The two faces of Mount Zao
Volcanoes are a spectacle in their own right. They are destructive when they erupt, but when they are dormant, they are certainly a beauty. Singapore does not have any volcanoes, but there are plenty of them in the region, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia. And of course, Japan has their fair share. One of them is Mount Zao, and it is an astounding sight to behold for various reasons!
Mount Zao (蔵王山 Zaō-san) is a volcanic mountain range in the Tohoku region, lying between the prefectures of Yamagata and Miyagi. It is highly popular for both local and foreign visitors throughout the year, whether it is summer or winter. Mount Zao can be seen at its best during spring at Hitome Senbonzakura (一目千本櫻) in Miyagi Prefecture, and it is a marvel to watch.
But here is a fun fact about Mount Zao: there are mainly two ways to access the mountain, and each way offers a unique experience. It is almost as if the Mount Zao has two faces, each showcasing a different aspect of the same mountain. For this article, I will introduce to you both sides of Mount Zao and how to enjoy each of them!
Mount Zao seen with cherry blossoms in foreground during spring season at Hitome Senbonzakura. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課)
Yamagata Prefecture: Zao Ropeway (蔵王ロープウェイ)
Mount Zao is in between two prefectures, and one of them is Yamagata. Visitors can access the mountain from the Yamagata side, and by this access, they can visit Zao Onsen Ski Resort, a hidden gem right inside the mountain! Better yet, since Mount Zao is a volcano, it means there is plenty of sulphur and that means hot spring! The mountain is home to one of the best hot springs in the region, and Zao Onsen Ski Resort boasts a large open-air bath right in the heart of nature!
Zao Onsen Ski Resort's open-air bath (大露天風呂 dai-rotenburo). (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture/JNTO)
Personally, I have heard of Mount Zao and I have also visited Yamagata before―11 years ago during a volunteer program―but I never got the chance to visit the mountain. Back in February, right in the heart of winter, I got to visit it and strike the mountain off my list once and for all.
Zao Ropeway. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
Visitors coming from the Yamagata side can experience Zao Ropeway starting from Zao Sanroku station, which is at the foot of the mountain. Visitors can take a cable car up the mountain to Juhyo Kogen Station, or all the way up to Jizo Sancho Station.
Mount Zao is popular among winter lovers because it has a multitude of mountain slopes for everyone, from beginners to advanced. Better yet, visitors can come empty-handed as rental equipment―from snowboards and skis, to snow gear and winter wear―are readily available. They can even sign up for ski lessons on the spot since there are many schools at their disposable, which is especially helpful for beginners! For more information on the different courses available, you can have a look at the skiing course map for winter here!
Waiting for the cable car at Zao Ropeway. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
Although Mount Zao is mostly popular during winter season because of its plentiful mountain slopes, it is open throughout the year during other seasons as well. It is also highly popular during the summer and autumn, dubbed ‘Green Season’, where visitors can go for trekking. There are many routes to take for different types of trekkers, from the beginner to the advanced. Have a look here for the summer trekking routes!
Visitors can go trekking and enjoy the foliage during Green Season. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Additionally, visitors can also opt for the Zao Echo Line, where visitors can drive from Miyagi to Yamagata through a 26km-long picturesque mountainous route and enjoy the scenery along the way. Gigantic snow walls can e seen from end of April to middle of May, beautiful greenery in early summer, and autumn foliage during autumn. Take note that this route is closed only during winter because of snowfall.
The Zao Echo Line from end-April to mid-May, and during autumn. (Image credit: JNTO)
Also, visitors visiting Mount Zao during the ‘Green Season’ will be able to see Okama Crater (御釜), a beautiful emerald-green lake basin sitting on top of the mountain. This is definitely the jewel of the mountain, and is not to be missed!
Okama Crater. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
I took the cable car up to Juhyo-Kogen Station, which is the end station of the Zao Ropeway Sanroku Line. I was particularly excited to go up this route because I was looking forward to a phenomenon known as snow monsters (樹氷 juhyō). Snow monsters are trees covered in frost during winter, when water droplets in the air blown by strong winds freeze on the leaves and branches of evergreen pine trees, slowly morphing them into huge towering shapes. This requires special weather conditions that are common in Japan, especially in the Tohoku region such as Mount Zao. Even better, there is a light-up at night shone on these snow monsters, and a Zao Juhyō Festival too!
Mount Zao is particularly famous for snow monsters. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture/JNTO)
Visitors can also ride snowmobile and witness a light-up on the snow monsters at night. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Unfortunately, I did not get to see the snow monsters. There was a blizzard when I went up Mount Zao, and the strong winds prevented frost from forming on the trees. Nevertheless, we got to enjoy winter at its fullest!
It was a blizzard when I visited Mount Zao. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
Winter (or a blizzard) is something I can never get to enjoy back home, and though I did not get to see snow monsters, I had a good time playing in the snow. It is a novel experience, and I hope many others like myself who have never been to Mount Zao, will get to do so. It is a fun experience unlike any other!
