Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Zao Quasi National Park and Okama crater

After a brief visit to the Shiroishi Castle, we visited the Zao Area. Zao lies an hour's drive away from Sendai, the biggest city in northern Japan.

The Zao mountain range lies between Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures in north eastern Japan. The Zao mountain range is actually a cluster of strato-volcanoes with many active volcanic terrains. The area is part of the Zao Quasi National park and is a popular tourist destination. The park was opened in 1963 and is spread over an area of 400 square kms  filled with gorges, rivers and waterfalls, marshlands, beech forests and alpine vegetation. During winter Zao is a popular skiing destination due to the abundant snowfall in the region. Many popular skiing resorts are located in Zao area. The strong winds blowing from Siberia create Juhyo monsters, snow covered trees which resemble monsters.

The highest mountain in Zao is Mt Kumanodake (1841 meters). The central volcano of the Zao mountain range is Mt Goshikidake (1674 meters). A volcanic eruption of Goshikidake in early 18th century led to the formation of the “Okama” crater lake. 
It is called Okama owing to it’s resemblance to a tea kettle, (“okama’ in Japanese).  The lake is 200 feet deep, measures 1 km in circumference and has a diameter of 325 metres. The lake is also known as “Goshikinuma” or “Five coloured pond” because the colour of the lake changes according to the angle of sunlight.

The colour ranges from emerald green to turquoise blue depending on the weather. When we visited in early May, the lake was still frozen, but we did get to see the colour difference. 
The surrounding Mt Kattadake(1759 meters) still had some snow and we had to tread through a patch of snow to get a good view of the lake.
The volcanic mountain sides are various hues of red and brown 

The Kattamine Jinja is situated on top of Mt Kattadake which offers a commanding view of the Zao mountain range and the Okama crater. 
Another Kattamine Shrine, popularly called Shirotori Daimyojin, because of the custom of worshipping swans as the messengers of god,  is located in Miya, closer to the Shiroishi IC on Tohoku expressway.

It is possible to take a chairlift from the foot of Mt Kattadake to the top to view the Okama crater lake and the mountains. A round trip is priced at 700 yen per head. We chose to drive up to the top and skipped taking the chairlift.

The 26 km long Zao Echo line is a picturesque road which connects Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures. The road was opened in 1962 and offers good views of Zao mountain range. Driving along the Zao Echo Line visitors reach the Takimidai Waterfall Viewing Point. 

The lookout offers a good view of the Sankai waterfalls (181 meters high) and the Fudo taki waterfalls ( 53.5 meter) high.
Driving a little ahead is the Fudo taki lookout. 
A statue of Fudo stands at the entrance to the short walking trail to the lookout. The road is closed during winter. A part of the Echoline was still under snow and we drove through a few snow corridors.   

Togatta onsen town lies at the foot of the Zao. The footbath in the centre of the town is popular among visitors. The visitor information centre situated next to it has lots of booklets and guides (also in English) and the staff are helpful ( unfortunately not in English, but broken Japanese works too). "Koi no bori" (carp streamers) were strung above a river flowing through Togatta for the upcoming Kodomo no Hi. 
Zao is famous for its milk farming and while driving from Shiroishi to Zao, we passed by the Zao Milk Farm. Visitors can experience milking cows. The other famous product of Zao is its handmade sausages. Visitors can experience Sausage making for a fee . Zao’s cheese and milk treats are popular “Omiyage” (souvenirs) among visitors. Zao has it’s own version of the Kokeshi doll. We couldn’t resist picking up one.

Fees: 520 yen for a mid sized car ( Toll for Zao Echo line)

Access: Zao machi, Katta-gun, Miyagi Prefecture

Phone: 0224-34-2725 (Information centre in Togatta)

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