Zao Onsen in Yamagata City is located in the middle-east of Yamagata Prefecture. It is a famous area with a history going back some 1,900 years. Of course, you can enjoy hot springs year-round, but we strongly recommend visiting Zao Onsen in the winter.
The reason? Because you can enjoy winter activities at one of Japan’s largest ski resorts and experience rime frost and Juhyo - “snow monsters” - which are curious natural phenomena.
While Zao Onsen’s renowned hot springs can be enjoyed year-round, bathing among the snowy scenery is something special. So, this winter, we recommend heading over to Zao Onsen with all its charms.
- Table of Contents
- What kind of place is Zao Onsen?
- Access: How to get to Zao Onsen
- Day 1: Zao Onsen Ski Resort (Time Required: 4 Hours)
- See the Zao 'Juhyo' Snow Monsters from Above on the Zao Ropeway (Time Required: About 1 Hour)
- Relax in a Hot Onsen Bath (Time Required: About 1 Hour)
- Dinner at Otochaya (Time Required: About 90 Minutes)
- Day 2: Morning Bath at Yunohana Chaya Shinzaemon no Yu (Time Required: About 1 Hour)
- Shopping and Lunch at Zao Center Plaza (Time Required: About 2 Hours)
- Sake Tasting at Yamagata Sake Museum & Bar Tsumami
1Day 1: Zao Onsen Ski Resort (Time Required: 4 Hours)
2See the Zao 'Juhyo' Snow Monsters from Above on the Zao Ropeway (Time Required: About 1 Hour)
3Relax in a Hot Onsen Bath (Time Required: About 1 Hour)
4Dinner at Otochaya (Time Required: About 90 Minutes)
5Day 2: Morning Bath at Yunohana Chaya Shinzaemon no Yu (Time Required: About 1 Hour)
6Shopping and Lunch at Zao Center Plaza (Time Required: About 2 Hours)
7Sake Tasting at Yamagata Sake Museum & Bar Tsumami
What kind of place is Zao Onsen?
Zao is one of the most popular sightseeing spots in the Tohoku region. It refers to Mount Zao and its mountain range which spans between Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures.
Zao is a resort where you can enjoy hot springs and winter activities. The site is so big that the address is split between Zao Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture and Zao-cho in Miyagi Prefecture.
The standard major sightseeing spots are Okama, the emerald green crater lake, the unique natural phenomenon of soft rime, and hot springs.
Unfortunately, the Okama area is off-limits during the winter season. Still, people swiftly forget about this because you can experience rime frost in other areas of Zao, alongside some fun snow activities.
Rime frost, the main attraction of Zao in winter, can be seen in both prefectures. Tours are available from Zao Ropeway in Yamagata Prefecture and Sumikawa Snowpark in Miyagi Prefecture.
Both Zao Juhyo Tours (requiring reservations) use snowcats to reach the rime frost area. Also, at “Zao Onsen Ski Resort” near the Zao Ropeway, you can ski and snowboard in the rime frost area, which is truly a memorable activity for your Japan travels!
So, we put together a 2-day winter sightseeing plan at Zao Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture, where you can casually enjoy the rime frost.
Access: How to get to Zao Onsen
To reach Zao Onsen from Tokyo by train, take the Yamagata Shinkansen “Tsubasa” from JR Tokyo Station to JR Yamagata Station. It will take about 2 hours and 25 - 55 minutes.
Once you reach JR Yamagata Station, get on the Yamako Bus from Yamagata Station for about 37 minutes. Once you get off at the final destination Zao Onsen Bus Terminal, you will arrive at the central area of Zao, Zao Onsen full of gift shops and hot spring inns.
If you are traveling by air, you will depart from Haneda Airport via JAL and arrive at Yamagata Airport. To reach the Zao Onsen area, taking the sightseeing taxi “Oishi Yamagata Kankou Unko Liner” (requires reservation) is a pretty convenient option.
Day 1: Zao Onsen Ski Resort (Time Required: 4 Hours)
We will start our trip from Zao Onsen Ski Resort, located about 10 minutes on foot from Zao Onsen Station. With a total area of 305 hectares, the vast site has 14 slopes and 12 courses, and it is full of skiers and snowboarders.
First, you need to purchase a ski lift ticket at “Zao Base Center Jupeer,” located at the foot of Uwanodai Slope. You can travel light since they have skis, snowboards and ski wear for rent.
Once you are ready, head to the slopes! Zao Onsen Ski Resort has a nice variety of courses, so it is good to take a look beforehand. We strongly recommend the “Jyuhyogen Course (rime frost course),” where you can enjoy various fun slopes and rime frost.
See the Zao 'Juhyo' Snow Monsters from Above on the Zao Ropeway (Time Required: About 1 Hour)
To view the Juhyo "snow monsters", we recommend taking the ropeway. The resort has three ropeways, but Zao Ropeway is the only one where you can get a view of the rime frost fields.
Get on at Zao Sanroku Station and transfer to the Sancho Line at Juhyo-Kogen Station, then get off at Jizo Sancho Station. From the peak, you can get a breathtaking view of the rime frost fields.
At Jizo Sancho Stanton, you can warm up at the restaurant in the station that serves local cuisine and coffee while you view the rime frost from the window seats. Also, don’t forget to go to the rooftop observatory deck!
- Address 229-3, Zao Onsen, Yamagata Shi, Yamagata Ken, 990-2301, Japan
- Phone Number 023-694-9518
Hours: Sanroku Line 8:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m., Sancho Line 8:45 a.m. - 4:45 p.m.
