Zao Onsen Ski Resort is about a 3 hour drive north of Nasu in Yamagata Prefecture actually on the Yamagata-Miyagi prefecture border, centered on the Zao Mountain range of the same name.
The area is well known for its huge crater lake and amazing hiking trails and mountain plants, as well as stunning views of the region.
There are different attractions all year and its definitely worth a visit anytime, but in winter it’s transformed into a huge ski resort with 3 rope-ways, a cable car and 37 chair lifts with beginner, intermediate and expert runs aplenty.
There is night skiing on a couple of the slopes and the longest course is around 10km, with amazing powder snow, so it really does have something for everyone.
Obviously with a name like Zao Onsen resort, there are a few Onsen there too, so it’s pretty easy to soak away those aches from a day’s skiing. Mostly sulphur style onsen, and in the village you can smell the sulphur quite strongly. Lots of rotenburo as well. Including a summer one up the mountains that holds over 200 people (closed in winter!)
One of the most famous Zao attractions are the Ice or Snow Monsters of Zao, called ‘Juhyo’ in Japanese. This bizarre natural phenomenon is caused by a set of specific weather and temperature conditions that causes the Pine trees become encrusted in snow and frozen rain and take on bizarre, monster like shapes.
The water droplets become super-cooled and mix with the snow and then are blasted onto the trees by the wind. The ice builds up on the trees in shapes defined by the poor pine tree underneath and the wind. It begins in late December and builds up through January and into February and early March. There is a Juhyo Festival in February when its at its peak.
Even if you are not a skier, you can still reach the Ice Monsters via the Zao Ropeways as a return trip.
The hotel was literally across the road from the cable cars and ropeway and ski hire was easy to organise. The weather was fantastic on the Sunday and the views were amazing, so I can imagine it would be pretty impressive in summer too.
Definitely on my list of return visits !!