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About three hours north of Tokyo, via Japan Rail's Yamagata Shinkansen, is Zao Onsen in Yamagata prefecture, one of Japan's largest ski resorts. Here winter sports are king, thanks to the area's excellent powder conditions and wide range of courses covering a large area. However, what sets this ski resort apart from others in the world, are the natural hot spring onsen baths and the mysterious, natural Juhyo or "Snow Monster" ice sculptures.
Because of Zao's unique weather conditions, trees become completely covered in ice and snow so that they no longer look like trees at all. Instead they look like snow monsters! The Juhyo can be seen from morning till dusk if you board the Zao Ropeway, which starts at the foot of the mountain.
However, they become even more magical and mystical when they are lit up after dark. For 53 designated days -- mostly on weekends -- this winter from Saturday, December 23 to Sunday, March 4, the Juhyo will be brilliantly lit against the night sky.
Visitors can see them up close on the spectacular "Juhyo Corridor of Fantasy" tour, or they can have a panorama view from the ropeway on the "Juhyo Light Up" tour.
The Zao Astraea Hotel: directly linked to the ski slopes, with guest-only open-air hot spring baths and breathtaking views.
So where should travelers stay when they are experiencing Zao Onsen?
The Zao Astrea Hotel (https://www.zaoastraea.com/english/), at an altitude of 950 meters (3,117 ft), is one of the highest in the area. From its rotenburo -- open-air hot spring bath called "Zekkeiroten-no-yu," guests can luxuriously gaze out at the Asahi Mountains, while soaking in the mineral-rich water, drawn directly from Zao Onsen's spring source.
Then when they are ready to venture out to ski, snowboard, or commune with nature's snowy white splendor, there's no place more convenient. The hotel is seamlessly linked to the ski slopes and easily accessible to the embarkation point of the Zao Ropeway -- the base point for viewing the Juhyo or taking Juhyo Corridor of Fantasy tour.
Inside, the hotel is warm and comfortable, but it's especially noteworthy for its cuisine. Carefully selected fresh and local specialties includes prized Yamagata-raised, Yamagata beef and seasonal local vegetables.
Visiting "Zao Onsen" from April through March
After the snow and ice melt and the flowers open their petals wide, "Zao Onsen" is worth another trip in summer. Adventurers can trek the hills, while meeting the locals and escaping the city heat. In autumn the true identity of the snow monsters is revealed, with leaves in hues of gold and crimson that beckon traveler with their colorful beauty.
At the same time, the area's largest outdoor public bath (open April to November), situated stream-side, welcomes and soothes wearing hikers transfixed on mother nature.
For more information on Zao Onsen or to book a ski or snowboarding package at the Zao Astraea Hotel, visit: Beauty-of-Japan.com. The Zao Astraea Hotel is a member of the Tobu Railway Group and Japan travel agency, Beauty of Japan, is a Tobu partner company.