Ski Hiking on Mt. Zao

Yamagata Prefecture

At the start of February we made a personal trip to the Mt. Zao next to Yamagata City to try a special form of snow hiking here in Northern Japan.

This was ski hiking and uses special wide skis with pads on the back of them that allow them to grip the snow and be used as snow shoes, but also slide down slopes like normal skis.

As you walk, the bindings on the skis allow the heels of your shoes to lift up which allows them to glide over the snow without you having to physically lift them. This made them require far less energy to use than normal snow shoes and very easily to fall in love with.

Gliding Over the Fresh Powder of Zao

Mt. Zao is best known as one of the top skiing and snowboarding destinations in Japan, renown for its fresh powder and onsen town with over 1,900 years of history. However, this fresh powder also makes for some stunning landscapes perfect for exploration! Hiking in the winter is an entirely different kind of experience from normal hiking as you are no longer confined to trails or paths. Brush and rocks that would normally block you are buried under over 8 ft of snow and we were and able to explore freely through the white landscape.

Its important to note however that this freedom also can be a double-edged sword as it is easy to get lost especially if a snow storm blows in and masks your foot prints behind you and decreases your visibility.

You should always be sure to go with an experienced mountain guide even if you plan to stick close to the trail head or roads.

For this hike we went with a local outdoor group called Ideha, who had a true mountain man named Mr. Nitto as well as a member of the Yamagata University Hiking Club named Megumi who both kept us safe during our 5 hour hike.

They took our group through beautiful winter forests and across white fields and also were great company.

Our guides even made a snow table where we had lunch in the forest together!

After lunch they took us to a steep slope with deep power where we were free to wipe out head first into the fresh powder as we tried doing some skiing before heading back.

Overall our time with Mr. Nitto and Megumi made for a fantastic day adventure taking in the best that winter has to offer.

The snowy forests and pure white scenery that surrounded us was something you can really only experience through a snow hike. We also loved the hiking skis that made this experience quite enjoyable and easy for anyone to join.

After our hike we then went to Zao Onsen where we spent the night in Takasagoya Ryokan to soak in the hot baths rich in sulfur which is believed to help promote healthy blood flow and recovery after a long day out.

Zao Onsen also has a number of public day baths including an outdoor one where you can soak in the baths while looking out at snowy forests.

Derek Yamashita

Derek Yamashita

The Hidden Japan Creative Director. Following his passion to connect with his roots as a Japanese American, Derek started a life in Japan after college living in the deep countryside of Yamagata Prefecture. Falling in love with the trails, cycling courses, fishing and all that the countryside had to offer, Derek co-founded a travel company called The Hidden Japan in 2018. The Hidden Japan focuses on promoting the deeper sides of Japan beyond the big cities by working closely with rural communities to offer order-made boutique tours letting travelers experience Japan alongside the local people.

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