(蔵王山) Mt. Zao Hike

Been planning on doing this with a ski adventure amongst the snow monsters, but visibility can be too low, so with JR East's Welcome Pass, I figured might as well do Zao in fall too. 

Budget: JPY6,960 (~USD67)
  • JPY4,000. One day's worth allocated with JR East's Welcome Rail Pass 
  • JPY1,960. Bus, Shiroishi-zao Station to Katta-touge. 
  • JPY1,000. Bus, Zao-Onsen Bus Terminal to Yamagata Station
Hike Date / Difficulty (Elevation:1,841m/6,040ft)
  • November 1, 2020
  • Difficulty: 1 out of 5
  • Quickest and most popular route in map below is around 4.2kilometers, with an elevation change of ▲344m/ ▽344m. 
    • Route in itinerary takes a longer path, and does not use the ropeway. However, I do not have the elev details for that route, sorry.
  • PDF Map Link


When to Go
Bus runs throughout the year, but prepare snowshoes if coming in winter.

Special Notes
  • Summit is called Mt. Kumano (熊野岳, Kumanodake).
  • Mountain huts. 
  • Winter sports. Zao Onsen is famous for their slopes, so skiing is a thing.
    • Equipment rental is available per day. JPY3,000 for skis, JPY3,500 for snowboard.
    • Lift tickets is JPY5000 a day.
  • Ropeway. There's a ropeway coming from Zao-yamajou Ropeway above.
    • It operates throughout the year, from 8:30am to 4:45pm.
    • One way is JPY1,500, roundtrip JPY3,000.
  • Trailheads.
    • Zao-yamajou (蔵王山頂駅). This is the trailhead at the top of the ropeway. Access as follows:
      • Train, Tokyo to Yamagata Station.
      • Bus, Yamagata Station to Zao Onsen Terminal.
        • Bus runs regularly throughout the year. JPY1,000 one way. You can buy the ticket at the counters, but paying cash in the bus itself is ok too. 
      • Ropeway, Zao Onsen to Zao-yamajou. 
Bus schedule, Yamagata Station < > Zao Onsen Bus Terminal

    • Katta-touge (刈田峠). There's a bus running twice a day, JPY1,960 one way. For 2020, it runs from July 18 to November 3. 
Bus schedule, Shiroishi-zao Station to Katta-touge

Bus schedule, Katta-touge to Shiroishi-zao Station
    • Sasatani-touge (笹谷峠). No public transport.
    • Daikokuten (大黒天). Same bus as the Katta-touge above.
    • Sai-no-kawara (賽ノ磧). Same bus as the Katta-touge above. It's a stop 4 minutes after Shiroishi-ski (スキー場入口).
    • Shiroishi-ski (白石スキー場). Same bus as the Katta-touge above.
Itinerary - Planned
  • 07:08am. Bullet train, Tokyo to Shiroishi-Zao Station.
  • 09:26amish. ETA: Shiroishi-Zao Station.
  • 09:38am. Bus, Shiroishi-Zao Station to Katta-touge (刈田峠), red bus stop 1. 
  • 11:11am. Start hike.
  • 12:15pm. ETA: Summit.
  • 01:00pm. ETA: Ropeway. Take ropeway down to Zao Bus Terminal, then take the bus to Yamagata Station. 
Actual Log
  • 07:08am. Bullet train, Tokyo to Shiroishi-Zao Station.
  • 09:26amish. Arrived Shiroishi Station. I asked the tourist center for the bus going to Katta Touge, and was pointed to bus stop 1. Upon exiting the train station, turn left. There are two bus stop 1s, one blue, one red. Go to the red one. 
  • 09:38am. Bus, Shiroishi-Zao Station to Katta-touge (刈田峠). The last section, the Zao Skyline, requires a fee, which caused heavy traffic. The traffic eased once we got past the toll area. 
  • 11:31am. Arrived at Katta-touge. We were 20 minutes late. The bus stop is in front of a shop. I simply followed the crowd and walked around the shop to the left, and within a minute could see the lake. To my left is 40 minutes to the summit of Zao, to the right is 10 minutes to Mt. Katta (刈田岳, Katta-dake). I decided to take some time and do Mt. Katta too. 
  • 11:37am. Arrived at the top of Mt. Katta. It definitely had a gorgeous views, and a unique perspective of the lake. I started walking back to the lake, and ate my lunch. I also tweaked my the path and decided to stop by the emergency hut near the crater. 
  • 12:37pm. Arrived at the 熊野岳避難小屋 emergency hut. The hut had two doors - one main one and one with a ladder. Inside was an impressive hut definitely designed to help survive in an emergency - there's the beds (?) with fleece blankets, helmets, shovel, and most importantly, a gas heater with gallons of gas. I left the hut and continued on to the summit. 
  • 12:50pm. Summit - Mt. Kumano (熊野岳)! There's a shrine right at the summit, with its own emergency hut that is not shown on the maps. I took some pictures, and started my descent. There were quite a lot alternatives. As I am going to Zao Onsen (ropeway route), the path was right in front of the torii (arch) in the shrine. From here on there were some alternatives in the path, so I had to keep my eyes on the map. Soon enough I could see the ropeway station. 
  • 01:39pm. Arrived at the ropeway. I felt that the hike would have had been too short, so I decided to skip the ropeway and hike down. Spoiler alert - I would not see another soul after the ropeway, so nobody else takes this path. I continued straight down the path - yamap is definitely a lifesaver. It is the turn right next to the ropeway, and immediately I saw the ski path. I figured the rest of the hike was simply following the ski path til Zao Onsen. I was wrong. Within 15 minutes there was a turn to the right, and I kept to the left (main ski path). Another 15 minutes later, there was a turn to the right, and I therefore left the ski path. There were some sections where finding the trail can be a challenge, and it crosses the ski path and/or the road - which is why getting yamap app is definitely recommended. 
  • 03:12pm. I finally exited the trail and arrived at the main town of Zao Onsen. I started walking/running towards Zao Onsen Bus Terminal. 
  • 03:17pm. Arrived at Zao Onsen Bus Terminal
  • 03:20pm. Bus left the bus terminal.
  • 04:00pm. Arrived at Yamagata Station. I had some snacks and was soon on my way home!
At Shiroishi-Zao Bus Terminal, there are two bus stop ①'s, one blue and one red. You can see the red on here (the right stop), and the blue one across the road. 

