Reasons Mount Zao Should Be Your Next Destination To Visit

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On my list of must-visit places in Japan, there is Mt. Zao 蔵王山 – a volcanic mountain range located on the border between Yamagata and Miyagi Prefectures of the Tohoku region. One of the most famous mountains in Japan, it offers spectacular views all year round with wonderful hot springs and good powder in winter. It is also one of the very few places to see the awe-inspiring Juhyo or Snow Monsters, a winter phenomenon considered a rare sight even in Japan.

There is always something to see and do no matter what season you visit.

Winter in Zao is brutally cold with heavy snowfalls, but it is also the season when the majestic snow monsters come to live and the ski resorts get busy. The snowy mountain slopes become a gathering place for skiers, snowboarders, as well as visitors who come for the juhyo.

After the long winter, spring brings new life to the greens and flowers. It is time to see the budding plants as well as the blooming peach, pear and rape blossoms. The magnificent snowy walls which can only be seen from late April to mid-May are simply breathtaking.

Due to its altitude, summer in Zao is comparatively cool and less humid, making it a destination to escape the summer heat. Outdoor activities such as trekking, hiking, and cycling are popular, all of which are good ways to appreciate the area’s nature reserves.

Zao is one of the first places to observe autumnal colours in the region. Starting from the end of September, trees and leaves across the area start to turn bright yellow, orange, red, and anything in between, as if the mountains are putting on colourful kimono to welcome the visitors!


Zao Onsen 蔵王温泉

Located on the Yamagata side of the mountain, Zao Onsen is a hot spring town which makes a good base to explore the attractions in the area. The ropeway (2,600 yen round trip) sends visitors up to the Mt. Jizo (1,736m) while offering panoramic views of the resort and the mountains. Trekking courses for all ages and fitness levels allow visitors to enjoy the surrounding landscape, forests, and alpine flora. Hike further up for the peaks of Mt. Kumano (1,841m) and Mt. Katta (1,758m) where the Okama Crater Lake can be viewed. Maps of the trails can be obtained at the Tourist Information Centre located inside the Zao Onsen Bus Terminal.


Okama 御釜

This blue-green crater lake is called Okama due to its shape that resembles the Japanese traditional cooking pot. There are no living creatures inside because the strong acidic water does not support life. Nevertheless, the water changes colour several times a day, which explains why the lake is also known as Goshiki-numa 五色沼 or Five-colour Marsh.

In winter, the hot spring town turns into a happening ski resort where the snow monsters that spread across the mountain slopes become the centre of attention. Brilliantly white in the daytime, these mystical looking creatures appear even more otherworldly when they are lit up with colourful lights in the evenings. Juhyo illumination is on during the New Year holiday, weekends in January as well as daily in February.


Juhyo 樹氷

In Japanese, juhyo means ice trees. Cold is not the only requirement for these fellas to form, as it is the result of water droplets adhering and freezing against the trees and branches due to strong wind blow. Over time as the ice, frost, and snow gather, the trees turn into thousands of giant snow statues that become Zao’s unique spectacle. One of the main reasons people come to Zao in winter, the phenomenon can be viewed between January and March with the peak in February.

After a day’s worth of activities, reward yourself with a relaxing soak and a delicious meal in town. Visitors can choose to stay at one of the many ryokans and hotels where hot spring baths are offered, or go to public bath houses where the pools can be used for a small fee. Founded 1,900 years ago, Zao Onsen is famous for its acidic sulfuric hot spring that is believed to be able to heal skin conditions and make skin fair and smooth.

If you fancy an open-air bath surrounded by the beauty of nature, don’t miss the Zao Great Outdoor Hot Spring 大露天風呂 (admission: 550 yen). Situated in a beautiful mountain ravine, it is a public bath house well-liked by the locals and tourists alike. It is however closed during the winter months.

Soba noodles – one of the local specialities

Useful Websites
Zao Onsen : http://www.zao-spa.or.jp/english/
Zao Ropeway : http://zaoropeway.co.jp/en/index.html

Getting to Zao Onsen

  • The quickest and direct way to get to Zao Onsen is from Yamagata Station 山形駅, where you can catch a bus to Zao Onsen Bus Terminal 蔵王温泉バスターミナル.
  • If you are travelling to Zao from Tokyo, take the JR Yamagata Shinkansen 山形新幹線 from Tokyo Station to Yamagata Station (165 minutes; 10,450 yen). You can also visit Zao from Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture, whereby you take the JR Senzan-sen 仙山線 from Sendai to Yamagata Station (80 minutes; 1,140 yen).
    From Yamagata Station, go to the bus terminal located in front of the station’s East Exit, take one of the Yamako buses bound for Zao Onsen Bus Terminal from the platform no.1 (40 minutes; 1,000 yen).
    Bus schedule : http://www.yamakobus.co.jp/rosenbus/jikoku/frame/zao-onsen.html (in Japanese)

Zao Echo Line 蔵王エコーライン

 

If you are exploring Zao using a rental car, do make good use of this 26-kilometre highway that transverses the Zao mountain range from Zao-machi 蔵王町 in Miyagi to Kaminoyama-shi 上山市 in Yamagata. The scenic drive allows you to take in the scenery in different seasons – snowy walls in spring, lush greenery in summer, and colourful leaves in autumn. The highway is closed from early November to late April the following year.

Along the way, there is a waterfall viewing platform Takimidai 滝見台, where the Sankai 三階滝, Fudo 不動滝, and Jizo Falls 地蔵滝 can be viewed all at once. The highest point of the highway connects Zao High Line 蔵王ハイライン which is a tollway (540 yen) leading to the Okama observatory located on the peak of Mt. Katta.

Zao-machi Website: http://www.zao-machi.com/category/english

Getting to Zao Echo Line:

The entrance of Zao Echo Line, marked by a large torii gate, is a 5-minute drive from Togatta Onsen 遠刈田温泉, a hot spring town located in Zao-machi. Togatta Onsen is more accessible by car, but it can also be accessible by public transport via an express bus service. From Sendai Station 仙台駅, go to Sakurano Mae no.33 bus stop さくら野前33番のりば located outside the North 3 Exit and alight at Togatta Onsen Yu-no-machi bus stop 遠刈田温泉湯の町 (1 hour; 1,230 yen).

Bus Schedule Website: http://www.miyakou.co.jp/cms/express/desc/43/ (in Japanese)  

Kyla HS
Kyla HS
A student, part-time translator and writer. I like anime, Jpop and Jrock in general but ultimately, I love to travel and often spend most of my expenses on food.

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