Sunday, February 18, 2018

Zao Fox Village and Zao Onsen Skiing: 4 Day Itinerary / Guide.

When you do your research for ski areas in Japan, Zao Onsen doesn't normally headline the list - that honour typically goes to the mountains in Hokkaido, followed closely by those in Nagano. But for the beginner / intermediate skiier/snowboarder who doesn't yet have the stamina to pull off week-long ski trips, Zao Onsen really does have a lot to offer.

The mountain has lots of variety, it snows a decent amount (5 to 7 meters a season), and the powder's relatively dry. But it's proximity to both Tokyo and a few other amazing attractions make it a perfect ski destination for a short trip away from the capital city. Before we proceed with our detailed itinerary / guide, though, check out our video from the 2017/2018 season!

Without further ado, here's the breakdown:

Day 1: Miyagi Zao Fox Village and Mount Zao Juhyo (snow monsters) night viewing.
Day 2-3: Explore the Zao Onsen Ski Resort, recovering with visits to the local village onsens.
Day 4: Stop by Kaminoyama Onsen's best ryokan/hotel for day-use Onsen at Koyo Hotel.

🚄 Travel: Buy the JR East Tohoku-area Pass (¥19000). On Day 1, take an early morning Tohoku Shinkansen to the Shiroishi-Zao station, and then grab a taxi to the Fox Village (¥4500). Spend an hour or two in the village (ok, it should more accurately be called a large zoo), buy ¥100 bags of feed to throw to the foxes, and pay ¥600 to get your photo taken cuddling them.

Zao Fox Village

Once done, ask the nice ladies in the souvenir shop to call you another ¥4500 cab back to the station, and reverse course on the Tohoku Shinkansen to Fukushima. If you time it right you can free up just over an hour for lunch - we had delicious Tsukemen at the nearby Kuon (くおん).

Kuon Tsukemen Fukushima

From Fukushima, we need to switch to the Yamagata Shinkansen and head to ... wait for it ... Yamagata. From there it's a ¥1000 bus ride to the Zao Onsen Bus Terminal (Buses run around once every hour; check their website for exact timings).

Drop your bags at your ryokan / hotel of choice, before walking over to the Zao Ropeway (it's the South-most of the three "base areas" in the village) to catch a ¥2600 Gondola ride up to catch the illuminated night Juhyo viewing. Word of warning: it's cold and windy on the top of the mountain (-14°C when we visited; -29°C with windchill), so be properly dressed.

Zao Night Illuminated Juhyo Snow Monsters

On the morning of Day 4, or after you're done with all the skiing or snowboarding you want, take the shuttle bus back down to Yamagata (another ¥1000), and backtrack one station to Kaminoyama Onsen. There's quite a bit of sightseeing to be done here as well, but if like us your legs aren't up to the task, grab a ¥750 taxi to the amazing Koyo Hotel (full name: Nippon no Yado Koyo) nearby. The hotel has two grand onsens on the 1st and 8th floor, with the 8th floor rotenburo (outdoor onsen) having an amazing view over the entire onsen village and the mountain range behind.

Nippon no Yado Koyo Ryokan Nippon no Yado Koyo Ryokan

When you're all refreshed, get the receptionist to call you a taxi (¥750) for your shinkansen journey back to Tokyo via the Kaminoyama Onsen station.

🛌 Sleep: Try to get a hotel, ryokan or inn fairly close to either of the three base areas. There are also a few ski-in/ski-out locations on the slopes, but these are a bit iffy because of how far away they are from the center of the village (which is where the convenience stores and other shops are)., and the other usual suspects are serviceable, but in our search we found that Rakuten Travel had the widest variety of properties available. We ended up booking breakfast and dinner plans in Suzunoya Ryokan, which had pretty good food and warm service, but was also quite past its prime and a little behind on the maintenance and upkeep.

Zao Onsen Suzunoya Ryokan

🍛 Eat: Japanese Onsen/Ski Villages tend to have few nightlife options, and Zao Onsen is no exception. In fact, I'd go so far as to say you should almost definitely book a dinner plan with the Ryokan of your choice, because there are very few restaurants scattered around town, and you probably don't want to refuel your body with convenience store pot/cup noodles and crisps after a whole day on the slopes.

For lunch, the Uwodanai area has two cafes - if you're based here, the ramen option on the lower floor is vastly superior to the swill served upstairs.

On the way back to Tokyo, I highly recommend stopping by Kaminoyama Onsen / Koyo Hotel. Uniquely, Koyo doesn't allow day use of their Onsen: You have to book a higaeri plan, which involves checking you into one of their delightful rooms for about 5 hours, serving you a delicious multi-course shabu-shabu (¥11000) or sukiyaki meal (¥10000), and then letting you enjoy their amazing onsen. Note that day-use requires pre-reservations: The easiest way for us gaijins is probably via email initiated via their website.

Kaminoyama Onsen Koyo Ryokan Higaeri Day Use

So there you have it, ~2 full days of ski'ing with two amazing side trips! If you have any questions please don't hesitate to ask us in the comments section; and do let us know if this post was useful for you!

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