A ‘Luxurious’ Camping Night at the Top of Mt. Zao

May 7, 2021

A ‘Luxurious’ Camping Night at the Top of Mt. Zao

Note: this post was re-posted from my old website, originally published in May 2018.

So I have been thinking of doing more hikes in Tohoku ever since I came to Sendai. But alas, many things happened that kept me occupied and on top of that even in summer the weather was unbearably bad with constant rain almost every day.

After on hold many times, finally at the end of September 2017 the plan I had devised to climb Mt. Zao came to fruition. I wanted to see the famous Okama Crater I missed the chance to see it last year. Together with my usual hiking buddies, Theo and Steven, we rode the 8 AM train from Sendai to Yamagata. Arriving at the station we missed the bus to Zao-onsen by just a fraction of minutes so we took the next bus an hour later.

The town of Zao, where plenty of onsen are waiting for visitors.

It was a bit cloudy when we reach Zao-onsen bus terminal. We had our delicious lunch there and packed more food from the convenience store then headed to Zao Ropeway Terminal to get to Jizou-sancho Terminal, where the climbing base started. Along the way we saw trees turning red and yellow — Zao is ready for autumn.

Jizo sancho, the top most station in Zao.
Posing before the climb.

We took a ‘before climbing’ picture in front of the Jizou statue, then walked towards the nicely built hiking path. As we pressed on the weather got worse. The wind blowing hard and the rain fell down moments later. As we continued our climb in the direction of Kumano Peak, suddenly the mist came and colored everything in white.

Though windy, the view is gorgeous.

Due to low visibility, we were forced to stop the exploration even though it was only 4 PM. We decided to go into the mountain shelter much earlier than expected. We also missed the sunset as it was totally white with nothing to see. Even so, the mountain shelter itself was superb. Theo commented that that was probably the most lavish ‘free shelter’ that he had ever been to among his climbs. It has a stove; it has blankets; it has emergency stuff like helmets and shovels. Basically, it has everything a hiker could wish for. I really recommend you try sleeping here if you want to try hiking in Zao. There are several shelters laid down everywhere, so you best pick a good spot.

About to drop the sickest album of the year here…

Nobody else was there except for us, for nobody with a healthy mind would climb Mt. Zao in such terrible weather. But amazingly, on the contrary, we had the best time ever. The shelter was basically our own private base camp. We took some selfies inside as you can see below. Afterward, we decided to get some rest waiting until the sky becomes clear.

Selfie inside the shelter.
Pretty comfy accomodation if you ask me!

Several hours later, I was soundly asleep when Steven woke me up enthusiastically. Apparently, the moon had appeared and the mist had cleared a bit. We took our camera gears and proceeded to do some night shots until the moon set in and it became too chilly we could not bear the cold anymore. I had to admit I’m not too proficient with astrophotography as it is not my main forte. That plus the cold night made my hand tremble when setting up the camera. Even though the strong wind knocked down my tripod (and bruised my lens in the process), the results weren’t too shabby, if I may say so.

Zao night shot.
An attempt to get star trail. I didn’t think I’d get the perfect circle.

Sunrise came around 5 AM, and we excitedly ran to bask in the glorious view. The sunrise view was glorious and we could see what was around us for a bit, until unfortunately the wind came again and brought the clouds over, hiding the view. Fearing that the weather could go from bad to worse, we moved on towards Okama Crater, hoping for the best.

Early morning at Zao.
The path towards the crater, visibility 100%.
The path towards the crater, visibility 0%.

On the way through the mist-shrouded path, it was difficult to see the path towards the crater. We waited for quite some time at the edge of the fence, looking down at the invisible crater with exasperation. But the view never came and we thought just to quit when out of nowhere Theo shouted, ”Blue sky!” while pointing at the horizon. And there it was, as the clouds have slowly parted uncovering the crater from the unending whiteness, rose the majestic Okama Crater. Blood rushed from to my head as I was filled with excitement. Finally, yes finally, I was able to view this elusive crater.

The crater covered in mist.
The calendar-worthy shot of Okama Crater.

We were among the first to see the crater that day. As the day went by hikers and visitors alike started to flock to the area, so we just went around for a while then said our goodbye to this magical place.

Mt. Zao hike, mission accomplished!

Zao Kattamine Shrine, at the top of the mountain.

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