Zao Onsen, located near Yamagata City, is undoubtedly one of the leading hot spring towns in all of Japan. Its relatively close proximity to Tokyo makes it popular amongst visitors, and its abundance of activities to try all throughout the year means that it’s a great getaway option for almost all types of travellers, whether you’re part of a large family, traveling with your other half, or simply traveling solo. It’s just a big bonus that it’s located amongst beautiful mountains and exciting wilderness.
In Winter, Zao Onsen also becomes the grounds for Zao Ski Resort, one of the premiere snow destinations in Japan during winter. It attracts thousands of snow bunnies on a yearly basis, and with the lure of steaming hot onsen pools only minutes from the base of the ski fields, you can only imagine that it’s a match made in heaven – 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 go above and beyond what onsens generally offer. There are a wide variety of onsens located at the Zao Onsen village, which range from smaller, traditional looking community onsens to contemporary onsen structures that offer multiple hot spring pool options. During majority of the year, the Zao Dai-Rotenburo (large outdoor baths) are the highlights of the town. They are incredibly large, impressive outdoor pools which are gender separated. Unfortunately, they’re not open in winter! However, there are plenty of other activities to do to pass your time at this wonderful onsen village.
How to Get to Zao Onsen
The quickest and easiest way to get to Zao Onsen would be to take the Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo to Yamagata train station and then transfer for a bus to Zao Onsen. The trip will take between 2.5-3 hours for the train ride and 40-minutes for the bus ride. It will cost around 11,000 yen for the train ride and 1,000 yen for the bus ride. The train ride is covered by the JR Pass, the JR East Pass, and the JR East South Hokkaido Pass.
Another popular route, which is available in winter only, is taking a train to Sendai and then switching for a bus to Zao Onsen. The JR Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Sendai takes between 100-130 minutes, and costs around 10,000 yen. You will then need to transfer to a bus at Sendai Station, which will take 100-minutes and cost 1,600 yen. Again, the train trip is covered by the aforementioned Passes but the bus route is not.
The Best Ryokan in Zao Onsen
Whilst there are plenty of options within the Zao Onsen area to choose from, this fact alone may make it hard to decide on one that’s fit for your needs. Meet Meitoya Sou, a ryokan which seemingly offers all the facilities and amenities that anyone could need for a clean, comfortable, memorable stay. The recently renovated inn offers a modern-style ryokan experience with traditional Japanese undertones.
Whilst the interior may feel inherently new, there are small touches all around the ryokan that still create an ambient of quintessential Japanese Zen. Free Wi-Fi is offered to all guests here, and for those who drive, there is free parking available onsite. For those who are here for the winter experience, know that after you test your muscles to their limits on the slopes during the day, you can retire back to the various gorgeous onsens in this ryokan to relax and appease your sore body.
Why Guests Love It: It’s in a rather secluded, but that just added to its charm. The Japanese breakfast was perfect (the Western option not so much apparently!). Incredibly spacious rooms meant a comfortable stay for most guests.
Book It Now: Meitoya Sou
A wonderfully atmospheric ryokan that has it all, Wakamatsuya really strives to deliver the ultimate onsen experience without breaking the bank. This centrally located ryokan offers multiple indoor and outdoor onsens to make use of onsite, which includes 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 you just have to walk a few minutes and you’re there. There’s even a dedicated karaoke area for those who want a bit of late night fun!
Why Guests Love It: Some people claim this to be their favourite hotel in Japan! The staff were highly praised by all past guests; they go above and beyond what is expected and made everyone’s experience much more enjoyable. The onsen is as beautiful as you’d expect as well.
Book It Now: Wakamatsuya
Zao Onsen – Go Skiing!
As mentioned previously, Zao Onsen becomes a Winter Wonderland during the colder months, welcoming thousands of visitors to its region who want 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 and offers a whooping 30 plus ski lifts, gondolas and ropeways across its massive mountains. 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 who want some adventure. The longest course starts at the beginning of the ‘snow monsters’ at the summit of the mountain and its about 10km long. There are enough slopes here to ensure that crowds are generally not an issue.
Being as popular as it is, you don’t need to be fully prepared when heading to Zao Onsen Ski Resort. Equipment can be hired on the day from any of the many rental shops located around town at the base, and there are even plenty of ski and/or snowboard schools to book in lessons if you feel you need it. However, please make note that English is still not fluently spoken around this area.
- 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, feel free to check out this article: Top 10 ski spots in Japan.
Zao Onsen – Witness the Snow Monsters (‘Juhyo’)
You may or may not have head of this attraction before, but the snow monsters (aka ski monsters, aka ice trees) have been around for a very long time, and are a result of a natural phenomenon that occurs due to the heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures. From this, very thick, heavy layers of snow make themselves at home on the trees in the region and thus create these ‘monsters’, referred to as ‘Juhyo’ in Japanese.
These monsters are located in the actual Zao Onsen ski park, so if you’re looking to witness seeing them in person, strap on those skis and head up the mountain – you’ll be riding with them in no time!
