One lift for the rest of your life | Sanroku-Sancho Ropeway

Get ready for snow monsters and a glorious 10km long run in Zao Onsen, Japan

STATS Start 855m | End 1661m 

If you’re going to Zao, you need Mao! And before I even check-in at Lodge Scole (the guesthouse her parents opened in 1973) she’s already arranged a far cheaper taxi than I could find – as my bullet train arrives after the last evening shuttle to resort – and offered a morning show-round of the (in Japanese terms at least) very large mountain. 

And after a simple western-style breakfast served by her mum Sachiko (while Mao buzzes round the other guests and staff) we’re off, clomping up the short, steep road to Uwanodai, the nearest slope. 

There’s no time to dawdle, as I’m only here for the day, and if I’m to see the mighty snow monsters the Japanese call ‘Juhyo’ we need to get to the 3606m long Sanroku-Sancho ropeway fast! 

This Nippon-cabled beast tops-out high above the resort’s other lifts, and promises not only sidecountry missions amongst the snow-engulfed conifers, but also access to the 10km long Juhyogen course that flows into all of Zao’s best slots. 

The only slight issue this Saturday morning, is that we are currently bottom left of the extensive piste map (39 lifts and far too many trails to count), while the two-section ropeway (that starts as an aerial tram, before switching passengers into a more wind-stable Funitel at the mid-station) is far away to the top right.  

But I’ve no need to worry for long, as Mao sets off like an Exocet missile; a blur of bright yellow shell and Tibetan-style hat, poms forever swinging in the middle distance. It turns out she’s a former racer, and has a simple trick for slicing through the weekend crowds: turn, turn, poles and bum to the moon and schuss, schuss, schuss! 

When I do finally catch up, Mao tells me the story of how her parents were inspired to open Lodge Scole after a honeymoon taking-in various celebrated European ski destinations. And I can see why Zao – located in the Yamagata prefecture on Japan’s main island – was their pick; in so many ways it echoes famous French and Swiss spots – all long, raking pistes, oodles of infrastructure, and serious history (with the claim in Zao’s case that their hot spring onsens – hence the name – have been attracting people since AD110).  

These days, plenty of (mainly elderly) Japanese still visit for the healing volcanic waters, but it feels like even more are here for the shrimp-tails. (Oh yes, they have a lot of different names for the absurdly-shaped and frozen Maries firs, that only occur in a handful of resorts, and become ever more Dr Seuss-like through winter, as super-cooled droplets within snow clouds collide with branches and leaves.)  

As a result, loading onto the first ropeway you need to access the Juhyo (the lower Sanroku line at 855m), I’m ticking off a first – I’m in a ski lift outnumbered by (very excited) camera-holders wearing inappropriate winter gear (jacket and tie, or high heels anyone?). Still in a 50-passenger giant box, it’s rather nice to have the room that three-dozen sets of skis would normally take up, and a dab or two of Dior to mask the usual old-sock smell… 

Seven minutes later, as we cross to the second of the twinned ropeways (Sancho, that begins at 1331m, and is often simply called Zao Top Line) the pattern is repeated, and I’m getting rather excited. Not only have the snow monsters finally come into view under Mount Jizo (cue cameras, phones and young children being pressed at odd angles against the misted-up glass) but my brain has suddenly computed that so many people not skiing can only be a very good thing for me and Mao. 

And with her charging ahead (she has no other setting!), we dive down ever-so-long Juhyogen at something approaching warp speed. Runs like Sailer, the mogul-packed Yokokura Wall (that peaks at 38°), and a trio of FIS authorised competition slopes (the steepest terrain in Zao) keep us smiling and breathing hard, as the next few hours and laps of the ropeway pass in a happy blur. 

But for me, it’s the many kilometres of snow monsters under the top section of the ropeway, and the endless sidecountry options within them, that stay with me. It really is one of the more memorable things you can do on skis, and thanks to Zao’s enlightened pricing (just 5000 yen, or £35, for an all-mountain ticket) cheaper than a day in the Alps too… 

Zao Onsen website

The Stats: Start 855m | End 1661m