More details on Zao Ropeway
Zao Ropeway is accessible for visitors coming from either Yamagata side or Miyagi (Sendai) side. For visitors coming from Tokyo, they can take the Yamagata Shinkansen (山形新幹線) bullet train which takes around 2 hours 25 minutes to JR Yamagata Station (JR山形駅 Yamagata-eki), and then take a 45-minute bus ride to the ropeway. For those coming from Sendai, they can take a 60-minute train ride on the Senzan Line to JR Yamagata Station, and take the same bus there. Seat reservations are highly encouraged, especially during peak winter season. Business operations for the ropeway are subjected to weather conditions, and operating hours differ according to the season.
(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can travel on the bullet train and make seat reservations for free! However, the fare for the bus ride from JR Yamagata Station to the ropeway is to be paid separately.)
Miyagi Prefecture: Miyagi Zao Sumikawa Snow Park (宮城蔵王すみかわスノーパーク)
Mount Zao is a mountain with two faces, and one of them faces Yamagata in the northern side. Visitors coming from the Miyagi prefecture side have a surprise in store for them: Miyagi Zao Sumikawa Snow Park! Here, visitors can also go up Mount Zao but from the southern side instead! I was lucky enough to visit Mount Zao not once but twice back-to-back, and I could not wait to see what Sumikawa Snow Park has in store for me!
En route from Sendai to Sumikawa Snow Park. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
Entrance to Sumikawa Snow Park. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
Sumikawa Snow Park offers a novel experience of going up Mount Zao by snow cat, which is a modified snowmobile that can carry up to 20 passengers at a time. The journey from the snow park to Mount Zao and back takes around two hours, and the ride can be rough for those with weak stomachs, so be mentally prepared before riding up the snow cat! Plus, visitors can also rent snow boots at the rest area, which is necessary since the snow on the mountain is really thick and deep.
Visitors can go up Mount Zao by riding the snow cat. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
Ticket for Sumikawa Snow Park is ¥3,300 per adult, and reservation (by phone or website) is required. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
Inside the snow cat. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
As visitors make their gradual journey up the mountain on the snow cat, they can view the outside slowly changing. They can see beautiful mountainous landscapes afar, and other skiers enjoying outside as they make way for the snow cats to pass through.
Getting off the snow cat to see the landscape. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
What I learned about this trip is that, on a good day, visitors should be able to see snow monsters as well! Just like Zao Ropeway, snow monsters are a common phenomenon on Mount Zao whether you are coming from Yamagata side or Miyagi side, and if the weather, visitors can witness and even physically come close to them for a full view. Unfortunately, for my time, it was a complete whiteout and the winds were really strong, so snow monsters could not be formed.
During periods of strong winds, frost can form on markers like this. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
Photo taking in the midst of a whiteout. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
Just when I thought the fun part was over after we got back to the park, another surprise awaited me at the rest area. Visitors can have their meals here after a trip on the snow cat, from a hot beverage to even ramen. I tried out their special menu which is beef curry. Not only was it great, it even looked amazing!
In-house special beef curry. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)
As much as I enjoyed this side of Mount Zao, I still did not get to see every side to it. Like the Yamagata side of the mountain where Zao Onsen Ski Resort and plentiful hot springs lie, on the Miyagi side there is also Togatta Onsen (遠刈田溫泉), which features hot spring that are quaint and charming. Visitors with more time on their hands should make a detour here; this is especially recommended for those going for winter activities up the mountain, or driving along the Zao Echo Line!
Visitors with more time should visit Togatta Onsen, a quaint hot spring resort. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課)
Riding a snow cat during winter was a novel experience for me, and so was experiencing a complete whiteout on Mount Zao. I never thought that I could go up the mountain from two different sides, and moreover, experiencing something fun and unique from each of them. I highly recommend winter lovers to visit Sumikawa Snow Park; it was a serendipitous journey for me!
More details on Miyagi Zao Sumikawa Snow Park
Visitors to Miyagi Zao Sumikawa Snow Park can make their way by bullet train and bus. For visitors coming from Tokyo, they can take the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) from JR Tokyo Station (JR東京駅 Tōkyō-eki) to JR Sendai Station (JR仙台駅 Sendai-eki). From there they can proceed by bus, taking the Juhyo-go (樹氷号) bus from JR Sendai Station’s East Exit straight to the park. The bullet train ride from Tokyo to Sendai takes around 1 hour 30 minutes, and the bus ride takes around 30 minutes. Seat reservations are highly encouraged, especially during peak winter season. Business operations for the ropeway are subjected to weather conditions, and operating hours differ according to the season.
(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can travel on the bullet train and make seat reservations for free! However, the fare for the shuttle bus ride from JR Sendai Station to Miyagi Zao Sumikawa Snow Park is to be paid separately.)
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥20,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free. For more information on the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can visit the link here.
NOTE: From 1 April 2021, there have been some changes in the validity and pricing of the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). For more information, please check here.
Header image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang