Mild, hot mineral smells steam in abundance from creeks, small lots around houses and keep the roads and sidewalks warm and free of snow in mid winter in Zao Onsen, Japan’s original sleepy little ski town.
The legend of skiing in Japan is blanketed in hundreds of centimeters of snow, steaming savory bowls of ramen and gracious smiles and many thanks of arigato gozaimas! Zao Onsen is a quaint, quiet mountain town and has it all. If you are after steep terrain, ski resort amenities, this may not be for you. What Zao does offer however is lots of history , culture and authenticity mixed with a subtle resort town vibe.
Where to Stay
For a traditional ryokan experience, Yoshidaya Ryokan is proximate to the ski hill, free public onsens and has excellent and friendly staff.
What to Eat
Zao Onsen has lots of great options for a tiny little ski resort town. There are two local brew pub style restaurants that have local and imported craft beer. There is also a secret family run ramen spot with great ambiance, music and lots of sochu and sake.
Onsen Soaking 101
As a westerner with tattoos, I was self-conscious about treading on years of tradition and taboo of tattoos in public hot springs due to the association with the criminal class, the Yakuza. I found this to be no big deal in Zao Onsen and asked around. Using my tanguy or tiny little towel you take into the onsen, I did my best to cover up my ink. Be sure to check with locals or onsen managers to see their policy. Here are some more rules for first timers:
- Wash up, really well. As a gaijan or foreigner, the least you can do is scrub yourself extra well to get off your gaijan grease, especially after skiing.
- Avoid talking. Onsen’s are public spaces where people go to chill and relax, not hear your banter.
- Onsens are regulated by the government for quality, but temperature and mineral content can vary. This means there are hot ones and cooler ones. Find your threshold and find the right tub that meets your needs for r & r.
- Get naked. This is mind blowing for some westerners. Just do it.
- A lot of onsens are divided by gender. Just a heads up.
- Don’t let your tanguy touch the water. Put it on your head, this is hip style.