The best Yamagata destinations to add to your skiing Japan list

Ginzan Onsen, photo credit: Shutterstock

With the promise of borders opening up soon, we’re all raring at the opportunity to fly to Japan and experience the ‘Japow’. But while many will flock straight to the most well-known resorts, we’ve got the best tips on where to go when you’re looking to get away from the crowds. After all – there’s nothing like a post-pandemic snow trip to cheer you up, especially when you have endless fresh powder to yourself and unique little snow towns to explore.

Enter Yamagata Prefecture. Easily accessible via bullet train from Tokyo, Yamagata is a hidden gem of ski resorts, historic castles, spectacular mountains and giant ice-covered trees that the locals refer to as ‘Snow Monsters’.

Use the destination as one stop on a wider trip across Japan, or stay for weeks and really get to know the friendly locals; the choice is all yours.

Here are the top three Yamagata destinations to add to your snow-lovers bucket list for ticking off.

Zao Onsen Ski Resort

Zao Onsen is a ski and hot spring resort that’s popular with the locals. You’ll find it tucked between the mountains, just 40 minutes from Yamagata Station. Spot it by looking out for the ‘Snow Monsters’, giant fir trees lined with ice and snow to create and incredible-looking landscape.

The Zao Onsen tradition dates all the way back to 110 AD, when the Japanese first discovered the healing properties of the water here. You’ll find people here year-round, bathing in the forest onsen, and hiking or cycling in the summer; but in winter it really comes alive, with skiing and snowboarding by day, and everyone enjoying the après onsen facilities by night.

If you’ve come for the relaxing kind of ski holiday, you’ll be in bliss. There’s a rotenburo bath experience in the great outdoors where you can onsen soak while the snow is falling; or foot baths where you can remove your ski boots and soothe your weary legs for free.

Hardcore powder hounds will be happy too – 36 lifts and 305 hectares to explore means you won’t get bored, and with it being such a local resort, there are few people exploring the backcountry – meaning you’ll have those freshies all to yourself.

Ginzan Onsen

Ginzan Onsen is a fairy tale; like what would happen if the movie ‘Spirited Away’ came to life and landed in the middle of Japan. With wooden ryokan (hot spring inns) lining the Ginzan River, lit with gas street lamps, you’ll feel like you’re stepping back in time.

Keep an eye out for all the special little touches, like the snowflake designs on the tiles on the roads, a nod to the stunning winter nights in Ginzan; or the colourful pictures, also known as Kote-e, on the walls of the accommodation.

You’ll find plenty of cafes, restaurants and gift shops to wander through, and more footbaths to rest any weary feet from exploring. If you want something that’ll really impress your Insta followers, you can even rent a costume from the Taisho period and wander around town in it; taking you back in time along the way.

Find the town via an approximately 3-hour Shinkansen (bullet train ride) from Tokyo, followed by a 40 minute bus ride.

Mount Haguro Pagoda

Every skier and boarder knows that the snow is remarkable in Japan; but the other beauty isthe opportunity to experience sites of cultural authenticity, especially some of the national treasures of spirituality.

One of them is the Five Story Pagoda, the oldest wooden structure in the Tohoku region, dating back to about the year 931. This stunning pagoda can be found on Mt Haguro, which has attracted Japanese pilgrims and mountain monks since the 6th century AD.

You can follow in their footsteps along a two-kilometre walk through the cedar forest, finding other temples and shrines along the way too; including the Dewa Sanzan Shrine, which features 2,446 stone steps to the very top. There are plenty of fascinating stories to be discovered with many of these structures, such as the local people who take turns climbing the pagoda to clear the snow from the roof each year.

It’s well worth the trip, take a rental car or brave the old-school buses. Break at the traditional Ninosaka Chaya teahouse to pick up a sweet to give you energy – a Chikara-mochi, which translates to ‘strength-giving rice cakes’ – before you carry on to your next adventure.

Convinced? We’ll see you there. For more on the best Yamagata destinations and the most popular winter destinations to be found, click here.

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