Zao-san and Why We Climb Mountains
Volcanic mountain range known for its awe-inspiring Okama crater lake, snow monsters, ski fields, hot springs, and a hidden history of mountain worship.
Volcanic mountain range with epic crater lake, spectacular snow fields, and famous snow monsters straddling the borders of Yamagata and Miyagi Prefectures.
‘What’s up with ‘mountain climbing’? I just don’t get it.’
What a weird thing for a yamabushi to say, let alone a master yamabushi. I mean, yamabushi are mountain ascetics. The yama in yamabushi literally means mountain. You’d expect yamabushi to be ok with people climbing mountains, right?
However, my wise and all-knowing yamabushi Master Hoshino Fumihiro always says he can’t understand climbing mountains for the sake of climbing mountains.
You see, for Master Hoshino, it’s not that mountain climbing is bad. No, it’s exactly the opposite. For Master Hoshino, mountains aren’t there to simply be climbed.
Mountains are there to be worshipped.
Worshipping the Mountains of Japan
Since ancient times, the mountains of Japan have been revered as not only the abode of the kami and buddha, but as the kami and buddha themselves. At the same time, the Japanese traditionally believe that mountains are where our souls venture once they leave our physical bodies.
In the process, our souls turn into the very kami and buddha there to protect those of us down below. The souls of the ancestors that are worshipped turn into kami that bring good, the souls that aren’t, bring evil (for more on ancestor worship in Japan, see my article on Gassan). That is why yamabushi pray for the souls of those lost in natural disasters, or in other words, those without families or people to pray for them.
Yamabushi and The Shugendo Belief
Mountains were a place where only the truly brave ventured in search of answers to life’s deepest, darkest, questions. Yamabushi follow Shugendo, the way, do, of gaining supernatural powers, gen, through ascetic practice, shu. Essentially, yamabushi undertake ascetic rituals on the mountains of Japan dedicated to the kami, buddha, and ancestors. This is not only to appease the kami and buddha, but also to pay respects while at the same time better getting in tune with nature.
So for some, simply climbing mountains ignores centuries upon centuries of the long tradition of nature and ancestor worship in Japan. Not only is it considered disrespectful to the kami, the buddha, or the ancestors, it is deemed disrespectful to the very mountains themselves.
Zao-san and the Zao Renpo
Take one of the 100 Famous Mountains of Japan, Zao-san, for example. Straddling the borders of Yamagata and Miyagi Prefectures, Zao-san, or the Zao Renpo as they are known, is a group of volcanic peaks making up the Zao Quasi-National Park along the Ou Mountains in the northern Tohoku region.
People flock from all over Japan to bathe in Zao’s famous Onsen hot springs, shred snow at the Zao Ski Field, or to simply bask in the glory of the awe-inspiring Okama, a 360m-wide crater lake also known as Goshiki Numa, the lake of five colours, due to the brilliant hues it creates.
Leisure Time on Zao-san
Internationally, Zao-san is known for its Snow Monsters, Aomori Todomatsu white fir trees that turn into ‘monsters’ in the winter; a phenomenon that occurs when snow sticks to built up rime caused by the freezing temperatures up there.
Yet under the surface, Zao-san has an extremely deep history of mountain worship, a history too important to simply brush aside for the sake of a relaxing bath, a nice view, or a few hours hitting the slopes.
Judging from the name Zao though, this much should be obvious.
Who or what is Zao? — Zao-san gets its name
When Shugendo spread from Yoshino, Nara Prefecture, all throughout Japan, it eventually made its way to Zao-san. In particular, in the latter stages of the Heian Period (794–1185), Katta-dake (Mt. Katta) near Zao-san’s Okama became a popular location for Shugendo training. Before long the Yamabushi enshrined Zao Gongen (avatar) there, and Zao-san as we know it today was born.
Who or what is Zao Gongen?
Gongen are the form a Buddhist god takes in Japan to provide salvation to the people. Much like A♭or G#, with Gongen, buddha and kami are one in the same taking on a different form depending on interpretation (learn more about that here).
Zao Gongen is particularly important for Shugendo. Not only is Zao Gongen the protector deity of Kinpusenji, the temple in Yoshino at the centre of Shugendo, Zao Gongen is the protective deity of Shugendo itself. That a group of mountains should be named after such a powerful deity is tantamount to its importance.
Yet if Zao-san is that powerful, exactly how did this mountain come to be known more for its tourism than its history of mountain worship? Weren’t there people to help maintain its tradition of mountain worship?
I’m glad you asked.