If you’re not looking to see these monsters up close, there is always the option of taking the ropeway up and flying across the top of them. This is quite a popular option for families visiting the area over a short period, or those who are visiting the onsens for a therapeutic getaway and want another relaxing activity to do instead of ripping it up and down the mountain.
Every year, there is a special winter event called the ‘Juhyo Light Up’, where the snow monsters actually light up in the evenings, creating a grand spectacle for everyone in the audience. The best place to view the lit up snow monsters is at the Jizo Sansho station. You can reach there by taking the Zao Ropeway towards Juhyo Kogen station, and then switching lines for Jizo Sancho station. There is an observatory there for you to view the monsters at, but until they light up, we recommend spending some time warming up in the restaurant beforehand! As they eventually light up, you can walk around the area to get different perspectives and colours of the monsters.
‘Juhyo Light Up’
- Dates: Every weekend from late December to early March
- Time: 5:00pm-9:00pm
Zao Onsen – Pay the Dai Rotenburo a Visit
The Zao Dai Rotenburo is famous throughout the country, not only because of its beauty but because of all the health benefits that it claims to be bestow upon all its visitors. It’s one of the biggest attractions in Zao Onsen, so if you’re visiting between Spring to Autumn, we highly recommend giving the place a visit!
Everything about this onsen is rustic: it shines its spotlight on the nature surrounding it by heavily relying on it to showcase what the onsen is all about, and building only the simplest of structures around it to create a comfortable experience for its visitors. It’s one huge bath crater surrounded by natural stones, situated on a mountain hill, surrounded by lush greenery. It really can’t get much better than that.
Unfortunately for those looking forward to visiting this outdoor onsen in winter to appease those sore muscles, it’s not open until spring time again.
- 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
Zao Onsen – Go Onsen-Hopping
If you’re here reading this, then it means you’ve probably made up your mind about giving Zao Onsen a go, and just want a bit more clarification about where to visit. Below we’ve listed a few of the more popular onsens and what you should expect, however, heading to the tourist center and grabbing a map that details exactly where every onsen is and where they are located would be 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 a hot spring source that deposits water right into the onsen. The onsen itself is one big pool, but 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 is definitely one of the more popular onsens. It’s relatively new, and offers a variety of gender separated onsen pools, located indoors and outdoors. It’s deemed as one of the onsens that has the best ambience. It also has a restaurant located 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
Zao Onsen – Hike Mount Zao, See Okama Crater
Mount Zao is available to hikers all through spring to autumn. During this time, you’ll find that at various points in time, it will be covered in beautiful flora and bright and colorful foliage. In the thick of summer, it will shine bright with lush green trees.
To get to the upper stations where most hikes start, you will need to catch the ropeway up from Zao Onsen. This activity itself is very rewarding, as the views of the mountains are some of the best you’ll ever see! After embarking from the ropeway station, you will see many courses that you can explore for yourself. Most routes should somehow end up near or around Okama (crater), which is a great destination.
Alternatively, for an easy and picturesque trail, take the Zao Echo Line trail to Kattadake – you’ll be able to capture Okama perfectly from there.
- Address: Zaoonsen, Yamagata, 990-2301, Japan
- Access: Take the train to Kaminoya Onsen Station, and alight there for a bus to the Katta parking area. The bus ride should take 60-minutes. From there, take the Zao-Katta ski lift up, and you will reach the viewing platform.
Zao Onsen – Check Out The Local Food Scene!
You’d never expect it, as culinary street delights are not usually on the agenda for most onsens towns, but Zao Onsen is a little different. If you’re walking to go for a leisurely stroll through town, and you’re feeling a bit peckish, why not look for some konjac skewers (konnyaku in Japanese) to snack on? It’s a popular snack in town, and it’s cooked in a hot pot of soup, usually displayed at the front of store so that the smell whiffs through your nose as you walk past and the tempting image of steam rising from the pots lures you in. 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 on top and served on a bamboo leaf. These are made super fresh and are made to be eaten immediately so try not to leave them overnight!
Zao Onsen – Take the Ropeway Up Zao Mountain in Autumn
During autumn, Zao Mountain becomes an incredible display of autumn foliage. The dense collection of trees come together in unison to create a burst of orange, red and yellow, and 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, it becomes a premiere destination in autumn because of how beautiful the autumn leaves become. Within Tohoku, it’s within the top five spots to see the ‘koyo’ leaves in autumn, amongst other popular destinations such as 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)
Zao Onsen is only a (relatively) short distance away from Tokyo, so if you want to visit a traditional onsen village without feeling like you’re traveling out to the rural land, then we recommend adding a few days of exploring Zao Onsen to your list. Whilst you’d be inclined to book an onsen and spend your time there idling away in the hot, steamy water, there are a few activities that you can do to truly explore the area, so it doesn’t need to be a ‘quiet’ few days away if you don’t want it to be!