Zao Onsen: How to Enjoy an Old Mountain Hot Spring with a History of 1900 Years
Hot Spring Town, photo by flickr
Sulfur Spring of Yamagata Prefecture, the Hot Spring Paradise
Zao Onsen is located in the area stretching across Yamagata Prefecture and Miyagi Prefecture and amidst Zao Mountains at an altitude of 880 meters and features weak acidic sulfur hot spring, which is rare to be found anywhere else around Japan. It is said to be especially effective for skin disease and is called the “Princess Hot Spring (Hime no Yu)” for its skin beautifying effects. It also has a great detoxifying effect and attracts many female visitors.
Hot Spring Town with Clouds of Steam Hanging Around
Opening of Zao Onsen dates back to 1900 years ago. The hot spring town is definitely one of the oldest in Japan. Once you are in the town, you will soon be surrounded by the scent of sulfur.
Zao Dai Roten Buro (Outdoor Hot Spring), photo by flickr
Among many hot springs you can find here around the town, Zao Dai Roten Buro (outdoor hot spring), which is open for bathing only from late April toearly November each year, is especially noteworthy. Located at the highest point in the town, it is almost located in the middle of the wilderness. A row of hot springs lines the mountain stream. The hot spring here can accommodate as many as 200 people at the same time each at the men’s section and women’s.
The Spring Source of Zao Onsen, photo by flickr
As you leave the spring source and walk down the slope, you will get to an area with three drop-in public baths. You can just drop in and enjoy hot spring at either of them for a fee of 200 Yen.
Drop-in Hot Spring, photo by flickr
There are also many other drop-in type hot spring facilities and many of the inns in the town also open their hot springs for drop-in use by visitors who do not stay overnight, so you can enjoy a tour to visit thee different hot springs. For cheaper options, you can also find some places where you can enjoy hot spring foot/hand bath for free.
Enjoy More of the Zao Onsen Area
Zao Onsen surely is a great place to visit and enjoy hot spring on a day trip but staying at an inn for a couple of days to further enjoy the town can be a wonderful idea too.
1. Winter Sports
Frost-covered Trees and Skiers on the Skiing Slope, photo by flickr
Zao is also known as a great spot for skiing, snowboarding and other winter sports. Anyone from beginners to semi-professionals can enjoy their favorite winter sports here at one of the largest skiing ranges in North East Japan. Boasting good quality snow, it attracts many skiers and snowboarders form the local areas as well as tourists from more remote areas. Another great thing you can enjoy here are the frost-covered trees. The art of snow and ice created by the great nature makes a fantastic mid-winter feature of the Zao Area.
*Enjoying the hot springs in the coldness of winter is exceptional. Many hot spring inns provide coupon packages containing tickets for ski lift and hot spring.
Shiginoya Chinuma, photo by flickr
Zao is packed full of natural beauties and wonders. You can enjoy watching many wild birds and mountain plants. Especially recommendable is the area around the pond/swamps called “Shiginoya Chinuma” and “Dokko Numa.”
* The trekking map of the area is widely available around the town. It is recommended to relieve your fatigue in a hot spring after enjoying a trekking tour.
Savor Local Specialties
The hot spring town of Zao also has a lot of delicious foods to offer.
The mutton barbecue dish called “Genghis Khan,” known nationwide in Japan today, actually originated here in Zao. It was a product after many trials and improvements to come up with the best way to enjoy mutton meat, which has a particular and strong flavor. With many restaurants trying to make the dish even more delicious, a new variation of Genghis Khan hot pot after another is still being created in Yamagata Prefecture.
Igamochi Rice Cake (稲花餅), photo by tripadvisor
People expect to find “onsen manju (hot spring bun)” at hot spring towns, quite rightfully. But what Zao offers instead is a rice cake called “Igamochi.” Most typically, they are three bite-size pieces of rice cake with sweet azuki bean paste filling, served on a bamboo leaf. Yellow rice on top of each piece of rice cake adds a good color accent and is characteristic to this sweet. The smell of bamboo leaf enhances the addictive sweetness of the sweet azuki bean paste filling. They tend to get hard the next day, so it is best to enjoy them fresh when served.
If some nice flavor floats up to your nose as you around the town, it should be the smell of “tama konjac,” the specialty food of Yamagata Prefecture. The chewy and springy balls made from konjac powder richly seasoned with soy sauce will strongly arouse your appetite.
Now it’s up to you to decide which option to go for when visiting Zao Onsen, one of Japan’s oldest hot spring towns with a history of 1900 years; A day trip or lodging for a couple of days? Extending your trip for an adjoining tourist spot or two and enjoy gourmet items? Anyways, Zao surely is a place recommendable and well worth visiting at least once in your life. Consider it as one of your destinations in your next trip to Japan!
Tokyo – Tohoku Expressway – Murata JCT – Yamagata Expressway – Yamagata Zao IC – Route 13 – Zao Onsen (About 5 1/2 Hours)
Tokyo – Tohoku Expressway – Murata JCT – Yamagata Expressway – Yamagata Zao IC – Nishi Zao Kogen Line – Zao Onsen (About 5 1/2 Hours)
By Train or Bus:
Tokyo – Yamagata Shinkansen (2 1/2 Hours at the Shortest) – Yamagata Station – Bus (About 40 Minute Ride) – Zao Onsen
Sendai – JR Sendai Line (About 60 Minute Ride) – Yamagata Station – Bus (About 40 Minute Ride) – Zao Onsen