3 Days of Rejuvenation in Zao, Miyagi Prefecture: Sendai, Frost-Covered Trees, A Fox Village, and Togatta Onsen
Miyagi Prefecture, located in Japan’s Tohoku region, is particularly well known for the city of Sendai, with its many tourist attractions, and Matsushima, one of the Three Views of Japan. Few know about Zao, an area that overflows with natural sights and is the perfect place for a relaxing trip. So, we’ve come up with a Zao travel itinerary that doesn’t leave you pressed for time, with one sightseeing spot and one accommodation for each day. Have a wonderful time surrounded by Zao's sublime natural scenery, such as through a stay at a luxury hot spring resort at Togatta Onsen, by visiting a fox village, and gazing at frost-covered trees.
Mar 18 2020 (Jan 07 2021)
Table of Contents
1. Miyagi Prefecture
The Impressions and Appeal of Zao, Miyagi Prefecture
Miyagi Prefecture has long been the center of the Tohoku region, and its fishing, agricultural, and livestock industries are prosperous. With all the bounties of the mountains, sea, and land, it produces a diverse supply of culinary ingredients, for which the prefecture is known as “the food kingdom.”
Zao-machi is located in the northwest of Miyagi Prefecture. It is adjacent to Mount Zao, a cluster of active volcanoes, and is a tourist and farming town at the foot of the mountain. This spot is particularly popular for travelers because of its various attractions, such as the landscapes of frost-covered trees unique to winter, ski resorts, the gorgeous emerald-green Okama Crater, the famous Togatta Onsen, and the Miyagi Zao Fox Village where you can interact with foxes. If you want a holiday for leisure, gourmet dining, or rejuvenating yourself, we expect you’ll be completely satisfied here!
Getting to Zao-machi
If you’re departing from Sendai Station, take the JR Tohoku Main Line to Shiroishi Station. The trip takes about 50 minutes.
If you’re departing from Tokyo, you can use the JR EAST PASS (TOHOKU AREA). Take the Tohoku Shinkansen (bullet train) to Shiroishi-Zao Station. You can get to Shiroishi Station from there by taxi or the Miyako Bus No. 1.
You can hire rental cars near Sendai Station, Shiroishi Station, and Shiroishi-Zao Station. A rental car is the most convenient way to get around when traveling in Zao-machi, as it is vast and the attractions are far apart.
[DAY 1: A Tour of Spectacular Frost-Covered Trees & A Retreat in the “Daikon no Hana” Hot Spring in the Forest]
2. Majestic Natural Art: Frost-Covered Tree Tour
A Wintry Landscape: The Frost-Covered Trees of Zao
The frost-covered trees, one of Zao’s most iconic tourist attractions, are a unique natural sight. This towering conifer forest is atop a mountain, clad in a blanket of thick ice and snow. The frost is formed when water at low temperatures clings to the leaves of the trees which is then frozen over by the cold, dry winds that blow down from Siberia.
When frozen, these trees take on strange and bizarre shapes that look like monsters, earning the name “snow monsters” and “ice monsters.” These are works of art that only exist in winter.
Miyagi Zao Sumikawa Snow Park
Pay attention to the weather forecast in the two weeks prior to your departure, because we highly recommend the Miyagi Zao Sumikawa Snow Park for appreciating the frost-covered trees, and this is where you should spend the first day of your trip when the weather is nice.
At 1757m above sea level, Sumikawa Snow Park is more than just a popular ski resort center. Every year from mid-December to mid-March, snowmobile tours are held here. Sightseers can ride the well-heated Wild Monster that takes you deep into the mountains, toward an ice floe that can't be reached by ordinary means. There you will see frost-covered trees over 4m tall, up close.
Frost-Covered Tree Pilgrimage
Because you will have the chance to walk in the deep snow-covered track while viewing the trees, you should wear appropriately sized snow boots or rubber boots so that they don’t slip off in the snow. As the snow mobile is heated, regular winter clothing is sufficient, but there are cold winds atop the mountain and the cold is extreme and harsh, so we recommend dressing similarly to how you would when skiing: with gloves, hats, scarves, earmuffs, and so on.
