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.

Katta-mine Jinja (shrine) on Katta-dake, Zao-san (Mt. Zao) with obelisk in the foreground, and building with torii gates in the background.
Katta-mine Jinja (Shrine) at the summit of Katta-dake (Mt. Katta), one of the peaks of Zao-san. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Worshipping the Mountains of Japan

Looking towards Yamagata City from the Katta Lift of Zao-san (Mt. Zao) over the green forests and mountains, city in the distance under a cloudy sky.
The view looking down from the Katta-dake ski lift on Zao-san. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Yamabushi and The Shugendo Belief

Tim Bunting AKA Kiwi Yamabushi meditating during yamabushi training at the eighth station of Gassan. Image owned by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Zao-san and the Zao Renpo

The emerald green crater lake ‘Okama’ of Zao-san surrounded by cloudy mountain peaks
Zao-san’s emerald green crater lake called ‘Okama’. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Leisure Time on Zao-san

The all-wood entrance to an Onsen hot spring on Zao-san, females to the left, males to the right, each with their own Shime-nawa rope with white lightning-shaped tassles for protection.
The public hot spring baths of Zao Onsen. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Who or what is Zao? — Zao-san gets its name

A statue of Zao Gongen, the namesake of Zao-san (Mt. Zao).
A statue of Zao Gongen. Photo in the public domain from Wikipedia.

Who or what is Zao Gongen?

An obelisk at the summit of Katta-mine, one of the peaks on Zao-san (Mt. Zao).
Relics at the summit of Katta-dake on the Zao Renpo. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

The Developing Custom of Mountain Worship in Japan

Tim Bunting AKA Kiwi Yamabushi blowing his conch at the summit of Jizo-dake, part of Zao-san, overlooking a Zao Onsen shrouded in cloud.
Tim Bunting AKA Kiwi Yamabushi blowing his conch at the summit of Jizo-dake (Mt. Jizo). Zao Onsen and The Zao Ropeway can be seen in the distance. Image owned by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Zao-san Gets in on the Action

A person in a bright blue jacket walks along a wooden trail near the Katta Lift of Zao-san, amongst a low forest of greenery with a cloudy sky in the background.
A short path near the Katta Lift car park, much like the Midagahara marshlands on Gassan. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Old Hags and Venerable Monks — The Inhabitants of Zao-san

A Yamanba, or Yamauba, mountain hag or mountain witch, like the one on Zao-san (Mt. Zao) depicted in an old oil painting.
Yamanba (or Yamauba), a Yokai, is said to inhabit Zao-san. Picture in the public domain from Wikipedia.

Jizo-san — Protector of Children’s Souls

The Jizo statues of Jizo-dake, one of the peaks on Zao-san (Mt. Zao). The statues are wearing their characteristic red bibs, and are surrounded with a dark cloudy sky, and the fresh greenery of summer.
The Jizo statues at Jizo-dake. Jizo-san is the guardian of children’s souls. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

What does Jizo-san do?

Jizo statues on a hill in Yamadera, a mountain escape near Zao-san (Mt. Zao).
Jizo-san wearing red bibs at Risshakuji Temple AKA Yamadera. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.
Rocks stacked on top of each other with a mountain in the background. Sights such as these are common in Japan, especially on Zao-san (Mt. Zao) where Jizo-dake lies.
Rocks stacked on top of each other. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

The Decline of Journeys to Zao-san

The stone ruins of an old mountain hut covered in shrubs at Kumano-dake, one of the peaks of Zao-san (Mt. Zao).
The ruins of an ancient structure on Zao-san near the summit of Kumano-dake (Mt. Kumano). Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Zao Kodo Kai and the Zao Legacy Trail

Paying your respects on the mountains of Japan

The Zao Echo Line road weaves its way through the greenery of Zao-san, cloudy sky above the mountains in the background.
A view of the Zao Echo Line, a road connecting Zao Onsen and Togatta Onsen on the Yamagata and Miyagi Prefecture sides of Zao-san respectively. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

How to get to Zao-san

A huge cloud hangs over the green mountains of Zao-san (Mt. Zao).
Some of the mountain peaks on Zao-san in the height of summer. A great place to escape the heat! Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Popular Hiking Routes on Zao-san

A close-up of the statues of Jizo on Jizo-dake wearing their characteristic red bibs, with a cloudy sky in the background.
Jizo-dake living up to its name with the statues of Jizo-san. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

The Zao Ropeway

The white Zao Ropeway Jizo Sancho Station amongst a sea of green and a white sky, seen from the summit of Jizo-dake, with statues of Jizo-san to the right.
The Zao Ropeway (left, centre) and Jizo Statue (right) seen from the summit of Jizo-dake. Sanpokojin-san is off to the right. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

The Katta Lift

The Katta Lift up Zao-san (Mt. Zao) with Kaminoyama City under the clouds in the distance.
The Katta Lift with parts of Kaminoyama City in the background. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Jizo-dake (Mt. Jizo)

A bald-looking Jizo-dake covered in the white fir trees that turn into the Zao Snow Monsters when winter arrives.
Jizo-dake seen from the Zao Ropeway Jizo-sancho station. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Kumano-dake (Mt. Kumano)

The Zao Ropeway seen from Jizo Sancho Station, a giant gondola that comes out of the clouds with the bright green of summer and white fir trees that turn into the Zao snow monsters.
The Zao Ropeway to Jizo-Sancho Station. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Katta-dake (Mt. Katta) — Home to Katta-mine Jinja

Notes on hiking Zao-san

Tim Bunting AKA Kiwi Yamabushi posing on Zao-san (Mt. Zao) near Kumano-dake looking towards Jizo-dake, yet shrouded in cloud.
Kiwi Yamabushi along the path between Kumano-dake and Jizo-dake. Image owned by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Nearby locations worth checking out

Zao Onsen

The main street of Zao Onsen
The streets of Zao Onsen. Photo by Kiwi Yamabushi.

Zao Ski Field and the Zao Snow Monsters

The Snow Monsters of Zao on Jizo-dake under a deep blue sky. The trees get covered in rime then the snow sticks to them to make them appear like a group of huge monsters.
The snow monsters of Zao. Image in the public domain from Wikipedia.

Yamadera (Risshakuji Temple)

A small mountain shrine at the edge of a precarious cliff with small town in the distance at Yamadera in Yamagata Prefecture, a short way away from Zao-san.
Risshakuji Temple at Yamadera. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.

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)

Onlookers surround the emerald green ‘Okama’ crater lake of Zao-san (Mt. Zao) surrounded in a thick cloud.
People gather around Zao-san’s Okama lake under the thick fog. Image by Kiwi Yamabushi.
  • 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 Map

A map of Zao-san including Katta-dake, Kumano-dake, and Jizo-dake.

Yamabushi Newsletter

100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata Peaks

  1. Exploring The Yamabushi Trails of Kinbo-zan
  2. Sakura Mountain: Arakura-yama
  3. Whetting your appetite for wetlands on Takadate-yama
  4. The Hidden Side of Haguro-san (Haguro Kodo)
  5. The Shogun and the Falcon, How I “Conquered” Japan: Nihon-koku
  6. Dancing in the Dawn Lillies: Shoga-dake and The Fuji of The North
  7. Bananas and Cokes, Leaches and Pit Vipers: Kumanonaga-mine
  8. Reaching Peak Tranquility on Atsumi-dake
  9. Sanze’s Little Helper: Fujikura-yama
  10. The Dewa Sanzan’s “Mountain of Death” — Gassan
  11. The Dewa Sanzan’s “Mountain of Rebirth” — Yudono-san
  12. Womb Passes and Monkey Crossings: Kyogakura-yama — The Shugendo Peak of Sutras
  13. Mythical Beasts, Buddha’s Mother and Buried Yamabushi Treasure? Welcome to Maya-san
  14. The Widow’s Peak: Ubaga-take
  15. The Epitome of Autumn Leaves in North Japan: Taizo-san
  16. Mother. Hunter. Mountain. Hokari-yama
  17. Homer Simpson’s Heaven in North Japan: The Donut-shaped Yonetaihei-zan
  18. The Medieval Castle and Mighty River of Yamuki-yama
  19. Panoramas and picnics under the Sakura: Kita-yama
  20. Yozo-san: White Snakes, White Monkeys and Slimy Salamanders
  21. Abandoned Ski Field and Phantom Forest of Tsuchiyu-yama (Mt. Tsuchiyu)
  22. Turtles, Tigers, and a Legendary Japanese Character: Kamewari-yama
  23. Zao-san and Why We Climb Mountains
  24. Japan Has Pyramids? — Yakushi-san and The OG Japan content creator
  25. Venerable Old Man Mountain — The Mist and Mystery of Okina-san
  26. Why this mountain is EVERYWHERE in Japan — Murayama Ha-yama
  27. The Mt. Fuji of North Japan: Chokai-san

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Little-known aspects of Japan and Japanese culture from a mountain ascetic. Sign up to my newsletter for more: https://www.timbunting.com/newsletter.

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Kiwi Yamabushi

Little-known aspects of Japan and Japanese culture from a mountain ascetic. Sign up to my newsletter for more: https://www.timbunting.com/newsletter.