Visiting Okama Crater at Mount Zao in Japan
Situated on the border of Yamagata and Miyagi Prefectures, Mount Zao is one of the most prominent mountains in the Tohoku Region of Japan. While most people gravitate to Zao Onsen for its beautiful winter scenery, it is also a place not to be missed in the late spring, summer, and early fall months. One of the most notable things to do in Zao Onsen during this time is to see the exceptional Okama Crater located at Mount Zao.
Where is Okama Crater?
Okama Crater is a 1,080-meter crater lake that is located within the Zao Mountain range between Goshiki, Kumano, and Katta mountains. It is close to the cities of Zao Onsen, Kaminoyama, and Yamagata or about 1.5 hours by car from Sendai.
How to Get to Okama Crater and Mount Zao
GETTING TO OKAMA CRATER BY CAR
When we visited Mount Zao we rented a car for the day so we could enjoy Zao Onsen, Yamagata, and drive up to Okama Crater. Keep in mind that you must have an International Driving Permit in order to rent a car in Japan and it’s best that you feel comfortable driving on the left side of the road. Be sure to also request an automatic vehicle if you don’t drive a manual.
From late April to early November cars can drive on the Zao Echo Line to one of two parking lots located on the mountain. The first parking lot is free to park and you can take the ski lift to Kattadake peak for 750 yen per person (round-trip) or hike up the remainder of the way which takes about 45 minutes. The second parking lot is just below the Kattadake peak and it costs 550 yen per car to park and is a short 5-10 minute walk from the viewing area of Okama Crater Lake. There are no tolls on the Zao Echo Line but depending on where you drive from, you may incur extra fees from tolls.
GETTING TO OKAMA CRATER BY TRAIN AND BUS
From Yamagata: Take the JR Yamagata Line from Yamagata Station to Kaminoyama Onsen Station (Approximately 15 minutes, 240 yen). From Kaminoyama Onsen you can take the free shuttle bus (Miyako bus bound for Zao Katta Sancho) to the Kattadake parking lot. The bus ride takes about an hour. Then you can take the Katta Lift towards the top (750 yen per person round trip).
From Miyagi: Take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Shiroshi Zao Station. There are only two buses that make the journey to Mount Zao so be sure to check the timetable before you go! The journey takes 1.5 hours one-way and costs 1,980 yen.
GETTING TO OKAMA CRATER BY ROPEWAY
If you happen to be traveling from Zao Onsen, another way to get to Okama Crater is by ropeway. The Zao Ropeway operates from Zao Onsen to the upper station and costs 1,500 yen one way or 3,000 yen round trip per person. The only kicker is that once you reach the top of the ropeway you will still have to hike approximately 45 minutes further up Mount Zao to see Okama Crater. But if you are staying in Zao Onsen and are wanting to enjoy the short hike to the top, this is a great way to do so!
When is the Best Time to Visit Mount Zao?
We visited Mount Zao and Okama Crater in the summer and found it to be the perfect time to visit. Because of the elevation change, it is much cooler at the top of Mount Zao so it’s a great way to escape the summer heat.
Early fall, such as September and October, is another great time to visit Mount Zao because the temperatures are still nice and you can see more of the steam from Okama Crater and witness autumn foliage changes. Keep in mind that Okama Crater is not accessible by road or ropeway in the winter due to snow and ice.
During the winter if you are a skilled snowshoer or winter hiker you can access Mount Zao by foot but I recommend booking a tour with Sumikawa Snow Park since it’s easier to get lost and sudden snowfall or inclement weather can occur. Although visiting Okama Crater isn’t as easy in the winter, there are plenty of other activities to enjoy around Mount Zao including skiing, snowboarding, and viewing the Juhyo or “snow monsters” which are made from snowfall freezing on alpine trees.
Viewing Okama Crater from Mount Zao
Okama Crater was formed by a volcanic eruption in the 1720s and is still considered to be an active volcano site to this day. The name Okama comes from the Japanese word for “pot” or “kettle” because the lake within the crater closely resembles a cooking pot! The lake is 1,080 meters wide and 27 meters deep.
One of the most unique things about Okama Crater is that depending on the time of day you visit the waters may change colors from a milky blue to turquoise, to emerald. Because of this, it is also referred to as Goshikinuma (five-colored pond).
The beautiful bright blue waters are considered to be due to the acidity of the water and before you start thinking of how it might be a nice place to swim, think again! This lake isn’t for swimming. In fact, it cannot even sustain life because of the acidity of the water. Since it is an active volcano site you can’t get much closer than the viewing areas, but it’s the best view possible!
In addition to viewing Okama Crater Lake, you can go to the visitor center to gather more information as well as visit Kattamine Shrine. Because the journey to get to Okama Crater is somewhat lengthy we recommend bringing at least some snacks and water, especially if you’re hiking. However, once you reach the top you’ll notice that there is an onsite restaurant.
Hiking to Okama Crater
There are many different ways that Okama Crater can be enjoyed. Of course, you can drive or take the bus and chairlift towards the top. But you can also enjoy a shorter, 2.8km (1.7 miles) hike which takes about 45 minutes to the top of the crater viewing area from the first parking lot.
If you are wanting to complete a more strenuous hike there are two routes that allow you to trek from the base of the mountains to Okama Crater.
Zao Onsen/Yamagata Trail
On the Yamagata side of the mountain, you can trek from Zao Onsen to the crater which is roughly 12.3km (7.6 miles) and takes about 3.5 hours. However to shorten the hike you can the Zao Onsen Ropeway to make it around 9.9km (6.2 miles) and roughly 2 hours 45 minutes to hike.
Gaga Onsen/Miyagi Trail
On the Miyagi side of the mountain, you can trek from Gaga Onsen. The route from Gaga Onsen is the longest trail at approximately 14.5km (9 miles). The trail starts at Gaga Onsen and travels over Kumanodake ending at Togatta Peak. This trail is pretty strenuous and takes about four hours one way. Along the trail, you’ll get to enjoy alpine plants and scenery such as azaleas, cherry blossoms, or autumn foliage depending on the season.
For those that are cycling enthusiasts, you can also cycle up and down the mountain. Just be wary of buses and cars on the road plus the steep incline up the mountain.
Location: Kuraishidakekokuyuchinai-国有林内 Togattaonsen, 蔵王町 刈田郡 Miyagi 989-0916, Japan // MAP
Hours: Around 8am-5pm, sunrise to sunset
Cost: Free to visit