Zao Onsen

First Visit to Zao, Yamagata, One of the Japan's Greatest Wonders 蔵王温泉

Greg Goodmacher

Zao Onsen, Yamagata Prefecture
Snow monsters in Zao, Yamagata Prefecture.

Two trips to Zao, Yamagata Prefecture, convinced me that Zao belongs on a list of the greatest places to visit in Japan. Is there anywhere else where one can bathe in phenomenal hot springs, gather mountain vegetables, eat fantastic pizza while the cook plays bluegrass guitar, and ski, snowboard, or snowshoe among snow monsters?

Snow monsters are conifer trees covered with several feet or more of layers of frost, ice, and snow. They do not resemble trees. Powerful winds shape the frozen icy masses into strange forms that our imaginations conjure up as demons, dinosaurs, or other extraordinary beings.

The Japanese refer to them either as snow monsters or as jyuhyou (樹氷), a word which directly translates as frost covered trees. Some are as small as people, but others are massive almost all-white formations with giant faces that seem to look down with disdain upon the puny cold humans wrapped in their colorful winter wear.

Zao Onsen, Yamagata Prefecture
Winter Happiness in Zao, Yamagata Prefecture.
Zao Onsen, Yamagata Prefecture
Trekking Among Snow Monsters in Zao, Yamagata Prefecture.

The snow monsters hang out in Zao, but only during the coldest months of the ski season, between December and March. No. They do not come for the skiing, which, by the way, is excellent because of the long runs (one is ten kilometers), variety of routes, and gorgeous views. For jyuhyou to develop, extreme cold temperatures, strong winds, and lots of snow are crucial. The same conditions necessary for their existence, though, can make visiting them problematic.

My first trip to Zao took place in late March of last year, but an unexpected heavy rain storm kept my wife and I from visiting the frost covered trees. Winds buffeted most of the gondolas and ski lifts. Because of the dangerous conditions, no one was permitted to ride them.

Zao Onsen, Yamagata Prefecture
Hot Spring Onsen in Zao, Yamagata Prefecture.
Zao Onsen, Yamagata Prefecture
Hotel Zao Foot Bath, Yamagata Prefecture.

Despite the storm, we still had a wonderful time, under umbrellas, meandering Zao's steamy streets from hot spring to hot spring in which we leisurely bathed. Hissing and dancing from onsen buildings, cracks in pipes, holes in the ground, ditches, and a small stream flowing through the mountain town, steam has a ubiquitous presence. We also soaked our feet and legs in numerous free ashiyu, or foot baths, which are soothing and steamy in the rain.

Besides bathing, we perused small shops for local goods. Yunohana, 湯の花 (which translates as flower of the hot water), is a dried mineral powder that is collected from the local hot springs. It's a popular souvenir.

Sprinkle the yellowish mineral deposits into bath for a Japanese onsen experience at home. Kokeshi, traditional Japanese dolls, peer with thin eyes at the shoppers. Local artisans carve them from local wood and paint them by hand. The head is round, and the body is usually cylindrical. These simple dolls are representative crafts of Northern Japan.

Milestone Guitar Loving Cook, Zao Onsen
Milestone Guitar Loving Cook.

We also partook of lengthy meals. Milestone is the name of a restaurant where we gorged on the best mushroom and herb pizza I have ever eaten in Japan. Milestone's casual interior, filled with the aroma of baking pizza and a wood stove, reminded me of a small restaurant in the mountains of the USA.

The owner is a sixtyish country-music-and-bourbon-loving cook. His acoustic guitar was resting against a wooden cabinet while we were eating and chatting. I asked him if he wouldn't mind playing a song for us. He gladly strummed several classic American country songs.  Unfortunately other guests entered his restaurant, so he had to cancel the rest of his impromptu concert. As were leaving, he gave us a glass jar of thick strawberry jam he had made himself.

Zao, surrounded by mountains and forests, is also a place to enjoy eating just picked sansei, (山菜), roots, buds, sprouts, and leaves. Many restaurants serve soba or udon noodles with the "mountain vegetables" that the locals harvest when in season. If you know which vegetables are good to eat, you can gather them yourself.

Mountain vegetables in Zao, Yamagata Prefecture.
Mountain vegetables in Zao.

As we were driving away from Zao, we spotted green flowers popping out of the soil where the snow had melted. We picked and filled up a shopping bag with the flowers called fukinotou, (蕗の薹).  These are the flowering stalks of a plant known in English by several names: fuki, bog rhubarb, or giant butterbur.

My wife prepared tempura and a fried egg dish with the flowers. We also gave handfuls to a neighbor who made fukinotou miso. Many Westerners in Japan are at first shocked by the bitter taste, but those who stay in Japan for a long time usually grow to love it. We enjoyed the taste of Zao in various dishes for several days after our first visit.

Our hotel for our first trip to Zao was Okazakiya Ryokan, written in kanji as 岡崎屋旅館, which is located just a few minutes from center of the tiny town, several ski lifts, and public hot springs. The dinner and breakfast meals were ample, but not special. Our room did not have a very good view; although, other rooms might. Because we purchased coupons from the Japanese Groupon site, we paid about fifty percent off the regular price. If you cannot get such a discount, try somewhere else.

Just up the street and across the road is Shinzaemonnoyu, a public hot spring that is worth the 700 yen admission. The water is sulfurous and the outdoor baths have a clear view of nearby woods. My bathing companions were chemists from India, Canada, and France who were taking a break after a science conference in Tokyo.

They had arrived by bus in the morning and had spent the day in several baths. After drying off, they would soon return to Tokyo by bus that evening. I asked if coming to Zao for one day was worth the effort. They unanimously concurred that coming to Zao was so refreshing that it was worth the time and money. I stretched my reddened body in the hot water, breathed the cool fresh air, looked at the forest and, despite the falling rain, decided they were right. I would certainly return.

Great Mushroom & Herb Pizza at Milestone.
Great Mushroom & Herb Pizza at Milestone.

I still had to snowshoe among the snow monsters, explore the mountain tops, and bathe in more Japanese hot spring baths.

Access - getting to Zao Onsen

From Tokyo Station to Yamagata Station by shinkansen bullet train is around 2 hours and 44 minutes.

From Sendai to Yamagata is 73 minutes on the JR Senzan Line. Buses from Yamagata Station to Zao Onsen take about 40 minutes. There are overnight highway buses to Yamagata from Tokyo. By car, Zao Onsen is 17km from Yamagata Zao IC on the Yamagata Expressway.

The author of this article blogs about Japanese hot springs at hotspringaddict.blogspot.jp.

Japanese Bath Products

Purchase a range of wooden Japanese bath products made from the finest Japanese wood including original bath buckets, chairs and soap basins to give your bathroom that Japanese hot spring onsen feel.

Part II


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