Hot spring seekers and powder snow chasers come together at this resort high in the mountains of Yamagata. As you can tell by the name, Zao Onsen began its life as an onsen hot spring spa town, but nowadays it's fame as a relaxing retreat is matched by its reputation for amazing skiing and snowboarding.
But if you’re looking to hit the slopes, watch out for the “monsters” which call the mountain home. The Zao Snow Monsters are completely harmless, but they do make for quite a bizarre sight — ranks of thousands of fir trees completely coated in snow by cold Siberian winds from the northwest.
The onsen town itself is totally monster-free, and its springs benefit from some of the most sulfuric water of any in Japan. A pH value close to 1 means they’re also some of the most acidic, and so have some unique rejuvenating qualities. To make use of this, head to any of the public baths, open-air baths, or traditional ryokan inns around town.
There’s really no better way to ease those third-day leg aches after you’ve finished carving up the freshly powdered ski slopes.