When talking about Japan, an image Mount Fuji comes to mind for many people. Every year, this famous mountain receives over 300,000 visitors who want to challenge the grand climb to the top. While definitely a great expedition for nature lovers, Mount Fuji is not the only epic hike. For those who are looking for some off-the-beaten-path adventures in Japan, I present to you an amazing gem in the Tokhoku region of Japan: Mount Zao.
I recently took a trip here with my boyfriend Alan and it was absolutely incredible. As a hiking enthusiast, I can say that Mount Zao is one of the top three hikes that I have ever done (the number one is still the Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand). The most amazing part was seeing the Okama crater lake at the peak. It was truly a wow moment that I will always remember. So get ready to feast your eyes on this majestic mountain! Here are all the info you need:
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Mount Zao Introduction
Mount Zao (蔵王山) is a volcanic mountain range on the prefectural border between Yamagata and Miyagi Prefectures in the Tohoku region of Japan. The mountain is crowned by a beautiful crater lake at the top called Okama (御釜). Because of its enchanting emerald green water, the Okama is also called Goshikinuma (五色沼), which means “lake of five colors”. The view of the lake from the top of the mountain is absolutely surreal. As if this epic scenery is not enough, at the foot of Mount Zao is a hot spring town. Zao Onsen offers many bathhouses and hotels with some of the best acidic thermal water, a perfect place for relaxation. Hiking + hot spring, together makes Zao a wonderful place to visit!
When to go to Mount Zao
The hike to Okama is available from spring to autumn. Zao mountain is covered in beautiful flora in the spring and colorful leaves in autumn. We visited during mid August and was blessed with great views of lush green trees. We got lucky with a day of nice mild weather and our view of the crater lake was simply stunning.
**Note: The Okama is not available for visit during the winter due to weather and safety. However, there is another reason to visit when it gets cold! In the winter, Zao Onsen turns into an amazing ski resort, where many people come for the high quality skiing. Also, they come to see Zao’s famous “snow monsters”, which are trees covered in snow and ice, giving them the appearance of monsters.
How to Get to Mount Zao
There are a couple ways to get there. My suggestion is to get to Zao Onsen town first, stay overnight, and allot a whole day for the hike.
For those with a car, the drive to Zao Onsen is about 5 hours from Tokyo.
For those traveling by public transport, you can get to Zao Onsen from Yamagata JR station by bus. Take the Yamagata to Zao Onsen bus (山形～蔵王温泉線), which takes about 40 minutes. Yamagata station is about 3 hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen bullet train.
We live in Sendai in Miyagi prefecture. So we traveled to Yamagata station first by train.
→Get a Japan Rail Pass to enjoy unlimited travel on Shinkansen and JR trains. A wonderful investment for exploring in Japan!
From Zao Onsen, take the Zao Ropeway to its upper station (1500 yen one way, 2600 yen round trip). The view is already incredible.
From the ropeway station, the hike takes about an hour to 1.5 hour (depending on your speed) to the summit where you are rewarded with the sight of the crater lake.
The climb is challenging at times but trust me, it’s epic throughout. So worth it! Look below for some photos.
Photos From Our Hike
Starts with wooden board walks…
The Buddha at the beginning of the trail. Pray for a successful journey and health.
The path slowly turns to rocks that are slightly difficult.
How much more climbing?…
Sitting on the top of the world!
FINALLY HERE! Celebrate with a drink.
Tips for conquering Mount Zao
Stay overnight at Zao Onsen
It’s a bit ambitious to come from out of town, do the Okama hike, and move on in the same day. It is possible but would be exhausting. There are many hotels in Zao Onsen where you can stay and experience relaxing hot spring baths. During our visit, we stayed in Takamiya Rurika Resort. It was a comfortable and convenient hotel. They offered delicious Japanese style dinner and breakfast and the bath was also wonderful. The best part was that the hotel is located right in front of the Zao Ropeway, which gave us the best access on the day of our hike.
Bring enough water and snacks
The hike is very tiring and by the time you get to the top, you will need an energy boost guaranteed. All we brought on our hike was a rice ball, a banana, some water and two bottles of beers. Big mistake! We were famished by the end. Man did I wish we brought more food!
Dress for the hike
Make sure you have sturdy shoes, a raincoat, and warm clothing. When my partner and I did this hike, we didn’t really know what we were in for. As mentioned, the hike gets quite difficult at times. Many hikers we passed along the way were fully decked out in gears like hiking boots and walking sticks. Also, it can get quite chilly up in the mountains so long sleeves clothing and a jacket is necessary. It will also protect you from bugs and bumps.
When we came back from our hike, we were surprised to discover that we got sunburnt! We didn’t notice at the time until we saw our red skin. Even though it may be cloudy and cold, the UV rays are still working secretly. So make sure to protect yourself with some sunscreen.
I always like hiking because the sense of accomplishment I get when I get to the top. The reward of seeing a beautiful view after you have worked hard is wonderful. It’s very symbolic of life, don’t you think?
Plan your Japan trip in 4 easy steps
Book A Flight: Find the cheapest flights on Skyscanner, my go-to search engine.
Read up on the best advice: Love a good old fashion guide book. Suggested reading: Lonely Planet: Japan Travel Guide
For more Japan travel inspiration, make sure to check out my Japan Instagram Story Highlights.
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