At the end of the bus ride, I just followed the crowd and went around the resthouse, to the left. 

Still looked back to enjoy the view. 

Behind the resthouse, the trail is definitely very easy to see. At the end of that horizon is the view of the crater lake. 

About two minutes of walking later, I was at the end of that horizon viewing the lake. 

I decided to turn left and take the 10 minute walk up Mt. Katta. Here's the summit, where I definitely could not identify the summit marker. 

At the summit is a small shrine...

...and views this picture definitely does not do justice on. 

A view of the crater from the top of Mt. Katta. I then descended down to join the crowd. 

...and was treated to a gorgeous view of the lake. 

I continued on to the Mt. Kumano summit. Then poles marking the way hints at how much snow this area gets. A little blip on the horizon is the emergency hut. 

Getting close to the emergency hut! The last leg is pretty steep. 

A very unique looking emergency hut. 

Two doors - I tried the one with the stairs first before I figured out there has to be another door. And there was. 

Here's the other door. This mountain hut has beautiful views too. 

Inside the hut are gallons of gas, rope, shovel...

And a gas heater!

Also some helmets. 

And some beds (?). Take note of the fleece beddings. 

Going back to the hike, soon enough I got to the summit which has a shrine. The way to Zao Onsen and the ropeway is right in front of this torii. 

Inside is a mountain hut too. 

With space for sleeping two or three people, depending on how close they are. and how cold. 
No heater in this hut, but with a fireplace and plenty of firewood. 

Ok, done with my fascination with mountain huts and back to the hike. Here's Mt. Kumano (Zao's highest point)'s summit marker. There are quite a couple of paths from here and I did take the wrong one, so I had to go back to the shrine and that's where I saw the sign for Zao Onsen. 

The sign for Zao Onsen 蔵王温泉. The trail can be seen across the ridge. 

The ridge was well maintained, with some sections even having these stone trails. 

A short section had planks. 

Another summit - Mt. Zizo. This one is right above the ropeway. 

Soon enough I arrived at the ropeway. There's a lot of alternative paths, the path to the ropeway is the left turn. I turned left, then at the next fork turned right. It's the path with the blue sign on the upper left of this picture. 

I have left the main path, and have embarked on the journey alone. 

I was walking a while on the ski slopes. 

But soon enough my map told me to take a turn right, and this is my turn right. I'll be honest, I definitely did not want to take this turn, but I had no choice. 

I also had to cross the ski path again, but just to cross it and go back to the trail. The entrance to the trail is marked by a little marker that is so old you can't read what is written. Where is that marker? It's to the left of this picture, the little rectangular wood. The app yamap is really a lifesaver here. 

So I'm back to the trail nobody takes. 

I even had to cross a dam. I couldn't believe it, and I was scared, sure I am lost. But there's a little pink ribbon in the middle of the dam, and when I walked closer, there's a little rope marking the way too. So I HAD to cross the dam. Do you realize how much I do not wanna cross a dam that can be as slippery as can be in a trail nobody takes?  

I crossed the dam (coz I had no choice), and it was not slippery at all! I looked back, and it looks a lot scarier than it is. 

I was rewarded with gorgeous autumn foliage the rest of my way down. 

I finally saw two other souls, and that marks the end of my hike in the trail. 

I then rushed down this path, yes, right underneath the ropeway cables, trying to catch the next bus (buses come every hour). Google map works here, at least to lead you to the bus terminal. 

Arrived at the bus stop!

I decided to go to this highly rated don-don yaki, less than 10 minutes' walk from Yamagata Station. 
Dondon-yaki is mainly flour (but not crepe, closer to takoyaki flour?) that is soaked in very rich sauce. 

Soon enough I was at Yamagata Station to take the bullet train, and they had this cute lego bullet train. 

I stumbled on the edamame shake  place, Zunda Saryo, and had a shake for my trip home! 


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