My fascination with volcanoes continues! In September, Andrew, a fellow English teacher named Chris and I headed to Yamagata to see the “Five Colored Pond” of Tohōku, Zaō Okama. Zaō Okama is a classic crater lake that according to the Japanese, resembles a large cooking pot and changes colors depending on the weather. The “five” colors seem to be varying shades of blue and green, but apparently if conditions are right, it can look yellow or red, too.
There is a surprisingly small amount of information in English about this beautiful volcanic phenomenon. On a side note, there is a disparity of information on the Tohoku region in general, especially Miyagi and Iwate in part due to the recent earthquake and tsunami. The 2013 Lonely Planet guide book we bought (published in 2011) decided to just completely skip the region, “In response to the Great East Japan Earthquake we have removed coverage of the affected areas from this guide book…” because they assumed A) no one would want to travel there after the devastation and B) that nothing would be up and back to normal any time soon. Well, they were wrong on both counts. Japan is particularly good about tending to their infrastructure, and what area if any needs the most tourism? Tohoku, thanks for nothing Lonely Planet. Anyway…
Our friend Chris said that the lake wasn’t a very popular tourist attraction. “Nobody goes here anymore, it’s too crowded,” he might have said if he was Yogi Berra. I can’t tell if the lake isn’t popular because there’s no good information about the it or, is there no good information about the lake because it’s not popular. Seems like a vicious circle, but if you find yourself in Tohoku, here’s why you should go:
It’s AMAZING. It’s stunning, it’s breathtaking. It’s on a volcano and volcanoes are awesome! Once you reach the crater, you can hike almost completely around it, getting a 270 degree view of its glory. For my woodblock print series, “36 Views of Lake Okama”:
To the right of the information center, there are also hundreds of these stacked rock formations. You can even build your own, add a flag and claim Zaō for yourself.
I’m not exaggerating to be facetious, it truly is incredible. I spent over two hours just gazing at its majesty. When you’ve had all the beauty you can take, you can drive around the mountain to Zaō Onsen and soak in the sulfuric volcanic waters. It’s the real deal, so the town is a bit stinky, but you get used to it quickly. Since the whole town sits on the natural spring, there are more than one onsen to choose from. We found a nice quiet one and got thoroughly warm and relaxed after our excursion. There are indoor onsen, and outdoor onsen. The most famous outdoor onsen is Dairotenburo, which is carved into a ravine. After your soak, you can grab some dinner and head home. Zaō is also know for its dairy farms, so you can score some fresh cheese and milk on your trip. We saw a fantastic harvest moon that night, maybe you could be so lucky…
While living in Tohoku can have its down sides, I’m rather happy I got the chance to live here and experience some of the wonderful places in northern Honshū. Zaō Okama is a place that will definitely stick with me. Japan itself is home to 24 crater lakes. Compare that with the 28 in all of the United States! I clearly have my volcanic sight-seeing cut out for me here. God forbid I ever end up in Indonesia, they have 38 crater lakes!!
The biggest problem with Lake Okama is getting there. Luckily, our friend Chris has a car, but without your own set of wheels, it’s a bit more difficult. Zaō is a cluster of stratovolcanoes, the most active in Tohoku, that runs along the border of the Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures. This means you have to approach the mountain from either the west (Yamagata) or the east (Miyagi). If you are driving, the Miyagi side is a little more amenable. If you need public transportation, the Yamagata side is better. The wording and “map” for the directions on Japan-guide.com is very confusing. Here’s a better visual to outline your travel options:
The best times to see the lake are between May and late October. After this, the mountain becomes skiier’s territory, although the famous “snow monsters” are worth a gander. We went in mid-September and it was absolutely perfect. No humidity, temperatures around 70. It did get a tad windy however, so bring a jacket just in case.
If you have a car, your options are simple. Drive to either of Zaō Okama’s two parking lots on the Zaō Echo Line road. One has free parking, but a 700¥ chair lift you must take to see the lake. The other lot is 500¥, but then you can walk right up to the crater in a few minutes. I recommend the later, since there’s no hassle of waiting around for a chair lift to come. The drive from Sendai is about an hour and a half.
Bus and train:
If you don’t have a car, you’ll have to take a bus from Yamagata-shi, Zaō Onsen or Shiroishi. The buses only run on weekends and holidays in late April until late October. Buses run from a few destinations: the Yamagata station on the Senzan JR line, the Shiroishizao station on the Tohoku-Shinkansen line, or from the small town named Zaō Onsen.
Coming from Yamagata-shi:
This is where the information online gets really confusing:
-The bus from Zaō Onsen is 1430¥ oneway and takes an hour.
-The bus from Yamagata station is about 2000¥ oneway and takes 90 minutes.
Japan-guide says the buses only leave once a day, with one return trip, but it doesn’t say which bus or what time. Helpful, yes? You can take a bus from Yamagata to Zaō Onsen for 1000¥. It’s 40 minutes and comes once an hour. It’s a bit out of the way to go that route unless you really want to go to an onsen. Again, no idea what time or where the buses land and depart from Zaō. This crappy map denotes a “Bus Terminal”:
Coming from Miyagi:
If you are coming from the Miyagi side, you’ll have to:
-Take the JR Senzan line to Yamagata station, then deal with the bus from there.
-You can also take the Tohoku Shinkansen line to the Shiroishizao station, where there is apparently a bus to the lake, but the bullet train is going to cost you more.
-The JR Shiroishi station on the Tohoku line is nearby, but I don’t know if there are any buses to Zaō Okama that originate there, so you might have to find another bus to Shiroishizao station. Ugh…
-If you depart from Zaō Onsen, you can skip the bus and take a ropeway up to Zaō’s second peak, Sanpokojinsan for 2500¥. From Sanpokojisan you can apparently “see the lake,” but for a closer view you have to walk another 45 minutes to get to Kattadake peak. Then either trek back to the ropeway or grab the one hour bus back.
All of this is extremely convoluted, I’m sorry, probably one of the reasons why Zao isn’t very popular. Are you thoroughly confused and have now sworn off visiting this place? I don’t blame you, but just take this as an opportunity to test out your skills driving on the wrong side of the road! Seriously, look at these pictures, you know you want to go to here…
Check out these other awesome places in Tohoku as well.