Zao Onsen, Yamagata - Stunning Hot Springs And Mystical Snowy Trees
The Zao area in Yamagata Prefecture is famous for its frost-covered trees, majestic outdoors, natural hot springs, and fine cuisine. Read to learn how you can best enjoy these destinations using the JR EAST PASS(Tohoku area).
Abundant Nature and Hot Springs of Zao
The Zao Onsen area in Yamagata Prefecture is renowned for its sightseeing spots and rich, natural environment. Visitors can enjoy the juhyo (frost-covered trees) from Zao Ropeway, or try various onsen (hot spring) facilities, with a cost-effective ticket.
This model tour utilizes a bus from Yamagata Station, which is the most convenient form of transportation when traveling. From Tokyo, ride the Shinkansen, which will take between two-and-a-half to three hours, to Yamagata Station.
The JR EAST PASS(Tohoku area) will come in handy on this tour. Holders of this pass can easily immerse themselves in the scenery, hot springs, and delicious cuisine of Zao.
9:15 - Depart from Yamagata Station
From Yamagata Station, take the Sanko Bus bound for Zao Onsen. (See the timetable.) If you have any large luggage, stow it in the coin-operated lockers at the station.
On your way to Zao Onsen, stop by Sakura Yamagata Shop for tea-flavored snacks and souvenirs.
10:00 - Sakura Yamagata Shop: A Tearoom for Matcha Lovers!
From Yamagata Ekimae Ichiban bus stop to Yamagata Onsen-guchi bus stop - 14-minute bus ride and 12-minute walk from the bus stop.
This shop specializes in tea from all over Japan, such as genmaicha (brown rice tea), hojicha (roasted tea), matcha (powdered green tea), mugicha (barley tea) and sencha (green tea), sold in teabags. They also carry specialty utensils for enjoying tea.
Be sure to try the matcha gelato, which comes in six different levels of matcha concentration, with 1 containing the least and 6 containing the most. We recommend ordering the richly-flavored number 6, which has a truly delicious fragrance.
All the sweets here are all made in-shop. The most popular menu item is the matcha tiramisu (1,058 yen including tax), which comes with a drink. It is made from mascarpone cheese (*1) and Kitagawa Hanbee Shoten (*2) matcha.
After enjoying the matcha desserts, let's board the bus again.
*1 Mascarpone: An Italian cream cheese.
*2 Kitagawa Hanbee Shoten: A wholesaler of tea established in 1861, located in Uji City, Kyoto Prefecture.
12:00 - Arrive at Zao Onsen
From Yamagata Onsen-guchi bus stop to Zao Onsen Bus Terminal bus stop: 23-minute bus ride
When you arrive at Zao Onsen Bus Terminal, don't forget to purchase the Yumeguri Kokeshi ticket (*3) at the tourist information center for 1,300 yen. It comes with three stickers and an unpainted kokeshi (*4). The stickers can be used at various hot spring facilities, and the kokeshi can be decorated at a workshop.
*3 Yumeguri Kokeshi: A cost-efficient ticket which can be used at the 27 hot spring facilities at Zao Onsen. Ticket holders will be able to bathe in different waters at the facilities with a single sticker. Please note that two stickers are required for bathing at Zao Kokusai Hotel and Zao Shiki no Hotel. Tanaka Kokeshi Shop hosts a workshop where visitors can decorate the kokeshi (240 yen).
*4 Kokeshi: A traditional wooden doll. Kokeshi are also seen frequently sold as souvenirs at onsen areas in the Tohoku region.
12:15 - High-Quality Japanese Sake at the Yamagata Sake Museum and Yukemuri Bar Tsumami
From Zao Onsen Bus Terminal to Yamagata Sake Museum and Yukemuri Bar Tsumami: 5-minute walk
This facility offers Japanese sake from the 53 breweries in Yamagata Prefecture, along with local cuisine that pairs perfectly with these alcoholic beverages. We suggest trying the Kikizake Course (800 yen and up, including tax), where you can enjoy trying three sake varieties.
