Zao is a small onsen town just outside of Yamagata city, but it has more than the average onsen town going for it; Zao has mountains that truly have something for everyone.
When I visited, it was a sweltering hot, sunny day in Yamagata City, and the mountain offered a cool respite from the heat down below.
We drove to the Zao Sanroku Station, and jumped on the Zao Ropeway Sanroku Line. I was impressed by the magnificent views on the seven-minute ride up, but when we changed to the second ropeway at Juhyo Kogen Station, they got even better as we slowly ascended the mountain for a further seven minutes. Tickets are ¥2500 for both lifts both ways.
We disembarked at 1,661 meters, where there was a fresh breeze, and a wonderful, eerie mist hanging around the mountain, and set off on a walk to see the famous emerald waters of Lake Okama.
The walk was easy enough for a four year old to do, but hard enough to keep me on my toes the whole time. The landscape is beautiful and varied; from thick greenery to loose volcanic rock.
It took us about an hour to get to the lake, and the path is dotted with tiny shrines, torii and statues that are hundreds of years old. When we arrived, the water in the lake sparkled a deep green under a sky that suddenly cleared.
The hike back was another hour or so, and despite being at quite a height, it was warm and sunny.
We took one of the beginner courses, but hiking paths ranging from beginner to expert network across the mountains that shelter Zao Onsen Village, and could keep you occupied for days.
Hiking around Zao is only an option during summer when it’s safe, but every season has something special to draw you to these mountains.
In autumn, when the leaves turn the whole mountain range a cascade of red, orange and yellow, you can take one of the three ropeways up the mountain for spectacular birds’-eye-views of the foliage or, alternatively, go for a drive up the Zao Echo Line to the rest house beside Lake Okama.
In spring, Pond Shigi no Yachi, near Zao Sanroku Station, is ringed with the iconic cherry blossoms, nice for lakeside hanami parties, if you don’t mind being a bit cold.
And in winter, these mountains become the Zao Onsen Ski Resort, one of the largest resorts in Japan. This resort spans 305 hectares with 12 courses, 14 slopes and 41 ropeways, cable cars and lifts, and boasts the longest ski run in Japan.
It is also home to the mysterious juhyo, or snow monsters. These monsters are created by the effects of Zao's unique climate conditions on the pine trees, and dot the slopes of the mountains in an ominous way. On winter nights, the mountains are illuminated, throwing eerie light on the looming shapes of the monsters.
Of course, in any season, the town of Zao is popular for its public baths, outdoor hot springs, and foot onsen, where you can relax after a hard day of the activity of your choice.
Zao is an easy day trip from Yamagata, but if you prefer, there is plenty of accommodation available in the village.
Next time you’re in Yamagata Prefecture I absolutely recommend a trip to Zao, regardless of what season you’re in.