The Developing Custom of Mountain Worship in Japan
Over the centuries, Shugendo gave the mountains of Japan a special aura. Or should I say, Shugendo exposed their special aura. From the mid-Edo period, around the 1700s, civil war in Japan had all but died down, and the ordinary folk found themselves with extra time on their hands.
In those days inter-regional travel in Japan for ordinary folk simply wasn’t allowed. However, there was an exception for spiritual travel. If you were making a pilgrimage, you were allowed to travel to sacred areas all over the country.
And many millions did.
Zao-san Gets in on the Action
Mountains across Japan became very popular destinations, and a custom of visits to the mountains among said ordinary folk began. This was when Ko (講), annual group pilgrimages to sacred mountains began. Popular locations were the Dewa Sanzan with Dewa Sanzan Ko, the Kumano Kodo in Wakayama with Kumano Ko, and even to Fuji-san with Fuji Ko.
Dewa Sanzan Ko is still alive to this day, and is even available in English with Yamabushido’s Yamabushi Guided Hike and the Yamabushi Reset Program (full disclosure, these are programs I help develop and provide).
Yamabushi Guided Hike - YAMABUSHIDO
Setting out from a Shukubo (pilgrim lodge) and walking in the holy mountains with a Yamabushi guide is an age-old…
Zao-san was not spared the action, not by a long shot. On Zao-san, a custom known as Zao Oyama Mairi began on the Miyagi Prefecture side at Togatta Onsen. During Zao Oyama Mairi, visitors to Zao-san made their way via Sai-no-Kawara (named after the banks of the Sanzu River, similar to the River Styx), to the summit of Katta-dake where they paid their respects.
Old Hags and Venerable Monks — The Inhabitants of Zao-san
Besides Okama and the snow monsters, visitors to Zao-san in those days would have come across many interesting spots indeed. For example, the area between Katta-dake and Kumano-dake that passes by Okama is known as umano-se, the horse’s back, due to its distinctive shape.
In addition, many mountains in Yamagata are purportedly home to Yokai, supernatural beings such as Tengu found on Tengu-san, Tengu-yama, Tengusumotori-yama, or on the Kamuro Renpo. Zao-san is home to its own Yamanba (also read Yamauba). Literally ‘Mountain Hag’, a Yamanba is an elderly woman who inhabits the mountains and forests of Japan.
Well, at least they were an elderly woman.
Yamanba are older women who have been corrupted and transformed into monsters. They are known to take on the appearance of a nice elderly woman offering shelter and food to unsuspecting travelers. However, Yamanba turn into their true form at the drop of a hat. Once revealed, they use powerful magic to try and eat the very people they set out to help in the first place.
Be very weary of elderly women on the mountains, so the saying goes.
Jizo-san — Protector of Children’s Souls
Don’t worry, though. Not everyone on Zao-san is out to get you.
If you’ve ever been out and about in Japan chances are you would have noticed statues of Jizo-san, a buddhist statue with characteristic red hat and bib often found along roads and in cemeteries. One of the main peaks of Zao-san is Jizo-dake (Mt. Jizo), named after the Buddhist Bodhisattva Jizo-san (Kṣitigarbha in Sanskrit, or O-Jizo-sama in formal Japanese).
What does Jizo-san do?
Jizo-san has a very important job — looking after the souls of unborn babies, and children who die before their parents do. In Japan it is believed that children who die before their parents cannot cross the Sanzu River that takes them to the afterlife. Jizo-san hides these children in his clothing to protect them from evil spirits on behalf of the parents.
Have you ever noticed small piles of rocks stacked on top of one another on the mountains? They are placed there in the hopes of shortening the amount of time children have to suffer in the underworld. Legend has it that unborn children are condemned to stack these stones on top of each other in vain, as they always fall over. Demons push over these stacks to torment the children, but as protector of these children’s souls, again Jizo-san offers safe haven and protection from the demons by hiding the children under his garments.
Red is a protective colour in Japan, which is why Jizo-san always wears red. Many people place red hats and bibs on Jizo-san to help protect the children he saves.
The Decline of Journeys to Zao-san
Over the centuries, many thousands visited Jizo-san while keeping a lookout for Yamanba. Then, despite suffering damage during the Meiji Period Shinbutsu Bunri (the separation of Shinto from Buddhism from 1868 to around 1873), the custom of Zao Oyama Mairi remained popular until after WWII.
However, in 1962, a road was completed connecting Zao Onsen and Togatta Onsen on the Yamagata and Miyagi Prefecture sides of Zao-san respectively. Known as the Zao Echo Line, this road led to a huge boost in tourism to the area, but it came at the expense of Zao Oyama Mairi. In some places the road was built directly on top of the ancient trails, and many, if not all, stopped walking the ancient paths. Before long, its existence was all but forgotten.
