Zao Onsen has always intrigued me. I once saw a photo taken by a friend who had gone snowboarding there with a little Domo Kun toy amongst the snow monsters. Maybe it’s this photo that’s burned into my memory, maybe its the allure of Japanese powder skiing, the best and purest Onsen in Japan or maybe the name just sounds freaking cool. Whatever it was, after researching a butt load of things to do in northern Honshu the only thing I was sure about was that I needed to go there and the time was now.
I went to Zao Onsen after a few short stinits in Tokyo and Fuji Five Lakes. Zao Onsen (蔵王温泉) is about 45 mins by bus from Yamagata (山形) and is a popular ski destination for all the reasons above. I had trouble finding a guesthouse in Yamagata when searching on the same day and so I had to stay in Sendai which was 90 mins from Yamagata by local train.
Pre-hike in Sendai
I had heard nice things about Sendai anyway so I thought – why not? Sendai was just 90 mins by shinkansen from Tokyo and I stayed at Keyaki Guesthouse (¥2,600 for a nice 8 bed dorm in a traditional house) which was about a 25 min walk from the station.
I met a cool American guy who was teaching English in Osaka while I was waiting out the front of the hostel for reception to open. It seems to be a thing here where small guesthouses close in the middle of the day until 3 or 4pm so just be aware of that in Japan.
We got talking about a local specialty – gyu tongue (i.e. cow’s tongue) – and asked the guesthouse lady where to find some. She laughed and presented us a gyu tongue map listing about 40 places in the city that you could find it!
We piqued the interest of a few Japanese who were also in the guesthouse and headed out into town to find some. I’ve made a beef tongue casserole before, but this was very different. Sliced, sauced, grilled over charcoals and served to us straight after sitting down. I almost thought they served it straight to you because it was all anyone ever ordered, but in actual fact one of the Japanese guys ordered it because hot sake arrived as well.
It was pretty tasty, but needed to be eaten piping hot or else it got a bit chewy when cold. The sake was great too though I never remember the names. My tastes must have changed because last time I came to Japan I hated sake.
We also tried cow’s tail soup (just a typical boiled broth) and some hilarious Japanese desserts from 7 Eleven. I just had mochi ice cream, but one of the other guys had this condom like balloon filled with ice cream. The trick was to bite the tip off the balloon (condom) to then suck the white ice cream out as it melts in your mouth. Nothing suss Japan!
After some great fun and an intellectual chat (mostly in Japanese) about how to design robot chat personalities I had to hit the hay with the early start ahead.
Hiking at Zao Onsen
I woke up at 6am (getting good at this now) to catch a 7am train to Yamagata and try to make the 9.30am bus up the mountains to the Katta Peak carpark (刈田岳). This is the only bus each day going that far and it costs about ¥2,300. I had planned to start my hike here and explore the mountain tops, but the bus didn’t actually go that far until 28/4 and it was still only mid-April.
The backup plan was just to go back to Sendai if things failed, but the bus would still take me to Zao Onsen resort for ¥1,000. Lucky I did, because the ski resort, whilst looking a little sad, was still open and so were the cable cars going to the top peak. So I bought a ¥2,600 return ticket and headed up the Sanroku and Sancho Rope Ways to the top around 10.30am.
I have to say it was the perfect amount and type of snow for hiking. Deep powder would have been a pain, slushy snow would have sucked, but it was somewhere in the middle.
I climbed the nearby peak, Mt Sanpokojin, to the left of Jizo Sancho Station to test the conditions and have a look around. From there I could see back across to Mt Jizo and some buildings on Mt Kumano (熊野岳). Conditons looked good, so I tossed some coins into the coffer, paid my respects to the statue and headed off.
A couple of Japanese guys were walking up to Mt Jizo to do some snowboarding, though I couldn’t understand why. Whole segments of the path had fully melted and coverage wasn’t great. The valleys were full of clouds which made it feel we were at the top of the world, though Zao is actually a fairly low ski resort (top station is only about 1,700m). I think the guys gave up somewhere near Mt Jizo and I didn’t see them again.
It was interesting to see the difference in terrain and textures compared to places I’d hiked before. The area around Zao is volcanic, hence the onsens, so all the rocks are igneous and the soil is soft and boggy like other geothermal areas I’ve seen in Iceland and Bolivia.
There were shrines and carved stones scattered about Mt Kumano where I stopped for some lunch. Big snow drifts encircled the shrine, but most of the mountain top here was thick and boggy. The good news was that after back tracking along the ridge a bit I found a shelter I didn’t realise existed. Possible lodgings!
After a quick bite I headed across to the Okama (御釜) (Japanese word for caldera which is derived from the word for pot or kettle). The caldera looked pretty amazing, fully frozen and surrounded by a snowy landscape. I walked around the top and across to Katta Peak where the bus was supposed to drop me off if it was the season for it. The Katta Peak shelter was similar to the one on Mt Kumano, but I opted to be closer to my return point for tomorrow.
After exploring at a very slow pace, it was barely even 3pm. I decided to just head back to Kumano Shelter and set up for an early night.
As I walked back the clouds began to close in while the sun retreated. Sometimes it’s like the clouds are scared mice and only sneak into the mountains when the cat (the sun) begins to leave.
The shelter was -3C inside when I arrived. The startlingly cold bunker was cooler than outside, but there were some kerosene heaters which I used to boost the temperature to +3C overnight. It’s strange having to consider this to stop your water and breakfast freezing.
I don’t normally camp alone, so it was a interesting experience trying to silence my crazy thoughts in the darkness. The dull glow of the heater and the thought that there would be no one else on this mountain became comforting. The winds that stirred the mists outside kept up all night, but I still found my peace in solitude.
I woke at 5am to find the clouds still hanging around so I decided to enjoy the “warmth” of the shelter until heading out at 6.30am.
Initially I tried to go down the face of Mt Kumano peak, but the Japanese maps were so bad I couldn’t work out which way lead to the lakes Kansho Daira. So in the end I hiked back into the wind and back towards Mt Jizo to a route I had more confidence in.
When I reached the saddle I was out of the reach of the wind and the skies opened up to reveal some rewarding views of the surrounding ranges.
I decided to take a new path down from Wasagoya along the Haraigawa Course. Landslides had destroyed sections and huge snow drifts made for some challenging snow climbing. I remembered all the techniques I learned climbing Mt Vallunaraju and now all my hiking experience began to feel complete.
I felt completely comfortable navigating through the snow, up, down and across. Any time I felt like I was losing my way, I found the tracks of a fox or wolf who clearly must use this track in summer as well for they never lead me astray.
Finally I spotted the chairlift and continued parallel to it down through the trees again, at times following the canine’s tracks. I could imagine how incredible it would be to ski off piste here amongst the trees when they are in snow monster form.
I felt a little off course and tried to cut right over some steep drifts. Amusingly I put my boot through a drift, tangled it in a heap of underlying tree roots and fell backwards. I hung on a 60 degree slope by my trapped foot and it took a bit of struggling to get free. Lucky there were no hungry bears about or I’d have been easy pickings.
I made my way down to the ski trails, but short on time, I gave up on seeing all the shrines and took the Sanroku cable car down to the village in search of onsen. Just as well I did because the clouds rolled in again obscuring everything. I will be back here one day to ski anyway.
All the onsens were closed, but I found a tiny public one which only cost ¥200. The springs in Zao Onsen are renowned for being the best because of the undiluted natural spring content (as opposed to a fresh water mix) and high sulphur content.
I had to share the onsen with a couple of old Japanese guys which takes a little getting used to. As does the water which was surely over 40C. I felt like I was being boiled alive, but it was fantastic. My blood circulated with incredible intensity and my whole body tingled. After a good 15 minutes, the residual heat in my body quickly evaporated all the water so no towel was required, which was handy because I didn’t have one.
The only downside was that there was no shower. So I jumped back on the bus down to Yamagata (¥1,000 again) smelling of onsen and began a 6 hour train ride up to Hakodate in the mysterious island of Hokkaido.
Other notes: What I took with me
I decided to travel light and completely rely on the shelters. The backup plan was to just turn around before the chairlifts stopped and either stay in Zao Onsen or Sendai. The maps in the Zao Onsen bus station were “good enough”, but were a bit vague in places and were certainly not topographic. Japanese love turning maps into cartoons instead of making them realistic.
I have a camera / mountaineering pack that’s about carry on luggage size. In this I packed a professional DSLR, two lenses, a tripod (strapped to the outside) and the other usual bits. Plus all my survival gear like warm layers, spares, rainwear, sleeping mat, bag and liner.
Amusingly, since I wasn’t carrying a stove or gas I lived off 7 Eleven sandwiches, pastries, energy bars and chocolates. Not the healthiest but it got me through and I just strapped the plastic bag full of them to the outside of my bag. The kerosene heaters seem to double as stoves if you want to try that. I also had 2L of water for the overnight hike and that was enough.