Mt. Zao is one of the most popular ski resorts in Japan, and home of the famous ‘snow monsters’. In summer, it’s an easy stroll via a picturesque volcanic lake, and the hot springs at the base of the mountain are an added bonus to help rejuvenate tired muscles.
The hike: There’s no doubt about it. The ease of access will bring huge swaths of crowds in the summer months, but with a little timing you can have some peace and solitude. My advice would be to arrive at Katta-toge in the early evening and stay at the stone emergency hut at the summit of Mt. Katta (刈田岳). The hut is unmanned and completely free to stay in. Bring your own water and be prepared for a 10 minute walk to use the toilets at the parking lot. This way, you can wake up at the break of dawn and enjoy a wonderful stroll without a soul in sight. From the huge parking lot, follow the well-marked trail towards Mt. Kumano (熊野岳). Along the way, you’ll pass by a stunning volcanic lake on your right, named Okama (御釜). The emerald green colors are breathtakingly beautiful (or so I’m told – I was unfortunate because the lake was completely hidden in thick fog!) Click here to get an idea of the scenery in good weather. Continue on the same trail for a gentle climb, taking a left at the only junction you’ll find. You’ll be on the summit of Mt. Kumano in about 20 minutes, where the views are stunning in nice weather. Yamagata city stretches out directly below you, framed in the distance by Mt. Iide, Mt. Asahi, and Gassan. From the summit, you can either retrace your steps back to Katta-toge, or descend down to Zao Onsen via the long ski resort. I recommend the latter option as the only bus from Katta-toge doesn’t leave until 1pm. The path through the ski resort is well-marked, and just before you take the final descent toward the very bottom of the lift, look for a bridge branching off to the right, which will take you to the ‘big bath’ (大露天風呂), a fantastic outdoor bath with milky white water. Unfortunately it’s not open in the winter, because there were problems with peeping Toms from the ski runs above. It’s definitely one of the highlights of Zao hot spring, so don’t miss this chance! Click here for more info.
When to go: This hike can be done year round if you’ve got some snowshoes. In fact, I’d recommend combining this hike with a weekend on the ski slopes. If the weather is good, then you can take the gondola up to JIzo-sancho (地蔵山頂) and hike for one hour via a route marked with huge poles to the summit of Mt. Kumano (熊野岳). Otherwise, you can opt for an easy stroll from the trailhead at Katta-toge.
Access: From Yamagata (山形) station, take a bus bound for Zao Onsen (蔵王温泉) and get off at the Zao Onsen bus terminal (蔵王温泉ターミナル). The bus takes about 30 minutes and leaves once an hour. Click here for the schedule. There’s only one bus a day going directly to the trailhead at Katta-toge (刈田峠). It leaves Yamagata station at 9:30am. If you miss this bus, then just take a bus to Zao Onsen and hitchhike from there (or start your hike from there for the 1000m vertical ascent to the summit).
Level of difficulty: 1 out of 5 (elevation change ~200m).