Picture courtesy of Yamagata Sake Museum and Yukemuri Bar Tsumami
Two popular dishes are imoni (*5), which consists of beef and taro (600 yen including tax) and the crispy and juicy chicken sanzoku-age (1,500 yen including tax).
*5 Imoni: A traditional Yamagata stew of taro, spring onion, konnyaku, and beef. It is seasoned with soy sauce, sake, and sugar.
Facilities throughout Zao Onsen and the bus terminal offer free sake sample tickets, which allows one glass of sake at the bar.
After a satisfying meal and Japanese beverages, let's go decorate our kokeshi.
13:15 - Tanaka Kokeshi Shop: Make Your Own Kokeshi
From Yamagata Sake Museum and Yukemuri Bar Tsumami to Tanaka Kokeshi Shop: 5-minute walk
This shop has more than 50 years of history specializing in all different types and sizes of kokeshi. They also host workshops where guests can decorate kokeshi (a reservation is required to participate).
The kokeshi-decorating workshop takes about one hour. Participants will be instructed to first draw the face of the kokeshi with a toothpick, starting from the eyebrow to the eye, nose to mouth, then to its hair, and body. Coloring the kokeshi is done after you finish drawing your design.
The instructions will be in Japanese, but the process is easy to follow, even for visitors without language skills.
14:30 - Zao Ropeway: Gaze Down at the Frost-Covered Trees
From Tanaka Kokeshi Shop to Zao Ropeway: 12-minute walk
Picture courtesy of Yamagata Prefecture
Zao is famous for its juhyo (frost-covered trees), which appear between late December and early March. A ride on the ropeway offers the best view from which to take in this unique scenery.
Picture courtesy of Yamagata Prefecture
The juhyo resemble monster-like creatures during the day, but the trees illuminated at night transform into something completely different and magical. Check the official site of Zao Ropeway to see when the juhyo are lit up.
After viewing the juhyo in the daytime, let's head to the hot springs.
16:00 - Zao Onsen: Open-Air Baths with Amazing Views
From Zao Ropeway to Various Onsen Facilities: 5- to 15-minute walk
Zao Onsen has acidic sulfur water, which is said to be excellent for the skin and health. We suggest visiting the following three spots in particular.
1. Zao Onsen Zao Center Plaza
Pictures courtesy of Zao Onsen Zao Center Plaza
Zao Onsen Zao Center Plaza contains open-air baths that offer amazing views throughout the seasons. Bathers can see hydrangea in June and July, autumn leaves from October to November, and snow-covered landscapes from December to March. The shops inside the plaza carry local souvenirs and mountain climbing equipment.
2. Genshichi Roten no Yu
Genshichi Roten no Yu is renowned for its gensen kakenagashi (free-flowing spring) style. Both the indoor bath with its wooden bathtub and the open-air bath are spacious. This facility is frequented in particular by travelers who have spent the day hiking in the Zao area.
3. Zao Onsen Dai Rotenburo
The perimeter of Zao Onsen Dai Rotenburo is framed with linden trees. This destination is recommended for those who want to enjoy particularly spacious hot springs. Visitors can enjoy the open-air bath while being surrounded by the stunning outdoors.
17:30 - A Fantastic Nighttime View
If you want to enjoy the nighttime landscape of Zao, try the Night Cruiser snowmobile to see the juhyo.
For details, please read Juhyo Illusion Corridor Tour in the Night Cruiser.
JR EAST PASS - A Cost-Efficient Ticket to Visit Zao Onsen
Photograph Courtesy of JR East
Those who want to enjoy Zao Onsen and other Yamagata destinations are recommended to use JR EAST PASS(Tohoku area). This ticket allows the holder to ride all the JR trains and buses within the designated area of the pass. For further information, please check the link below.
JR EAST PASS(Tohoku area)
** JR EAST PASS can be purchased only by tourists visiting Japan. Please note that Japanese nationals and foreign nationals residing in Japan without a tourist visa cannot purchase this pass.
Go to Yamagata And Niigata with JR EAST PASS!
Yamagata And Niigata
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Written by Chen
Sponsored by Yamagata Prefecture and Niigata Prefecture