Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on February 2013

Zao Onsen, one of Tohoku’s oldest hot springs, has much to offer. Not only are there great facilities for relaxing in soothing hot spring water but the Zao Mountains are prime trekking territory during the warm seasons and they become a fantastic ski resort during winter.

Come January and February, Zao Onsen is completely snowed in. There is no place left that is not covered in lots of snow. Icicles are hanging from the roofs of the houses and even the local shrine is not spared; the red torii gate looks out from under the snow groaning under the snow’s weight.

Streets, passageways, car parks and houses need to be kept clear of snow so that people can pass. The locals are kept busy during winter season for sure.

The only snow-free places outside are those where the hot spring water bubbles to the surface, or where hot steam is vending.

The grim conditions do not deter winter sports enthusiasts though. They come in droves to enjoy skiing and snowboarding at Zao Ski Resort followed by relax time at one of the hot spring baths.

There is more though: Zao boost an attraction that seeks its equal – the Zao Snow Monsters. These monsters even get their own festival – the Zao Snow Monster Festival. It takes place at the first weekend of February each year.

Hello Tirol

What do Zao in Japan and Tirol in Austria have in common? The answer is mountains, lots of them, and masses of snow in winter making for ideal winter sports conditions. Hence the two cities have a “sister city” partnership.

The keen observer will soon find that many accommodations in Zao Onsen have German-sounding names, like Pension Tirol or Hotel Sonne. Or, how about a restaurant called Fressgasse?

Even three of the eight ski schools in Zao are Tirol-themed, at least in their names: Austria, Zao Heim and Zao Freizeit. The Austrians, and other German-speakers, must feel right at home here.

Ski lessons in German are not on offer but you can get instructions in English, or Japanese of course.

Lessons are offered to people of all ages and levels of ability. You can book either group lessons or private lessons and you will even get a certificate.

At a dizzy height, on top of one of the mountains surrounding Zao Onsen, you will find a Toni Sailer memorial. Toni even has a ski course named after him – the Sailer Course. This befits Austria’s most famous alpine ski racer.

If you are after a bit of Tirol in Japan, great family fun or an adventure-backed winter sports weekend only a short Shinkansen ride away from Tokyo, then come to Zao Onsen and Zao Ski Resort.

Alena Eckelmann is the Yamagata Regional Partner for JapanTourist.jp