About three hours north of Tokyo via Japan Rail, Zao Onsen is one of Japan’s largest ski resorts. Here winter sports are king, thanks to the area’s excellent powder conditions and wide range of courses covering a large area. However, what sets this ski resort apart from others in the world, are the natural hot spring onsen baths and the mysterious, natural Juhyo (“Snow Monster”) ice sculptures.
Because of Zao’s unique weather conditions, trees become completely covered in ice and snow so that they no longer look like trees at all. Instead they look like snow monsters! The Juhyo can be seen from morning till dusk if you board the Zao Ropeway, which starts at the foot of the mountain.
However, they become even more magical and mystical when lit up after dark. For 53 designated days (including all weekends) from late December to early Marcy, the Juhyo are brilliantly lit against the night sky.
Visitors can see them up close on the spectacular “Juhyo Corridor of Fantasy” tour, or they can get a panorama view from the ropeway on the “Juhyo Light Up” tour.
Accommodations options abound in the area, from modest inns to elaborate luxury resorts, and a number of them feature h0t-springs spas or bath houses – sometimes even en suite (above and top) – which is something the Japanese love to do in winter. There are public hot springs baths, as well, open year round.
After the snow and ice melt and the flowers open their petals wide, Zao Onsen is also worth visiting during warmer weather. Adventurers can trek the hills, while meeting the locals and escaping the city heat. In autumn, the true identity of the “snow monsters” is revealed, with leaves in hues of gold and crimson that beckon traveler with their colourful beauty.