Roughly 20km southeast of Yamagata city, ZAŌ ONSEN (蔵王温泉) is the main focus of activity in the Zaō quasi-national park, an attractive region of volcanoes, crater lakes and hot springs. In winter (Dec to late March), the resort offers some of Japan’s best skiing, with a dozen or so runs to choose from, as well as night skiing and onsen baths to soak away the aches and pains. Non-skiers can enjoy the cable-car ride over Juhyō Kōgen, where a thick covering of snow and hoarfrost transforms the plateau’s fir trees into giant “snow monsters” (juhyō).
Head southeast from the bus station for ten minutes and you will reach the Zaō Sanroku Ropeway (蔵王山麓ロープウェイ), which whisks you up to Juhyō Kōgen. The juhyō are at their best in February, though you can see photos of them at other times of year in the Juhyō Museum (daily 9am–4pm; free), located in the ropeway terminal building. A second ropeway continues up from here to Zaō Jizō Sanchō Station at 1661m. This top station lies between Sampō Kōjin-san (1703m) and Jizō-san (1736m), just two of the peaks that make up the ragged profile of Zaō-san. In the summer hiking season (May–Oct) you can follow the right-hand (southeasterly) path over Jizō-san and Kumano-dake (1841m) for spectacular views and a fairly rugged hour’s walk to the desolate, chemical-blue Okama crater lake (お釜).
There are a number of ski runs in the area, and a shuttle bus (mid-Dec to late-March; ¥100) moves skiers and snowboarders between them. Consult the Skier’s Guide maps, available at the tourist office, for the difficulty level of each run (green is beginner, red is intermediate and black is advanced). There is a variety of passes available for day and night skiing, with prices ranging from ¥4200 to ¥11,500. Passes include access to all 38 chairlifts; the use of the ropeways and cable cars costs extra.
To recover after skiing, the area has plenty of public baths where you can have a good, long soak. The unforgettable Dai-rotemburo (大露天風呂), overflowing with steamy sulphur-laden water, is large enough to ease the aching muscles of more than two hundred visitors at once.