Until 2014, that is.
Zao Kodo Kai and the Zao Legacy Trail
A local taiko Japanese drum team from around Zao-san held annual performances at Sakuramotobo temple in Yoshino, Nara Prefecture. Curious as to the origins of Zao-san, and the history of Shugendo there, the group asked the chief priest of Sakuramotobo temple, Ryonin Tatsumi, for help in re-establishing the Shugendo tradition.
After years of neglect, many of the trails had fallen into disrepair, so the first step was to get them back to a hike-able state. Those interested in the revival formed a group called the Zao Kodo Kai led by Endo Yuichi, the owner of a local cafe and a local town councillor.
In 2017 Endo Yuichi visited Sakuramotobo in Yoshino and informed Ryonin Tatsumi that the paths had been repaired and requesting to climb Zao-san together. It wasn’t until 2020 that Tatsumi was able to come, and as he did so he brought with him lessons of Shugendo, just as the founder of Shugendo En-no-Gyoja had spread its teachings to Zao-san many centuries ago.
So, for the first time in more than 50 years, it was made possible to walk the ancient trails, and they have since been named the Zao Legacy Trail.
Read the full article here:
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo - The Revival of Japan's Ancient Mountain Ascetic…
Zao is the name of a mountain in the north of Japan and also the name of a Shugendo deity: Zao Gongen. However, the…
Paying your respects on the mountains of Japan
Even though these days mountains such as Zao-san are known more for their tourist attractions, they have been revered as objects of worship for far longer than any of us could ever imagine. Mountains in Japan are not only the abode of the kami and buddha, they are the kami and buddha, and they demand our respect.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying if you’re not going to pay your respects, don’t even bother going to the mountains.
I’m saying that if you ever happen to find yourself on a mountain in Japan, at the very least, be sure to show your appreciation lest you incur the wrath of the kami.
Or the buddha.
Or the ancestors.
Or Master Hoshino, for that matter.
How to get to Zao-san
There are multiple busses from Yamagata Station to Zao Onsen. The ride takes about 40 minutes and costs ¥1000 for adults, ¥500 for children. You can even continue on to Okama, which leaves Zao Onsen at 10:10 daily, returning at 1pm.
The Zao Ropeway and Katta Lift both reach the trails at the top of Zao-san. It’s even possible to drive all the way to Katta-dake and Katta-mine shrine using a toll road off the Zao Echo Line called the ‘Zao High Line’. Plus, hiking up Zao-san is of course available.
Popular Hiking Routes on Zao-san
The most popular hiking route on Zao-san is from Jizo-dake to Katta-dake via Kumano-dake (Mt. Kumano), or vice versa. Both ends are connected to ropeways, and this route also allows you to take in the main peaks, Jizo-san, Okama, Umano-se, the horse’s back, and of course everyone’s favourite ‘old woman’, Yamanba.
There are two peaks on Zao-san on the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata list; 1) Jizo-dake (Mt. Jizo), and 2) Kumano-dake. Katta-dake doesn’t lie in Yamagata Prefecture so is not included on the list, but is very close and definitely worth visiting. Fubo-san (Mt. Fubo, the unforgettable mountain) is yet another mountain nearby, and Sanpokojin-san (Mt. Sanpokojin) lies right next to Jizo-dake on the other side of the Jizo-san statues.
The Zao Ropeway
The Zao Ropeway is a gondola located in Zao Onsen that goes to Jizo-sancho station at the base of Jizo-dake and Sanpokojin-san. From April 1st to December 1st, the Zao Ropeway is in operation between the hours of 8:30am and 5pm. A ticket to Jizo-Sancho is ¥1500 one-way, or ¥3000 return.
The Katta Lift
Accessible from the Zao Echo Line, The Katta Lift is a single-person ski lift that goes to the Katta-dake side of Okama. For the hiking season, the lift is operational from April to early November between the hours of 9am and 4:30pm, and costs ¥450 one-way or ¥750 return. Taking this lift to the crater in summer or autumn is also a great idea for a picnic or a day out.
Jizo-dake (Mt. Jizo)
Jizo-dake is easily reachable from the Zao Ropeway. Simply take the ropeway from Zao Onsen to the last stop called Jizo-sancho. From here it is a very short walk to the Jizo statues. Then, head to the right on the path closest to the Zao Ropeway. After about 10 or 15 minutes you will arrive at the summit of Jizo-dake. A left from the statues will take you to Sanpokojin-san.
Jizo-dake is often used as a starting point for hikes. One great option is to hike up Jizo-dake, then continue in the same direction. After about an hour or so you will reach Kumano-dake from where you can see Okama. If you keep following the trail over Umano-se (the horse’s back), in about an hour you will arrive at Katta-dake.
