Hot Springs Eternal

When Zen is not enough, then go for the Zao…

By David the Applebaum

It is coming up on spring break. Some of you (some of us?) are planning on leaving Japan for a break, some are staying in Japan for a little in-country traveling, and some are not planning to go anywhere at all. To each their own, as the saying goes.  Of course, you could do the “Japanese teacher” thing and not take a vacation at all. You could go to the staff room every day of the vacation, but even for those staff-roomers, I suggest getting away for the weekend at least!

I’m not sure of the official definition, but are there rules to a stay-cation? Can you leave your city? Are you expected to stay in your region? Who makes these rules? I say a stay-cation is staying within a nation’s borders… in this case, staying in Japan. Luckily, this country has enough within it’s borders that you won’t be at a lack for what to do. For those people who are not leaving the country over spring break, I have a great get-away idea for you… especially if you love skiing and snowboarding. Think about heading to Zao Onsen on the border between Yamagata and Miyagi. The ski-slopes are open till early May!

You can get to Zao Onsen from Sendai. There is a bus that leaves from Sendai Station. Once you arrive, it is like a different world. This onsen was reputedly discovered about 1900 years ago, and I imagine that people started skiing there when they realized that they didn’t deserve the luxury of bathing in the onsen, without having earned it somehow. This ski-resort is known all over Japan for its sheer size. There are onsen-hotels everywhere, and people walking around in yukatas while others are wearing ski-gear. It is also known for it’s “snow monsters”, which are trees that are caked in snow. The snow-monsters are illuminated at night… how great is that?

For the ski enthusiasts, the map of Zao Onsen’s ski hills looks a little like the map of the Tokyo Subway, there are so many options and runs, you could probably spend three days there and it would feel only like 72 hours had gone by.

For the onsen-people… or those people who pretend to be ski-people, but are really just secretly using skiing as a way to get to the onsen, this town is a fantasy. The waters are acidic, sulphur springs. They have all kinds of health benefits, but perhaps most importantly, they rejuvenate and strengthen the skin. Because of these qualities, Zao Onsen has the nickname of the “Springs of Beauty”. Hard to say no to that, eh?

There are 3 public baths, which I might add are each wonderful. They are small huts with one bath and that’s it, but they are wonderful. You can just drop in for 10 minutes if you like, no need to stay an hour. If I lived there, I would probably stop in every day on my way to and from school.  There are 3 public foot baths too. Where better to sit and chat with an old (or a new) friend, while your feet soak in the thermal waters of the “Springs of Beauty”. Who doesn’t want beautiful feet?!!

 There are 5 hotels that offer day-visits to their onsens too, and each one is probably worth visiting. This is fine onsen’ing at its best.

For enticing pictures and prices for the ski lift passes, as well as general information check out the links below (a full day pass is about 5000yen):

Places to stay:

Ah, you may be thinking, but how will I find a place to stay at a busy ski-resort during the winter break? Good question, if you feel like splurging, you can get a hotel room for about 10,000yen+ per person… there should be a few of those still available, but if that doesn’t work, you might consider staying at a love-hotel. There are love-hotels all over Japan, and quite often they are located close to onsen-towns. There are so many ALTs who have never stayed at a love-hotel, and that is too bad, because like capsule-hotels, they are a truly unique experience.

Love-hotels are often much cheaper than regular stuffy business hotels, and the rooms have themes and colours. You get lots of free stuff too… like shampoos, soaps and personal care stuff. If you haven’t stayed at a love-hotel, you might be thinking that they are dodgy places and you have to go there to have crazy, wild sex. That is not the reality though. They are hotels, and anyone can stay there. I have stayed at love-hotels on my own when they were the cheapest option. I know a couple who stayed at a love-hotel with one of their moms when she came to visit. Really, it is just a bed and they are very clean! The sheets are as clean as any other hotel, and the rooms are cleaned very well.

I came across an English guide to using a love-hotel. Check it out:

Side note: the onsen city of Beppu released this promotional video of a possible spamusement park, and they said that if they got 1 million views, they would actually build something like it. It is quite funny… Have a look at the link below. Beppu, incidentally, is a great onsen town, some people find it a little too kitschy, but for the record, it has the world’s highest thermal water output at a comfortable bathing temperature, which translates to “not scalding” (more than 83,000 liters per minute- that is a lot of water!)


3 thoughts on “When Zen is not enough, then go for the Zao…

  1. Pingback: Feb Vol 2 – GMA In Trouble, We Need You – Good Morning Aomori

  2. Pingback: Fox Villages and Calderas; the Miyagi-Magic of Zao | Good Morning Aomori

  3. Loved Zao Onsen. Went in early March just for the day, not to ski but to be a visitor checking out the sights. Snow monsters were sensational.

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