Mt. Zao; Japan’s Natural Winter Wonderland

Each country has its own share of remarkable sights and places to be in that aren’t as known about among most tourists as its other more convenient and accessible spots. The capital of a country is its prime spot for flights entering and exiting, and other parts of the country never have the pleasure of boasting of their wonders to curious foreigners, and some country locals alike. So, who gets to discover these lovely places, and share them with the rest of the world?

Zao: A Great Place to Ski in Japan

Among avid Japanese skiers, knowledge circulates about where some of the best places to ski in Japan are. To the regular tourist, the area of Zao may not ring any bells, but it’s quite well-known as being one of the most scenic snowy vistas during the winter and having one of the best ski resorts in all of Japan.

A Quick Guide to Zao in Japan

In case you plan to visit Zao soon, you’ll need a guide to help you understand more about the area, and figure out fun activities and great places to see while you’re in this side of Japan. Zao’s location is quite high in altitude and takes quite a bit of time and yen in terms of transportation, so people who come to visit usually have a purpose or two to do so.

The History of the Area of Zao

The history of the existence of Zao dates to ancient times when provinces were still used to segregate areas of Japan. Zao fell under the Mutsu Province. Only when the government of Japan was unified during the Meiji period was it designated to the Katta District, in Iwaki Province. On the 21st of August 1876, it was officially placed under the jurisdiction of the Miyagi Prefecture. Only on the 1st of April 1955, was Zao, the town, established. This was done by merging two villages in the Katta District; Miyamura and Enda.

The area of Zao is surrounded by many beautiful slopes that are perfect for skiing when the colder months arrive, just like the Gunma area. The summer entices tourists to visit the Okama crater. This pushes Zao’s economy to rely on sales from tourism. Their economy is also fueled by agriculture, horticulture, and forestry.

Tourists flock to the area Zao because of its main attractions, which are the Zao Ski Resort, the snow monsters in Mt. Zao, Sankai Falls, the Zao-Shizen-shokobutsu-en, (a botanical garden which houses several alpine plants), the Okama crater lake, the Zao Onsen, and the Zao Fox Village. It also has national parks that are trekked by hikers, such as Zao Quasi-National Park, which contains Mount Zao.

Zao, The Town

“Zao”, in Japan, can refer to two areas; the mountain and the town. Both intersect, as the town is part of the mountain area, but is characterized as part of the Miyagi Prefecture, under the Tohoku region. The town of Zao is called “Zao-machi”, and it is part of the Katta District. It is 152.84 square km large. It was recorded to have been inhabited by 12,417 people as of the month of June last 2014. The current mayor of that town is Murakami Eijin.

Different areas in Japan often use symbols such as flags, flowers, and trees to represent themselves. As for the town of Zao, their representative tree is the Japanese white pine, while their flower is the peach.

What is Mt. Zao?

Known to the Japanese as “Zao-zan”, Mt. Zao is on the border between two Prefectures; Miyagi Prefecture, and Yamagata Prefecture. It is considered a range of volcanic mountains which form an active cluster; also known as a complex volcano. Found in the northern segment of the island of Honshu, this cluster is considered very active. It last erupted in May of 1940.

Its elevation is measured at 1,841 meters and has geological formations such as crater lakes, tuff cones, and lava domes. The crater lake, specifically, is a hit among those who frequent the area. During 1720, Mt. Zao erupted, and forming this crater lake, which is now called “Goshiki-numa”, or “Okama”. Okama is famous for its tendency to change color along with the weather. The depth of the lake measures at 60 meters deep, while its diameter measures 360 meters.

In 1964, a book about the different mountains in Japan was written by Kyuya Fukada, who was a Japanese mountaineer. This book is called “100 Famous Japanese Mountains”, and details their histories and name origins, as well as how they were revered from the Edo period.

Fukada’s criteria for choosing these mountains were based on his experience climbing them, their altitude (1,500 meters or more, though some mountains, did not necessarily meet this cut o the T), history, individuality, and grace. He categorized them by region, starting from the northernmost part of Japan (Hokkaido) to its southernmost areas. Mt. Zao is one of these mountains.

Fun Things to Do in Zao

Just because it’s a mountain that’s far from the number one rated activity for those who visit Zao is to visit its famous resort and ski there. But aside from that, though, there are other things to do – one of them is driving along the Zao Echo line. This is particularly popular during autumn, as the Koyo front comes in and turns the leaves a whole array of different colors; red, yellow, brown, and orange.

Visit the Okama Crater Lake

If you’re extra lucky and Mt. Zao isn’t foggy (which it usually is), then you may be able to catch a glimpse of the crater lake from a spot along the road. You may also visit the Okama Crater lake and take pictures of it, but the water gets hot during the most part of the year, so sightseers must keep their distance.

The Famous Fox Village of Japan in Zao

Found also in Zao is a village full of foxes wandering around. Some of them are fenced, and many of them are loose, but you’re not allowed to pet them, though there are a few exceptions. Those who find these furry animals cute would love this place and may enjoy getting to hug them and feed them while taking photographs. You may buy bags of food for 100 yen each.

