shops, and there are plenty of skiing and snowboarding lessons for newbies. That said, finding a lesson offered in English may take a bit more searching.
- Address: Zaoonsen, Yamagata, 990-2301, Japan
- Season: First snow (Generally December) – Early May
- Hours: 8:30am – 5:00pm
- Price: Full Day: 5,000 yen, Half Day: 4,000 yen, Nighter: 2,000 Yen
For more ski spots in Japan, please check out this article: Top 10 ski spots in Japan.
Witness the Snow Monsters (‘Juhyo’)
The “snow monsters” (aka ski monsters, aka ice trees…) have brought visitors to Zao Onsen for a long time. They are a result of a natural phenomenon that occurs due to heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures. Very thick, heavy layers of snow make pile on the trees in the region, creating amorphous “monsters”, referred to as ‘Juhyo’ in Japanese.
These monsters are located within Zao Onsen’s ski park, so if you want to see them in person, strap on those skis and head up the mountain.
For non-skiers, there is always the option of taking the ropeway up and flying across their beastly “heads.” This is a popular option for families visiting the area over a short period, or those who are visiting the onsens for a therapeutic getaway.
Every year, there is a special winter event called the ‘Juhyo Light Up’. The area casts lights on the snow monsters in the evenings, creating a grand spectacle. The best place to view it is at the Jizo Sansho station. To reach it, take the Zao Ropeway towards Juhyo Kogen station, and then switch lines for Jizo Sancho station. Until the illumination starts, guests can enjoy warming up in the restaurant below the observatory. Once the nightly event starts, you can walk around the area for photo ops and up-close views.
‘Juhyo Light Up’
- Dates: Every weekend from late December to early March
- Time: 5:00pm-9:00pm
Pay the Dai Rotenburo a Visit
The Zao Dai Rotenburo is famous throughout the country, not only because of its beauty but because of the health benefits it claims to bestow upon its visitors. It’s one of the biggest attractions in Zao Onsen, so if you’re visiting between Spring and Autumn, we highly recommend a visit!
Everything about this onsen is rustic: it spotlights the surrounding nature with natural rock siding and wild plant life. Only the simplest of structures around it create a comfortable experience for its visitors. The mountain-side bath is only open during spring in summer, though.
- Address: 853-3 Zaoonsen, Yamagata, 990-2301, Japan
- Access: From the Zao Onsen Tourist Centre, it is a 18-minute walk.
- Hours: 6:00am – 7:00pm
- Price: 470 yen
Below we’ve listed a few popular onsens and what to should expect. The tourist center also offers a map with details about every onsen in town. Of course, grabbing a map and having a go yourself is the best way to get to know the area!
Kawarayu Public Bath
This is one of the un-staffed onsens in the area. It is situated right above the hot spring source feeding the onsen. Despite being one large, natural pool, the onsen is separated in the middle by a wall divider for men and women.
- Address: 43-3 Zao Onsen Kawara, Yamagata 990-2301, Yamagata Prefecture
- Access: From the Zao Onsen Tourist Centre, it is a 6-minute walk.
- Hours: 6:00am – 10:00pm
- Price: 200 yen
Shinzaemon no Yu
This newer bath complex has both indoor and outdoor onsen for men and women. It has a distinctly tasteful ambiance and even a restaurant onsite.
- Address: Kawamae-905 Zaoonsen, Yamagata, 990-2301, Japan
- Access: From the Zao Onsen Tourist Centre, it is a 5-minute walk.
- Hours: 10:00am – 6:30pm
- Price: 700 yen
Hike Mount Zao, See Okama Crater
Mount Zao is accessible from spring to autumn. During the climbing season the flora shifts from dainty mountain flowers and lush greens to rich autumn foliage.
To get to the upper stations where most hikes start, you will need to catch the ropeway from Zao Onsen. Views of the mountains from this ropeway are some of the best you can get. After disembarking from the ropeway station, hikers can choose their preferred course. Most routes end around Okama, a stunning crater lake.
For an easy and picturesque trail, take the Zao Echo Line trail to Kattadake – where you’ll be able to capture photos of Okama perfectly.
- Address: Zaoonsen, Yamagata, 990-2301, Japan
- Access: Take the train to Kaminoya Onsen Station. Transfer to a bus in the Katta parking area. The bus ride should take about an hour. From there, take the Zao-Katta ski lift up, and you will reach the viewing platform.
Check Out The Local Food Scene!
Konjac dengaku is one of the early forms of kushi-yaki that bred deliciously, famous oden. If you’re feeling pecking during a leisurely stroll through town, why not look for some konjac skewers (konnyaku in Japanese) to snack on?
The pots of hot soup in which these skewers are cooked are usually displayed at the front of the store to lure passerby with their delicious scent and curling steam.
Keep an eye out igamochi as well, a bite-size type of rice cake that’s filled with sweet azuki bean paste, topped with yellow rice, and served on a bamboo leaf. These are made super fresh and meant to be eaten on the spot.
Take the Ropeway Up Zao Mountain in Autumn
During autumn, Zao Mountain becomes an incredible display of autumn foliage. The dense collection of trees creates a burst of orange, red, and yellow. Seeing this dramatic scenery against the bright blue sky as you’re taking the ropeway up the mountain is quite an unearthly sight.
In fact, for many Japanese people, these leaves are to thank for Zao’s autumn crowds. It’s one of the top five spots in Tohoku to see the ‘koyo’ leaves in autumn. Other popular destinations are Oirase Stream in Aomori, Bandai Azuma Skyline in Fukushima, Mount Kurikoma in Iwate, and Naruko Gorge in Miyagi.
- Address: 229ー3 Zaoonsen, Yamagata, 990-2301, Japan
- Access: It is close to the Zao Onsen Bus Terminal.
- Hours: 8:30am – 5:00pm
- Price: Adult: 1,500 yen (one way), Child: 800 yen (one way)
While a 3-hour train ride might seem like an excursion, it’s short enough to transport world-weary Tokyo guests into a refreshing mountain paradise. A few days of exploring Zao Onsen is worth the trip. Break up your time idling away in hot, steamy water with blood-pumping activities like hiking and skiing that are sure to make urban Tokyo feel lightyears away.