Zao Onsen (Zao hotspring) is one of the oldest hot springs in the northeastern part of the Tohoku region, in Yamagata Prefecture. It is claimed that this onsen was discovered some 1,900 years ago.
Zao Onsen is known for its high acidity and it is said that a dip in its waters can heal skin conditions and gastrointestinal disorders. Not that I had any of these health conditions but I made my way to Zao Onsen in summer for some trekking across the volcanic mountains of Zao followed by a relaxing soak in the Zao Onsen waters.
The Zao Resort is dotted with hot spring baths, Japanese-style inns, Western-style pensions, mountain lodges and hotels. You will simply be spoiled for choice when you pick your place to stay.
Come winter and the area becomes the playground of skiers who take advantage of the excellent infrastructure of ski slopes, ropeways and chair lifts. The ski resort spots fifteen slopes and twelve ski courses; it offers something for all levels of mastership of skis and snow boards.
The main attraction in winter are the juhyo, the Zao "snow monsters".
During the warmer season, however, Zao Onsen is equally worth a visit and it is much less crowded! The Zao Mountains are pleasant for hiking and trekking at an easy to medium level of difficulty, or if you are not into mountaineering at all, Zao Onsen is ideal for relaxing in hot spring water.
If I had a hard time selecting my accommodation due to the “Überangebot” (lots of places, and different kinds of places), I was also spoilt for choice when it came to selecting the hot spring bath that I wanted to go to.
There are at least six hot spring baths in the town center, two of which are open-air baths.
In addition, there are so-called ashi-no-yu, or foot onsen, where you sit dressed and just bath your feet in onsen water. The usage of ashi-no-yu is free of charge and they make for pleasant resting places when you go for a walk through the onsen resort.
The Zao hot spring baths vary in terms of what they offer. Some are very simple and they just offer a soak in hot water while others are sophisticated and provide you with a spa experience. Opening hours and entrance fees also vary.
I was told that there are three famous outdoor hot spring baths which are Zao Dairotemburo (Zao Big Open-air Bath), Genshichi Roten-no-yu and Shinzaemon-no-yu.
Zao Dairotenburo: This open-air bath is set along a river and it is surrounded by nature. Due to its natural setting, it is closed in winter (Nov-Apr 9-5pm. Yen 450.
Shinzaemon-no-Yu: This is a modern onsen in the middle of the Zao resort. It features a variety of baths, both indoors and outdoors, and it also has a lounge and a restaurant. 10-9pm. Yen 700.
Genshichi Roten no Yu: Located along a river, this is also a modern hot spring bath. 9-9pm (closed on Wednesday mornings). Yen 450.
I went for the Shinzaemon-no-Yu and was not disappointed. During mid-day and in the middle of the week in early autumn I seemed to be the only person in the whole bath. After a hike across the Zao peaks to Okama Crater Lake I felt in need of a good wash followed by stretching out my aching legs in Zao’s healing waters.