Beautiful scenery with no crowds, but more suited for skiing.
Zao is very easily accessed via public transport. Just a shinkansen (bullet train) to Yamagata station, and then a 45 minute bus ride direct to the Zao village.
We stayed at the Lucent Takamiya hotel, which is directly in front of the Chuo (central) Ropeway. The ropeway runs every 15 minutes, which was really convenient.
The problem was trying to read the maps and signs to get from the top of the ropeway to lifts. I thought the signage could be more clear, even though I can read Japanese! For example, they use numbers to show lifts on the paper map they give you, but the lifts themselves often do not have any numbers on them.
That said, after a few days we got used to the resort and figured out our favourite runs.
What we really loved was that the resort is not overcrowded, even on weekends. It had just snowed so we expected a big crowd on Saturday and Sunday, but this was not the case. On the weekdays, we had a lot of the runs to ourselves! Most of the runs are beginner friendly, even the few red ones.
The dry powder snow at Zao is really unbeatable. Our snow jackets and pants were always completely dry at the end of the day, regardless of sinking many times into the soft powder. The snow sticks to the trees and makes everything white. It is absolutely stunning.
We really enjoyed going right up to the top of the mountain to ski amongst the snow monsters. Unfortunately due to snow, it was really cold and quite foggy, but it was still a cool experience. At night, they light up the snow monsters and you can take a ropeway ride to see them all glowing in the dark. This was really beautiful but again, freezing, so definitely dress warmly!
The food quality at Zao is good, and we managed to eat lunch somewhere different for 6 days trying different dishes. I recommend the nabeyaki udon, a specialty at one of the little food huts.
The other comment I need to make is that due to the resort being quite old, the layout probably suits skiers much more than snowboarders like myself. I had to traverse a lot, and there was many times I found a bunch of snowboarders simply unbuckling and walking due to flat ground. My husband is a skier, so he had it much easier (unless he was pulling me).
Zao Onsen village has several options for dinner, and we even found a cute little pizza shop! I think you still get a somewhat authentic Japanese experience here, but not sure how long it will be before the Aussies invade like they have done in Hokkaido / Nagano, so get there before that happens!
Overall, the scenery, quality of snow and the long runs make Zao a really nice resort!
From 29 January, 2015 To 04 February, 2015
Snow condition on visit:
We had a lot of snow for most of our 6 days at Zao. Great to wake up to fresh powder most mornings!
Things I liked:
Scenery, snow monsters, lack of crowds, powder, powder, powder