Making stripping worthwhile since 110 A.D.
Picture this: the sun is setting on a perfectly snowy winter evening and you’re outside after a long day of skiing, relaxing in a hot spring full of skin-enriching minerals. Sounds amazing, right? This is exactly the kind of experience you’re able to have in the charming little town of Zao Onsen.
Yamagata prefecture is known for its ski resorts and Zao Onsen is one of the most famous, and largest, in Japan. With 15 slopes and 12 courses, there is enough of a range to satisfy complete beginners as well as seasoned pros.
Equipment can be hired out from one of the many rental shops dotted around the town and there are several ski and snowboard schools in the area. Lift tickets are valid on all of the lifts throughout the resort, ranging from a 4-hour ticket for 4000 yen to a 7-day ticket for 21,600 yen. There are also season ticket options. Basically you have no excuse not to enjoy skiing or snowboarding down the scenic mountain slopes.
Once you’ve tired yourself out, relax in one of the many onsen (hot springs) that give the town its name. Supposedly discovered in 110 A.D., Zao’s hot springs are the oldest in the Tohoku region. The waters are renowned for their high-acidity which helps heal skin conditions and gastrointestinal disorders – whatever the benefits, this is bathtime at its most epic.
There are three public bathhouses and each hotel has its own fully fitted onsen too.
However, it’s the three open-air onsen you should make time for.
The Dai Rotenburo (Big Outdoor Spring) sits deep in a mountain ravine. With views that overlook the surrounding snow-coated mountains and forests, it makes stripping off in front of strangers totally worth it.
Refreshed you can take a cable-car to the top of Mount Zao to get an aerial view the juhyo or ice monsters – rows of snow-covered trees that look like gnarled creatures out of a dreamscape which you’ll have skied or boarded through earlier. Temperatures this high can get as low as -20C so make sure to wrap up warm.
If you miss the winter season – don’t worry. Zao Onsen is a hiker’s paradise during the rest of the year. Mountain guides can be hired to show you around or simply choose one of its many courses and explore by yourself. Most routes lead to the enormous Okama crater, or the Five Color Lake, in the middle of volcanic Mount Zao. Take the Zao Echo Line trail to Kattadake, from where you can get a view of the crater from a picture-perfect distance.