For an Instagram and travel aficionado, sometimes you have this raging passion to discover the off-beaten paths: the less popular, the hidden gems,the breathtakingly magnificient spots which have not been known by many people. Admit it, there is always this undeniable pleasure once you step your feet on these hidden nirvana, and knowing that you are among the few pioneer who discovered it first.
Japan has become more and more popular. The number of foreign visitors in Japan has increased twice to slightly more than 10 million people, as compared to 2003. Some of these people are frequent visitors, and they have been to the infamous Hokkaido, Sendai, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, and Nagasaki before. If you happen to live in Japan for a short-term as an exchange academician or expat, you might have been visited those aforementioned places before, and hence, are now craving to experience the hidden gems.
Zao (蔵王) is one of those hidden gems. Really, if you want to experience the snowy Niseko and the onsen-hopping in Beppu yet are reluctant to go all the way to Hokkaido AND Kyushu; or if you prefer something less touristy compared to Hokkaido and Beppu, then Zao is a good alternative. Located in Yamagata (381 km from Tokyo), Zao is one serene and snowy village which lies at an altitude of almost 900 meters above the sea level.The main attractions of Zao are the onsen and the snow monster at the ski resort. Its onsen has one of the most acidic water in Japan with a PH value of close to 1. The ski resort is uniquely known in local level for its snow covered frost tree, which makes the tree looks like a monster if you look it from afar –well, not really.
There are numerous onsens, spreading throughout the small city of Zao. On our second day, we woke up quite early with an ambitious mission to discover as many onsens as possible. From the wooden and traditional ones to the luxurious ones. From the private to the outdoor ones. My favorite, is of course, the outdoor slash open onsen. It was quite a journey itself to hop from one onsen to another –a fun journey nevertheless. The public transportation in Zao is still very limited, and the only preferred option for us at that moment was walking. Since the city is small, everywhere is actually withing the walking distance, yet the road is usually covered with the thick snow. Again, it was really, really quite. I could even hear and feel the gentle wind.
When I was in Zao, it was winter time and dipping your body deep into the hot spring is just simply heaven on earth –especially when the onsen is an outdoor type. However, years after my first encounter with onsen, I realized that my favorite part is not relaxing in the onsen per se. Surprisingly, and I highly recommend you to try in case you haven’t, my favorite activity is the “drinking-cold-milk-from-the-onsen’s-vending-machine”. Try it, as it has always given me this しあわせ slash contentment feeling afterwards.
Anyway. Onsen in Zao is relatively way cheaper than onsen in Tokyo, I think the price is competitive with onsen in Beppu –another village in Japan (Kyushu island) which is widely known for its onsen. Our onsen journey starts at an outdoor onsen named 蔵王温泉源七露天の湯 slash Genshichiroten’noyu, where I befriended a local Fukushima girl whose happened to be the only customer of the onsen aside from us. This, my friend, is another benefit of being the first comer. You will be most likely escaped from the crazy crowd, which usually become the inseparable part of famous touristy places. Whilst usually onsen in Tokyo or Kawaguchiko (another area near Tokyo which also known for its onsen) are packed with obasan and ojisan, Zao gave us the rare experience to enjoy the whole onsen just for the two of us (plus the Fukushima girl).
The Open-air Onsen, 蔵王温泉源七露天の湯
Right after having lunch at the local Genghis Khan (Mongolian yakiniku) restaurant, we went to another onsen which located in Kokusai hotel. It was relatively more modern than the first onsen, and it offers a wide variation of onsens since it has various hot spring pools. It was fine. Good, but not as mesmerizing as the first one. Another recommendation which we did not is Zao Dai-Rotemburo –it closes during winter time, unfortunately.
The other famous attraction in Zao is the ski resort, which is widely known for its snow monster (Juhyo). No worries, it isn’t real monster at all 😉. It is basically just trees which covered by snow, and thus, it looks like a snow monster. If you reached the top of the mountain during the coldest time (late December – middle March), your will see a generous amount of snow monster.
The Snow Monster in Zao Mountain (pic source: http://www.snowjapan.com/japan-ski-resorts/zao-onsen)
Aside from onsen and the snow monster, the other strong point of Zao lies on the Zao city itself. Experiencing life in Zao, even just for two days, is like going back to the old Japan era. The city is impeccably quiet with plenty of wooden buildings and surprisingly very few konbini –fyi, in 2016, the majority of tourits in Zao are still Japanese, of which the number is not that significant and btw, I could only find one konbini… this is very unlikely in Japan. The ally is narrow, and you can sometimes see the water vapor floating in the sky. This is my personal definition of a perfect gateway for me, who is sometimes longing to escape from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo life.
The Serene Road of Zao
How to get there?
- To Yamagata from Tokyo
- Shinkansen Tsubasa from Tokyo station to Yamagata (2.40 hours; ¥ 11,680)
- Bus or car from Tokyo to Yamagata
- Bus from Yamagata station to Zao onsen (40 mins; ¥1,000ish) –fyi, the bus leaves every hour from the east exit bus stop number 1 at Yamagata station