Photo by Miyagi Prefecture
Photo by Wesley Keppel-Henry
Photo by Tohoku Sightseeing Organization
June 2, 2020
Mount Zao is an active volcano that straddles the border of Miyagi and Yamagata Prefectures. At a towering 1,841 meters, it is one of Tohoku’s tallest mountains. A stunning crater lake lies at its summit. The crater is called Okama due to its resemblance to a large cooking pot. Time your visit on a clear day and enjoy a panoramic view over the crater from the lookout on Kattadake Peak. For sightseers who simply want to view the crater, it’s easily accessible via a short walk from the nearby parking lot.
The adventurous can also tackle one of the many hiking trails connecting Okama to the Zao Onsen hot springs on the Yamagata side of Mount Zao, and the Gaga Onsen hot spring on the Miyagi side. One such trail is a forty-five-minute hike rich with alpine plants leading to a viewpoint so near the crater’s rim that it gives the sensation of falling in. Cyclists, too, love and curse the mountain for its steep grade but rewarding views.
The mountain boasts a variety of outdoor activities and landscapes that change dramatically with the seasons. In spring, cheerful yellow narcissus flowers bloom on the hillsides at Eboshi Resort. In autumn, the foliage fills the landscape with fiery reds and yellows. Winter is the season for skiing, snowboarding, and visiting the mysterious snow monsters that dot the frosty mountainside. As the winter gives way to spring, the Zao Echo Line highway reopens with towering walls of snow on either side.
The roads to Okama Crater, the Zao Echo Line and Zao High Line, are closed during winter due to heavy snowfall. For those with proper equipment and experience though, the crater is accessible year-round on foot. Novices wishing to visit Okama in winter can do so by hiring a guide through M’s Guide Service. Regardless of when you go, it is recommended to check for weather warnings before your visit as access to the area is sometimes restricted due to volcanic activity.
A longer trail, one of the best hiking routes on Mount Zao, starts at Gaga Onsen, goes up and over Kumanodake, and ends at Togatta Peak (For an easier hike, start at Togatta Peak and end at Gaga Onsen). It was originally used by Shugendo monks during their ascetic training rituals. The trail climbs through deciduous forest and circumnavigates the jewel-like Okama Crater. The hike takes about four hours one-way. Bus stops are located near both ends of the trail, but it may be simpler to do a round-trip and stay overnight at Gaga Onsen than plan ones’s hike around the infrequent bus service.