We finalised the plans for our 21 day whirlwind shinkansen tour of Japan at our workaway in Busan. It took us two very stressful hours to work out the best way to navigate this elongated nation and see as much as possible. Our first final plan included a 12 hour journey from Sapporo to Kanazawa including around 4 changes which we almost decided on before realising that would not be a very pleasant experience, even on Japanese trains. So we started searching for a nice place to break up that journey, still smarting from our then recent decision to not visit the crater lake on Jeju Island. Mount Zao has a crater lake and is roughly halfway between Sapporo and Kanazawa. It also features a small spa town called Zao Onsen close to the summit. We had decided to have one luxury experience in a true Ryokan at some point on this trip so this became our final final plan. Finally!
The closest Shinkansen stop to Zao Onsen is Yamagata. After the cool climate of Hokkaido the heat there was intense and after several hours of travel we were feeling a little dejected. However as the bus from Yamagata to Zao Onsen climbed into the mountains our mood lifted in inverse proportion to the fall in temperature outside. Small readouts along the highway declared the current temperature and it fell around 10 degrees on the way to our final destination. The cool night air that embraced us when we stepped off the bus was wonderful. It did carry a slight whiff of sulphur but that is the price you pay for natural hot springs.
A short walk took us to our Ryokan. We were led to our tatami room, given two Yukata (a light, summer kimono) and given instructions as to how we could find the towns hot spring baths. We had read that in Onsen towns it is common to see Ryokan patrons walking from one srping to the next in the branded Yukata of their guesthouses. This knowledge didn’t make the experience any less nervewracking as we stripped to our underwear, donned the Yukata and Geta and stumbled up the steep street to our first bath house. Geta are interesting, the two wooden ‘teeth’ that the sole rests on are located further back than you would expect. If you try to walk by pushing off with the balls of your toes (i.e. normally) the whole shoe rocks forwards and you end up pushing off from a lower position than your flat foot occupied. This leads to a bizarre rising and falling gate that wouldn’t look out of place at the ministry of silly walks.
The public onsen in the town are small. Compared to the previous onsen we had been to which claims to be the largest in asia it was always going to feel like a step down admittedly but the public onsen are just a single bath with a small wooden walkway around the outside of it. They were also incredibly hot – I had just managed to delicately submerge myself in one when an older Japanese man put his feet in, declared “TOO HOT” and rolled out. The mens and womens pools are divided by a wooden wall which does not quite extend to the ceiling, allowing couples to shout to each other when they are leaving and wish to meet outside. Rosanna and I tended to go to the hot baths in the evenings when they were less busy and once we had it entirely to ourselves meaning a slightly shouty conversation could be maintained over the divider. That’s a real downside to travelling with a person of the opposite gender, in segregated bath houses you have no one to talk to.
The other extremely special thing about a ryokan is the food. We only had the breakfast but that was sufficient, the array of small dishes filled with local produce was incredible and changed everyday. I have never had my pallete challenged so much that early in the day before but it was an amazing experience. Except for the salmon roe. I’ve had caviar and while I’m not a big fish fan it’s fine but the roe that is popular in Japan is very bitter with a gritty texture that is simply not evocative of food. Still, that was only one dish out of around 15 so no big issue!
We stayed in Zao Onsen for two nights, with the main objective being an ascent of Mount Zao to see the aforementioned crater lake. In the winter the mountain and its town operate as a ski resort which means that there is a convenient cable to take you most of the way to the summit. We were warned by the staff as we boarded that it was very misty at the top; we thanked them for their warning and continued. Unfortunately we were only in town for one day so our ascent had to continue. The staff weren’t exagerating. At times during the cable car ride up all we could see was fog and the wires extending in front and behind. It was an other worldly experience. The mist quietened the sounds outside the car so that all we could hear was the hum transmitted through the cable. Occasionally a tree would appear beneath us and then fade out.
At the top station things didn’t improve. The mist was so intense that the wall at the other end of the entrance room was a little fuzzy. We donned our jackets, pulled up our socks and made intense sustained eye contact with the man in the ticket booth so that he would recall us if we did not return.
It was a bizarre treck. We knew that around us were incredbile views but they were all shrouded in mist. We were navigating using the footpaths maked on maps.me (shout out to maps.me, it’s a great app that anyone travelling abroad should get hold of) and my limited knowledge of the japanese symbols on the signposts we passed. It reminded me of the time my family ascended Snowdon, except there’s no cafe at the summit of Mt. Zao and on this occasion there were next to no other walkers.
Eventually we reached a shelter which I assume was designed for use only in emergencies. There were hard hats in there, some fresh water and blankets and a small stove. We didn’t need any of these things but it was nice to know they were there. Finding the shelter seemed like enough of an achievement so we decided to call it a day at that point. As we left the hut two people wanded out of the mist towards us, travellers from Australia and Hong Kong who had driven most of the way up before ascending a slightly different route to the top. They reassured us that even if we continued we wouldn’t see the lake. So a crater lake has still eluded us, we are determined to see at least one this trip.
Zao Onsen Great Open Air Hot Bath
The last thing we did before leaving was visit this bath. It is located in a narrow valley with a stream running past the pools and overhanging trees providing a shaded canopy. Although an additional cost (this bath was not covered by our ryokan) the open air bath is a must visit in Zao Onsen. To be able to bask on the rocks, completely nude in the open air, listening to the stream flow past and the sounds of the forest around you is an incomparable experience. Although the baths were a bit too hot for comfort in my opinion, there were plenty of other people just sitting around them sunning themselves and I willingly joined in this practice. You obviously can’t take photos inside a nude bath without upsetting a lot of people but there are some photos on their website here if you are curious.
By the way, Rosanna has added a new Stats page to the website which I think is very interesting, if you haven’t seen it then give it a look see 🙂
Full Zao Onsen pictures here: