Zaō Mountain Range
The area of the Ō mountain range running through the Tohoku region of Japan between the prefectures of Yamagata and Miyagi is called Mt. Zaō. This 25-km-long mountain range is delimited by Mt. Gandosan at the north end and Mt. Fubo at the south end. There is no actual summit called “Mt. Zaō” and the highest peak in the mountain range is Mt. Kumanodake (1841m high). The Zaō Okama crater lake lies on its southeast side. Waters of the lake can take up to five colors as they react to changes in the surrounding clouds and mist, gaining a mysterious beauty. Mt. Kattadake (1758m high) located south of the Zaō Okama crater lake is just as suited as Mt. Kumanodake for mountain climbing in summer.
Zaō Okama Crater Lake
The Zaō Okama crater lake is one of the five explosion craters on the northern side of Mt. Zaō. It was formed after an eruption in 1182, and it is said that water started to accumulate in the crater after rumblings in 1820. It is also called the Five Color Lake as it can change color numerous times a day.
Mountain climbing and attractions
The Zaō Echo Line joining Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures can be used to reach the summit of Mt. Kattadake, but the summit of Mt. Kumanodake is only reachable through one of the numerous routes starting in Zaō Onsen. Using the ropeway linking Zaō Onsen to the Jizōsan mountainside on the north of Mt. Kumanodake, it is possible to reach its summit from the ropeway station in an hour.
There are gregarious shrubs like rhododendrons, Japanese alpine cherries, redvein enkianthus, Japanese stone pines, along with alpine plants like fringed galax, lingonberries, meadow buttercups, common butterworts and plantago hakusanensis around the Jizōsan Station of the Zaō Ropeway.
The jizō (guardian deity of children) statue near the Jizōsanchō station serves as a marker for mountain climbers. The ski and snowboard slopes of the Zaō Onsen Ski Resort go from the station all the way to Zaō Onsen. The Maries’ Fir coniferous trees on the mountainsides, going up from Jizōsan up to 1500m in altitude, turn into the world famous snow monster forest when they are covered by ice and snow in the coldest of winter.
Zaō Mountain Beliefs
In old times, Japanese people were worshiping steep mountains as they believed that spirits lived in the great nature and caused natural disasters when they were angry. Mt. Zaō was called Kattamine (Peak of Katta) in the past. The Sanjōin temple in the Hozawa settlement of Yamagata city stores old texts about the Zaō Jizō. According to the Zaō description plate in front of the gate of the Sanjōin temple, En No Ozuno, who is said to have founded the Shugendō religion in the 7th century, felt the presence of Vajra Zaō Gongen (a mountain deity) during his rigorous 1000 day training on Mt. Kinbusen in Yoshino, Mie prefecture. It is said that Kattamine, on which he prayed for the coming of Vajra Zaō Gongen in 690, became known as Mt. Zao afterwards.
Shugendō is an old Japanese syncretic religion incorporating elements of Buddhism with beliefs that nature is divine. Practitioners undergo hard pilgrimages in remote mountains in order to receive mystic powers.
There is a large statue of the Zaō incarnation of the Buddha in the Sanjōin temple. According to legend, En No Ozuno prayed on the Peak of Katta for the coming of Vajra Zaō Gongen just at the same time that Inoue Tarō, a farmer of the Hozawa settlement of Yamagata city who was distressed that he couldn’t have children, was praying to the heavens. Then, one night, the wife of Inoue Tarō, dreamt that a monk was entering her. She gave birth to a son on October 18th, 694. The couple called him Otozuru. He grew to be a fine man and changed his name to Kakusan when he joined Shugendō in April of 712. He traveled in training around numerous mountains of Japan, and felt the Zaō Gongen on Mt. Kinbusen in Yoshino. He learnt in his dreams of the sacred Mt. Zaō and decided to go back to Hozawa to develop the mountain. He opened a mountain climbing road for the Zaō believers, built the Manpukusan shrine in the Hozawa settlement and started work on the Zaō Dai Gongen. The Zao Dai Gongen statue was erected in the Sanjōin temple managing the shrine. It is a blue & black 3.64 meter high statue with three eyes and a very angry expression, holding a sankosho (a three-pronged vajra) in his right hand while resting his left on his waist, raising his right foot high in the air. Kakusan is also said to have brought rain when he prayed during a three year long drought.