They are open from 9 A.M. until 4 P.M., cost 1,000 yen for admission for adults – children are free. Many people use the Shiroishi zao Shinkansen to get there quickly no matter where they’re from – even Nagano. This can be costly (around 4,000+ yen), but you can take a taxi (though it will take longer) as a cheaper option. The address of the Fox village is in the Prefecture of Miyami; 11-3 Fukuokayatsumiya, Shiroishi 989-0733.

The Best Ski Resort in Mt. Zao, Japan

The number one ski resort in all Zao is easily Zao Onsen Ski Resort. Frequently compared to the coveted ski resort Appi Kogen, it is found in the Yamagata Prefecture part of the mountain range. It combines the pleasures of having a variety of accommodations that meet different budgets and tastes (80 different lodges and Ryokan both available), many onsens scattered around the premise that uses sulfur spring water, and their great slopes for skiing. The best part is, you don’t even have to book a stay to enjoy their amenities; you can enjoy their “day visit” services just as well.

Onsen and Spa Galore

Zao Onsen Ski Resort doesn’t have the word “onsen” in its name for no reason – they step up their game when it comes to spas and soaking in hot baths. The resort has three public hot springs, namely Kamiyu, Shimoyu, and Kawarayu. Though they are designed differently, they all charge 200 yen for adults, 100 yen for kids. Zao Onsen Ski Resort also has footbaths which are free; named Robata and Shinzaemon no yu. Shinzaemon no yu can get cold in the winter time as it’s outdoors, so it’s closed during that season. Robata functions all year-long, and is great after a day of outdoor snow sports, whether you went out to snowboard or ski.

They also have Day Spas - 5 of them, to be exact, with prices ranging from 400 yen to 700 yen for an adult person, and 200 yen to 400 yen for children. Each Day Spa is designed differently, as they are run by different companies in the resort itself – they have different websites you may check in case you are interested. The options you have for these day spas are Shinzaemon no yu, Zao center plaza Yu-yu, Genshichi open-air spa, Zao onsen big open-air spa, and Sunokoyu Monogatari Kawaraya.

A Variety of Slopes to Choose From

Just as this resort has a wide range of onsen to choose from, it also has different slopes that vary in altitude, width, length, difficulty, view, and angle. Whether you want a gentle slope or a moderately steep challenge, you’ll surely find it among the 18 available courses situated around the resort. Among those 18 slopes, one of the names of these slopes include “Diamond Valley”, which is great for beginners, the “Omori Giant Course”, which is a kilometer-long course that caters to all levels of ski mastery, and the “Hyakumaninn Slope”, which is a broad course, perfect for a family practicing together.

Visit the Famous Snow Monsters in Zao, Japan

They’re not really monsters, but they sure do look like them. During the thick of winter, the perfect combination of the cold temperature, the wind, and evaporating water from the lake nearby forms tiny frozen icicles that drape over the trees scattered around the area. The snow is laid so thickly it completely covers the trees from top to bottom, forming towering figures that, in the darkness and fog, resemble monsters.

The Zao Onsen Ski Resort adds lights around these snow monsters (“juhyo”) around the weekends of January and the entire month of February, so that visitors may enjoy looking at them at night. They also offer treks you make while wearing snowshoes, and even a tour with a special vehicle made to plow through thick snow.

February is the best time to see these snow monsters, and admission costs vary on how long you plan to stay. A 4-hour ticket, which is what most tourists get, costs 4,000-3,500 yen for adults, depending on the season. It’s most expensive during winter.

How is The Weather Like in Zao, Japan?

During the winter months, particularly January and February, the temperature in Zao drops to an average of -4 degrees Celsius for its lowest temperature, and 5 to 6 degrees Celsius for its highest temperature. During spring, it hits a high of 9 degrees Celsius during March, with a low of 3 degrees Celsius. Temperatures report to slowly creep up right before summer, with June having average highs of 24 degrees Celsius, with 15 degrees Celsius as its lowest average temperature.

August is the hottest month of the year, with its average high peaking at 29 degrees Celsius, and 20 degrees Celsius for its average coolest reading. Autumn brings in more cold weather again as it drops to 14 degrees Celsius for its highest average temperature by November, and getting an average chilliness of 3 degrees Celsius.

No matter what time of the year it is if you plan to come to Mt. Zao, bring something that can handle the cold, high-altitude weather. Unless it’s August and you only plan to stay in the town, avoid wearing flip-flops and short-sleeved shirts – unless you prefer the icy cold.

Print A Map of Zao Online

Mt. Zao and the area around its base are large. You will need a map to understand the different parts of the area to familiarize yourself with it before you visit. Luckily, there are many maps that explain the different parts of Mt. Zao online but most of the inscriptions are written in Japanese. They are mainly for skiers, detailing the different slopes that the ski resort provides, giving you a retrospective idea on which slope you may want to focus on.

What you can do is print out a copy and ask for someone to explain what each part means in English. As you scribble the details down on the printed map. Not only does this save time in choosing the perfect slope, you also get to have a general idea of the different locations the amenities and tourist spots are in relation to each other.

If you plan to travel to Zao as a tourist or avid fan of winter sports, Zao holds some incredibly captivating, albeit chilly sights.