When it comes to ski resorts, Japan has virtually everything you could want. For serious powder, there are the wonderlands of Niseko in Hokkaido or Hachimantai in Iwate. For those looking for Western-style apres-ski, there's the posh Arai Mountain and Spa. And for the day-trippers from Tokyo, there are the clusters of resorts in Niigata while Osaka gets the alps of Nagano. And the greatest thing is the season can -- heavens willing -- last into April and beyond.

I've done my share of resort-hopping on the archipelago, but from the start, I had avoided one of the biggies -- Yamagata Zao Onsen. Why? Simply because it was where everybody and their brother seemed to be going for their winter weekends away. I had always envisioned long lift lines and multiple pile-ups.

But when I received an invitation from two dyed-in-the-fleece Zao fans, a foreign couple who've been going to the resort for years, it was difficult to refuse. They offered not only to put me up in lodging a snowball's throw from Uenodai Gondola station, on the resort's west side, but also to give me the grand tour.