Day Trip to Mount Zao in Autumn (蔵王山)
I went to Mount Zao (蔵王山), where I saw the famous Okama Crater, magnificent autumn foliage scenery, a beautiful (small) waterfall, experienced dipping in onsen (hot spring), and more.
Date: 2009-10-23 Friday
Place: Mount Zao, Yamagata prefecture (蔵王山, 山形県)
Duration: 1 day
Mount Zao is a volcano that sits on the border between Yamagata prefecture and Miyagi prefecture. The more developed tourist area on the mountain is Yamagata prefecture’s Zao Onsen (山形蔵王温泉) on the west side. During the warmer seasons, it is a great location for hiking and enjoying mountain views. One of the main features at Mount Zao (in general, not Zao Onsen) is the colorful crater lake called Okama (御釜), which means cooking pot in classic Japanese. The lake is also known as the Five Color Pond (Goshiki numa 五色沼) because of the way the mineral-rich water changes color from day to day.
In the Winter, Zao Onsen is one of the best ski resorts in the area. On the upper parts of the mountain, the freezing wind and snowfall would cause trees, together with the snow on top, to bend and form weird shapes. These Juhyou (樹氷), or “icy trees,” are often referred to as “ice monsters.”
Lastly, Zao Onsen is a good place for onsen year-round. Dipping in onsen is a very popular pastime in Japan.
This was my first trip out of the city where a bus was needed. Different style of day trip!
Getting to Mount Zao
Mount Zao is only accessible by driving (no train access), but since it’s a very big mountain with multiple areas of interest, getting there can be confusing. I wanted to visit Yamagata prefecture’s Zao Onsen (山形蔵王温泉) on the west side of the mountain, but it was quite difficult to get there from Sendai, which is on the east side. In the Winter, there is a direct bus going to Zao Onsen from Sendai for those who want to go to the ski resort, and it would only be a 100 minute bus ride. But it wasn’t Winter yet, and there was no other direct bus departing from Sendai. There is another onsen area on Mount Zao – Tougatta Onsen (遠刈田温泉) – that is closer to Sendai, but it seemed smaller so I wanted to save that for another trip.
In the end, this is what I did:
Train to Yamagata city (JR station) (1 hour) -> Bus to Zao Onsen Bus Terminal (40 minutes) -> Bus to Okama Crater (bus stop name is Katta peak “刈田山頂 (お釜)”) (50 minutes)
That probably wasn’t the fastest route, but it was the earliest, and I wanted to spend more time on the mountain. In addition, I couldn’t find an easier way of getting to Okama Crater. But this meant getting up at around 6am and being on the train by 7am.
The Zao Onsen Bus Terminal is the stop for the main onsen village, where one can visit the local shops and/or take a dip in the onsen. From there, one can take a different bus to visit the Okama crater, or take the gondola to go up the mountain where hiking trails start. I spent some time walking around the area before getting on the bus for Okama Crater at a little past 10am.
1): There is only 1 round-trip bus going from Zao Onsen Bus Terminal to Okama Crater. It departs from Zao Onsen at 11am and leaves Okama Crater at 1pm. Plan your trip accordingly.
2): The last bus leaving Zao Onsen for Yamagata is at 7:40pm.
3): It is much easier (and faster) to drive to Okama Crater and surrounding areas by car. Plus, there is a scenic route called the Zao Echo Line that provides a spectacular view of the mountain ranges. So rent a car and drive, if you can.
After getting off the bus at the Okama Crater parking lot, I had just under 2 hours (from ~11am to ~1pm) to explore the area before the bus will return to Zao Onsen Bus Terminal.
So I quickly grabbed some food to eat at the visitor center / restaurant before going to see the Okama Crater, which was just a few minutes walk from the parking lot. While visitors are not allowed to hike to Okama, they can view it from a trail on the ridge that overlooks the Crater. It really was quite a sight! Conveniently, Okama opens towards the visitor, with the far end of the crater being the higher side. The ridge trail actually connects to the top of Zao Onsen area, and it is a 1.5 hour hike for those who are interested. But the trail itself was extremely windy, even from where I was, and sometimes rocky, so be prepared!
Zao Onsen Central Ropeway (Gondola)
Back at Zao Onsen, I headed over to the Central Ropeway (中央ロープウェイ), which is one of the gondolas for the ski resort, and headed up the mountain. It was a 20 minute ride, showing how big the mountain is. Atop the upper gondola station was a small deck that has a gorgeous view of the valley below. All the leaves in the area have already changed colors, creating a magnificent autumn scene. I then had a nice afternoon stroll in the mountain, along one of the trails, before riding another gondola back to the village right after sunset. Mount Zao really is beautiful! I wish I had time to hike further up Mount Zao to explore more.
Mount Zao Onsen
It was already dark by the time I got back to the main village. But I wanted to try out the onsen. While most of the onsen are inside hotels and are only for their costumers, there are still few public onsen around for day-trip visitors or locals. This is quite common in Japan. I went to the Genshichi Roten No Yu onsen (源七露天の湯), paid 450 yen, rinsed myself using bath water (common courtesy), and dipped in the onsen water. While it was an outdoor onsen and it was a chilly autumn night, the onsen water was still hot – but not burning hot – and it was very relaxing and welcoming. The fact that I was the only person there made it even better.
While the trip was long and tiring, it was a very rewarding experience. I got to see one of the most amazing natural attraction in Tohoku (Okama Crater), saw beautiful autumn foliage, had a wonderful hike, and had my first onsen experience in Japan.
I would highly recommend people to visit Mount Zao if they have a chance.
Mount Zao Itinerary Breakdown
~7:xx am, Left my place in Sendai,
~8:xx am, Train to Yamagata, ~950 yen
~9:30 am, Bus to Zao Onsen, 980 yen
11:06 am, Bus to Okama Crater, 1430 yen
1 pm, Bus back to Zao Onsen, 1430 yen
~2:15 pm, Ride gondola up the mountain, 1200 yen (round trip)
~5 pm, Ride gondola back to Zao Onsen
~6 pm, Genshichi Onsen, 450 yen
~7:30 pm, Bus to Yamagata, 980 yen
~9:30 pm, Train back, 950 yen
Long but fun day. Spent at least 8300 yen on transportation and onsen. Food was probably another 2000 yen.