Kumano-dake (Mt. Kumano)
Lying between Jizo-dake and Katta-dake, Kumano-dake is named after Kumano Gongen, in reference to Kumano Jinja. Kumano-dake is not connected by a ropeway yet it commands views of the Okama and is a great destination in and of itself. Kumano-dake can be reached after hiking for a while from either the Zao Ropeway or Katta Lift.
Katta-dake (Mt. Katta) — Home to Katta-mine Jinja
Situated on the Miyagi Prefecture side of Zao-san, Katta-dake is home to Katta-mine Jinja. The original destination of Zao Oyama Mairi, Katta-mine Jinja was the only manned shrine on Zao-san. At the shrine they sold all manner of omamori charms, and had goshuin stamps available as well.
Notes on hiking Zao-san
The peaks of Zao-san are all connected by well-trodden and well-maintained trails. The trail at the top is relatively flat, but there are a lot of small volcanic rocks so good walking shoes are a must. Zao-san is also very exposed, so be careful of windburn, or heatstroke during the summer.
Please also note Zao-san is an active volcano with a current alert level of 1. This is the lowest level whereby you simply have to be aware that it is a volcano (latest information here).
Nearby locations worth checking out
Supposedly dating back to 110 AD, Zao Onsen is a hot spring village tucked into a pocket of Zao-san. Legend has it Zao Onsen started when a warrior cleaned an arrow wound in the spring water, and it healed up miraculously well. Zao Onsen is located at the bottom of the Zao Ski Field, so is in the perfect location for a relaxing time after spending a day on the slopes, or up on the mountains.
Zaō Onsen - Wikipedia
Records of the onsen date back as far as 110 AD. A wounded warrior is said to have drawn an arrow out of his body and…
Zao Ski Field and the Zao Snow Monsters
As you can probably tell, Yamagata Prefecture is in the middle of snow country, and Zao Ski Field is its premiere location to shred some snow (Yudono-san Ski Field on where else but Yudono-san, and Jangle Jungle on Kurobushi-yama also come recommended).
In the middle of winter, the white fir trees on Zao-san turn into ‘snow monsters’. If you stay in Zao Onsen, it is really easy to jump on the Zao Ropeway and see the monsters at night, when they truly come into their element.
Yamadera (Risshakuji Temple)
More commonly known as Yamadera (lit. mountain temple), Risshakuji Temple is one of the most famous spots in Yamagata Prefecture, and isn’t too far of a drive from Zao-san. Yamadera is not only an amazing place to simply take in, but it is also very famous for Haiku poetry. Japan’s premiere Haiku poet Matsuo Basho didn’t originally intend on visiting Yamadera, but it is a good thing he did as he composed the following Haiku (translated by yours truly) that encapsulates the nature of Yamadera to a T.
Seeping deep into the rock
The cicada’s shrill— Matsuo Basho
Also popular is the Taramizu Remains, AKA the hidden Yamadera (Ura-Yamadera). Behind Yamadera lies Amayobari-yama and Omoshiro-yama as well, both excellent hiking spots.
Zao-san (Jizo-dake and Kumano-dake) in Kaminoyama City | 蔵王山（地蔵岳、熊野岳）| ざおうさん（じぞうだけ、くまのだけ）
Zao-san is known for:
- Okama, the crater lake also known as Goshiki-numa, the pond of five colours
- Jizo-san statue at the base of Jizo-dake
- The Zao Snow Monsters, white fir trees with a menacing appearance during the winter
- Zao Onsen, an ancient Hot Spring Resort
- Zao Legacy Trail, ancient pilgrimage route up Zao-san
- Umano-se The Horse’s Back
- Home to Yamanba (or Yamauba), old hags or witches of the mountains that were corrupted and turned into monsters
Zao-san (Jizo-dake, Kumano-dake)(蔵王, 地蔵岳, 熊野岳, ざおう) is a 1841m (6040 ft.) peak in the Murayama region of Yamagata prefecture best climbed from June to October. Zao-san is a level 2 in terms of physical demand, which means it is relatively easy to hike, has a B technical grade, which means it doesn’t require too much expertise, and you want to allow at least 3 hours for a climb.
Mountain Range: Zao Renpo (Zao Alps)
Elevation: 1841m (6040 ft.) (Kumano-dake)
Technical Demand: B (requires some expertise)
Physical Demand: 2 (relatively easy hike)
Trails: Multiple. 1) Jizo-dake to Katta-dake via Kumano-dake, 3 hours return (not including transport)
Best time to climb: June to October
Day trip possible? Yes
Minimum Time Required: 3 hours
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