From December each year, the frost-covered trees appear one by one on the side of Mount Zao in between Yamagata Prefecture and Miyagi Prefecture. The magnificent frosty scene forms until around February, so February is the best time to see it. This is a rare sight as various conditions must be met for the frost to form, so it is a must-see for many travelers.
To see the majestic frost-covered trees in their entirety is a huge honor. The countless frost-covered trees and snowy landscape contrast with the clear blue sky. This is a sight that you can only experience at this ski slope, blessed with snow, and you’ll feel compelled to capture it on camera!
3. Daikon no Hana, A Hot Spring Retreat
The Homely Hot Spring Retreat "Daikon no Hana", Hidden Among the Trees
A slow journey should be one that's as relaxing as possible. After seeing the picturesque frost-covered trees that are a sort of symbol of Zao, relaxing at a good quality hotel to relieve the day’s fatigue is one of the objectives of this trip.
There are several hot springs at Hot Spring Retreat Daikon no Hana, which has become one with the approximately 8 acres of surrounding wilderness. Even if you spend an entire day here, from check-in in the afternoon until the next morning, you won't get bored thanks to its many facilities!
This place used to be a sapling nursery, but after that it became a hot spring ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). Unlike hotels that plant greenery around after being built, you could call Daikon no Hana an inn that came out of the middle of the forest.
The ryokan is surrounded by a forest teeming with life, while inside the rooms you will find a space that is unassuming yet elegant, due to elements such as the warm, woody design and raised floor seating areas with tatami (traditional straw mats). In this wide-open space, you can feel the presence of nature and even hear the sounds of squirrels, wild birds, and in the summer, cicadas and frogs. The individual guest rooms preserve a suitable degree of distance from adjacent rooms, allowing you to experience true relaxation.
Facilities Scattered Across the Forest
The appearance of the reception lobby changes according to different seasons and events. The biggest points of distinction here are the exposed beams made from 180-year-old timber and the traditional “irori” hearth. An irori is a type of heater often seen in the living rooms of Japanese farmhouses. A square space is dug out in the floor and covered with ashes, then a fire is lit with wood and charcoal for warmth.
Spending time with your traveling companions around the irori will make your memories of Zao all the more meaningful.
・Gift Shop Mikke
The gift shop “Mikke” is located at the entrance to the main building. Here you can find a collection of everything from local specialty products and traditional handicrafts from the Tohoku region (including Miyagi) to daily essentials. Original specialty products of Zao, such as jams, juices, and chopsticks with lovely patterns, are particularly popular among guests at the ryokan.
・ Kotori Salon
Kotori Salon is a lounge that you can use as a spot to relax after taking a bath in the hot springs. Here you can spot wild animals such as squirrels and birds passing by the windows all day long, relax after a bath, or enjoy the evening tranquility. You can also enjoy complimentary hot coffee, matcha, milk tea, strawberry milk, juice, and ice candies here, among other things.
・ Donguri Cottage
Donguri Cottage, which was built adjacent to the main building, is a relaxation cottage where you can enjoy forest therapy, a forest aroma spa (book ahead), and a bedrock bath that was created by lava from Mount Zao. Through the effects of far-infrared rays in the Lava Bath, you can slowly warm up your body bit-by-bit.
Seasonal vegetables and herbs are cultivated here at the Vegetable Garden which is tended to by the hotel’s staff. These attentively grown vegetables and herbs become wonderful dishes for your pleasure through the chef’s masterful skills.
A Hot Spring Sourced From Within the Property
Daikon no Hana is located in the historical, 400-year-old Togatta Onsen precinct, and has its own plentiful free-flowing hot spring source. The spring water containing sodium-chloride, bicarbonate, and sulfate (hypotonic neutral high-temperature water) is transparent, colorless, and non-irritating, making it gentle on skin. The spring water makes your skin soft with a good balance between moisturizing and cleansing effects, similarly to facial toner, earning it the name “The Hot Spring of Beautiful Skin.” It is effective for chronic gynecological disorders, skin diseases, and recovery from exhaustion.
One of Daikon no Hana’s greatest draws is that there is a large public bath and 4 private open-air baths that you can enjoy depending on the time and weather.
・Grand Bath “Ginyanma”
This large public bath is open 24 hours a day and provides face towels, bath towels, cotton swabs, and skin care products.
