Zao Onsen: 1,900 years since its opening! One of the oldest onsen towns in Japan
Straddling Yamagata Prefecture and Miyagi Prefecture, Zao Onsen used to prosper as the west-side entrance to the Zao Mountains for worshipping of the Zao Gongen deity in the Edo period (17th to late 19th century). Currently fully developed as one of the major ski resorts in Japan, it is one of the biggest mountain resorts, with many visitors throughout the year, in the Tohoku area.
Zao Onsen has a long history, starting about 1,900 years ago, when one of the subordinates of legendary hero Yamato Takeru found this onsen, one of the oldest in Japan. The onsen is filled with acidic spring water containing sulfur which is fed from the spring source without dilution. It is called a “spring for creating beauty,” due to its rejuvenation effects for skin and blood vessels as well as an effect for making the skin beautiful.
The onsen resort has three public bath facilities, three foot bath facilities, and five drop-in onsen facilities, which are available for visitors both staying overnight and not. Before you start visiting onsen facilities, you should get a discount package called “Yumeguri Kokeshi,” which is only available at the tourist information center within the Zao Onsen Bus Terminal! Available for purchase for 1,300 yen (tax included), this package includes three tickets for onsen facilities at ryokan hotels and drop-in onsen facilities in the Zao Onsen Resort, that usually cost 500 yen to 1,000 yen to get in, as well as a wooden kokoeshi doll, giving you a great deal to enjoy onsen in the area.
Using this “Yumeguri Kokeshi” package, you should visit “Zao Onsen Dai-rotenburo” (large open-air bath). Located a bit far from the onsen resort, this onsen offers you a great experience of onsen in outdoor natural surroundings. As the place where the spring gushes out from the source is near the open-air bath, you will enjoy immersing yourself in fresh spring water from the source! There are two bathtubs each for men and women. The upstream bathtub temperature is 42 to 43 degrees Celsius, while the downstream one is about 40 degrees, so you can choose one for your preference. With the sound of a rushing stream, the murmur of the wind in the trees, and the cool air of the highland, you will have a very special onsen experience.
With great nature, various activities, and the onsen resort with a romantic retro atmosphere of the early 20th century, Zao continues to attract many people. They want to visit Zao repeatedly to enjoy different seasons – trekking while enjoying beautiful flowers in spring, escaping from heat at a comfortable highland resort during summer, going up to the mountain and looking down at a sea of clouds in autumn, and in winter enjoying a view of trees covered with juho (rime snow) as well as winter sports. At the end of your trip, you will be able to relax and recover while strolling in the onsen resort.
Tokyo Sta. -> 150 min by Yamagata Shinkansen -> Yamagata Sta. -> 40 min by Yamako bus -> Zao Onsen
Zao Onsen Tourism Association
*The information herein is as of April 2021.