What draws us to volcanoes? Is it how the violent explosions reveal the depths of the earth? Or is it how the dramatic landscapes of their aftermath allow us to imagine different planets altogether? Either way, getting close to a volcanic crater challenges our perception of the very ground we walk on and ignites our imagination.
The Okama crater of the Zao volcano is accessible by bus, by car, and on foot. Okama wows from any angle, but approaching it on foot is a rare opportunity to experience the radical transformations caused by a volcanic eruption.
Start in the small town of Zao Onsen, famous for hot springs and ski runs. Take the Zao Ropeway to its upper station of Sanchou (1500 yen one-way, 2600 yen round trip, you will transfer to a smaller cable car once). Enjoy the views on the ropeway ride—they are just the beginning!
View from the ropeway in autumnMake sure to pay a visit to Zao-jizo, the protector of Mount Zao. Locals drop a 5-yen coin in the offerings box and pray for safety on their travels. In winter, this statue is buried up to its neck in snow.
Zao-jizoStart your hike on the well-maintained wooden planks just to the right of Zao-jizo. The pines on this hillface transform in winter to Zao’s famous juhyou, or “snow monsters,” but the moss-like greens in summer and swathes of fall colors attract visitors year-round. When you reach the first vista point, take in the layers of mountains all around in panoramic view.
The trail dips a bit before ascending again and presenting a fork in the route. For a direct and steep ascent, continue straight ahead. This will bring you to the highest peak of Mount Zao, where you can look out at the layers of the Zao range in all their splendor. From here follow the ridgeline toward Okama.
For those less inclined to a strenuous—and rocky—stretch, take the left fork and follow the more moderate roundabout trail that leads to Okama. Upon arrival you’ll immediately notice the sudden absence of green and crunch of brown stony earth beneath your feet—you’ve crossed over from a typical lush mountain scape of Japan to a craggy expanse resembling the American Southwest.
The sturdy emergency hut made of stone and built into the earth resembles a border outpost in a war zone; in an instant the dangerous force of an eruption becomes real. Yet the allure beckons a descent, until, amid that brown expanse, the opening of the crater becomes visible.
Seeming like the mouth of some giant mythical creature, it is not quite beautiful, not quite creepy, but mostly, mysterious. The almost iridescent green of the pool—a color that changes according to time of day and season—seems like some enchanted portal.
After loading up with photos to remember this by, you can continue on to the Kattadake Shrine. It’s more or less a stroll (about 40 minutes) with Okama in full view throughout. Hiking down to the crater is forbidden, however.
At the shrine you’ll see the parking lot for those arriving by car. Here you can use the facilities and even buy lunch if you haven’t packed enough snacks or picnic fodder.
The switchback of the Echo Line highwayOn a clear day the view stretches out to the Pacific, putting the scale of our human concerns in their proper place.
Timing: Hiking from the Zao ropeway’s upper station to Okama takes approximately 1.5 hours with no stopping along the way. If you’re taking the ropeway from Zao Onsen and leisurely hiking all the way to the Kattadake Shrine, having lunch, and hiking back, schedule roughly 5-6 hours. Keep in mind that the last ropeway leaves Sanchou station at 4:45 pm.
Transport: If traveling by car, take the switchback Echo Line Highway from Sendai; there is a toll of 540 yen. Buses also run via Sendai, Yamagata, and Kaminoyama.
Weather: Check the weather before heading to Okama and try your best to go on a clear day as the crater can be shrouded in fog. Be aware that there is a noticeable temperature drop from Zao Onsen to Okama and the weather can change quickly on the mountain. It’s a good idea to pack a light rain jacket, an extra layer, and sunscreen regardless of the weather. The wind can also be strong; you may want to have some ear protection.
Safety: Make sure to check with the Japan Meteorological Agency for up-to-date volcano warnings.