Price: Adult oneway 1,500 yen, children 800 yen
Relax in a Hot Onsen Bath (Time Required: About 1 Hour)
After your winter activities, how about relaxing in a hot spring? In the hot spring district, there are three communal bathing areas: Kaminoyu Kyodoyokujo, Shimonoyu Kyodoyokujo, and Kawahara Kyodoyokujo. It takes about 10 minutes on foot to reach all three of these communal baths from Zao Base Center Jupeer. They are all within 100 meters of each other, so you can even go hot spring hopping.
This time we went to Kaminoyu Kyodoyokujo, which is the closest to the ski resort. Put the bathing fee into the payment box located at the entrance, and head on in! The water is a bit on the hotter side and has a slightly cloudy color. The feeling of the hot spring warming you up after all that snowy sight-seeing is truly relaxing.
- Address 45-1, Zao Onsen, Yamagata Shi, Yamagata Ken, 990-2301, Japan
- Phone Number 023-694-9328
Hours: 6:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Price: Adult 200 yen, children 100 yen
Dinner at Otochaya (Time Required: About 90 Minutes)
Next, it’s time for dinner at the cozy restaurant Otochaya, which is located about a 10-minute walk away from Kaminoyu Kyodoyokujo.
Since they have English speaking staff, it is a popular shop with overseas visitors. They have dishes such as the “Oyaji no Beef Curry” (880 yen) made with Yamagata-gyu beef, and the “Signature dish Tsurami” (1,000 yen), a ham made with Yamagata-gyu beef cheek meat. Another great thing about the shop is the wide variety of drinks they have, such as the 20 types of craft beer. You can even enjoy a fantastic dinner with delicious craft beer.
- Address 935-24, Zao Onsen, Yamagata Shi, Yamagata Ken, 990-2301, Japan
- Phone Number 023-694-9081
Hours: Weekday 10:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m. (winter season starts from 12/22 10:00 a.m. - 12:00 a.m.)
Closed: Wednesday, winter season one irregular holiday per month
Day 2: Morning Bath at Yunohana Chaya Shinzaemon no Yu (Time Required: About 1 Hour)
We have to take advantage of what Zao Onsen is famous for, and take a morning bath at the day trip bathing facility Shinzaemon no Yu, which is about 5 minutes on foot from the Zao Onsen bus terminal.
Here you can enjoy various baths such as “Mogami Takayu,” a hot spring with water pumped directly from the source, and the “Shi-Roku no Yu” with soft water features. Another key feature is they have spacious segregated outdoor baths. Bathing while looking at the snowscape is a uniquely Japanese experience that you must try. They also have a free resting area perfect for relaxing after your bath.
Yunohana Chaya Shinzaemon no Yu湯の花茶屋 新左衛門の湯
- Address Kawamae905, Zao Onsen, Yamagata Shi, Yamagata Ken, 990-2301, Japan
- Phone Number 023-693-1212
Hours: 10:00am-6:30pm (Reception is open until 6:00pm), Saturdays, Sundays and holidays 10:00am-9:30pm (Reception is open until 9:00pm)
Price: Adult 750 yen, Child 400 yen
Shopping and Lunch at Zao Center Plaza (Time Required: About 2 Hours)
After your soak, let’s head over to ZAO Center Plaza for some lunch and shopping. It is located about two minutes on foot from Yunohana Chaya Shinzaemon no Yu.
At “Omiyagidokoro Minoriya” on the first floor, you can find various standard Zao Onsen souvenirs such as sweets, and arts and crafts. Since it’s a duty-free shop, you can do some discount shopping. The highly recommended “Zao no Shirabe (5 in a box, 1,000 yen)” is a baked cheesecake made with cheese from Zao with a rich cheese flavor.
If you get hungry, we recommend heading over to “Sobadokoro Yuyu-Tei.” Their signature dish is the Yamagata specialty handmade soba. The soba handmade with the clean water for Zao has great flavor and goes down smoothly.
Zao Center PlazaZAOセンタープラザ
- Address 903-2 Zao-Onsen, Yamagata-Shi, Yamagata 990-2301, Japan
- Phone Number 023-694-9251
Hours: 9:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m., hours may vary depending on the shop
Sake Tasting at Yamagata Sake Museum & Bar Tsumami
To finish our trip in Zao, let’s head over to “Yamagata Sake Museum & Bar Tsumami,” which is about a 3-minute walk from “Zao Center Plaza.”
The facility is split between the “Yamagata Sake Museum,” which sells sake from the 49 breweries in Yamagata, and “Bar Tsumami,” where you can enjoy Yamagata’s local cuisine. They also offer sake tasting starting from 300 yen per glass. As a side note, the bus terminal and Zao Tourist Association provide free drink coupons (limited to one glass per person.” We recommend acquiring a ticket before visiting. If you find a sake for your liking, you can always buy it as a souvenir.
Bar Tsumami starts from 5:00 p.m. If you plan to spend another night in Zao, we recommend having dinner here.
Yamagata Sake Museum and Yukemuri Bar Tsumami山形酒のミュージアム&湯けむり屋台つまみ
- Address 951, Zao Onsen, Yamagata Shi, Yamagata Ken, 990-2301, Japan
- Phone Number 023-694-9052
Hours: 11:00 - 10:00 p.m. (Bar Tsmami starts from 5:00 p.m.)
There you have it! At Zao Onsen, you can experience winter activities, hot springs, food and sightseeing that is all within walking distance. You can easily arrange the time table that was used here to your liking. You can follow the plan here or arrange it to experience winter Zao Onsen.
Text by: SHOE PRESs
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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