・4 Private Open-Air Baths
There are also 4 open-air baths with different scenery on offer that were built in accordance with their surroundings. Reservations are not necessary. You can take a dip as long as it’s not already in use by other guests.
You can soak in peace at the private open-air baths in complete privacy, surrounded by trees, undisturbed by the outside world.
18 Relaxed Stand-Alone Villas
There are 18 guest rooms at Hot Spring Retreat Daikon no Hana. The interiors of the cottage-style rooms dotted throughout the natural forest have an open-air feel, while the Kaneyama cedar beams from Yamagata Prefecture are impressive. The beds are equipped with Simmons mattresses and the night tables feature USB charging outlets and night lights with adjustable brightness to meet guests' needs. Read on for the three different styles of room available.
・Momiji: A Room That Blends Into Nature, Brimming With Sunlight Filtering Through the Trees
The most distinctive feature of this room is the sunroom that's set with glass from floor to ceiling. Sunlight filters through the trees and shines in during mornings and evenings, allowing you to feel its warmth. Also, here at Momiji, there is an open-air bath from which you can look out over the trees. This scenery is enough to make you forget about the real world.
・Oborozuki: A Mystical Room Located Along the Tsuki-no-Tori (Moon Path)
There is an open-air bath on the spacious wooden terrace with a great view. The mountains and streams stand out while you soak in the hot water, and you will feel at one with nature. This is a double room, but it can accommodate up to 3 guests.
・Tsumekusa: A Room That Cherishes Nature
This room has the only semi-open bath in the retreat. You can stay here without concern for the weather, which is great particularly for older guests who may be troubled by winter weather. The walls of the bath are made from Japanese cypress, and a slight scent of the timber hangs in the air. You can enjoy unobstructed views through the large glass window. Additionally, there is also a private swing seat outside that lets you feel closer to nature.
・Japanese-Style Afternoon Tea by the Hearth: Enjoy the Local Specialty "Sankaku-Age", With a Scent of Soybean
The items on the menu of the afternoon tea held in the main building change according to the season. For example, in spring, hanami dango (sweetened rice balls on a skewer) are served, while in autumn, dishes like imoni (a thick potato and meat soup) and manju (steamed filled buns) are served.
A recommendation is to try the famous sankaku-age (crispy golden tofu triangles) provided by the local long-established Hasegawa Tofu Shop. Baked in the charcoal flames of the irori, they are good to eat once the outside turns from light yellow to golden brown. While you enjoy the fragrant tofu dipped in soy sauce lightly seasoned with shichimi (a Japanese spice blend), you’ll probably feel the urge to want to eat the whole thing in one bite even though it's piping hot!
・Savor Your Evening Meal in a Semi-Private Dining Room
Dinner and breakfast are served at Dining Room Konoji. Private dining rooms are provided for each group of guests, and service is carried out by professional staff.
Harmony is created in the kitchen by preparing seasonal vegetables grown on-site and local fresh ingredients through delicate and unique cooking methods. The beef cheek and root vegetable ginjo sake stew was so impressively tender that it melted as soon as we took a bite. The Japanese pufferfish and seasonal vegetable bagna càuda was fresh with a great texture, while the ice-cold carrot sherbet was delightfully refreshing. Each of these dishes had wonderful flavor!
For the main dish, there is a choice of Sendai beef sirloin steak or Hidakami beef sirloin steak. Finally, you can end the meal with Hitomebore rice (a type of rice grown in Zao that Miyagi Prefecture is known for) and pufferfish soup. The dinner menu changes on a monthly basis, but whenever you come, you will be satisfied by the taste of the finest local foods Miyagi has to offer.
・Dessert & Late-Night Snacks
The old saying “there’s always room for dessert” is true. After you finish your meal, you should enjoy some dessert in the main building. Two that stand out are the apple tart smothered in cream cheese and cranberry sauce, and the cheerfully acidic lemon tart.
There is also a bar offering Japanese sake and other alcoholic beverages. You may even feel a little regretful for the night to be over after you've enjoyed a drink here, and once you’ve had the late-night snacks like piping hot oden (a Japanese winter stew) and steamed cakes.
・Ample Breakfast at Dining Room Konoji
Wake up with a dip in the hot spring in the morning, then it’s time for breakfast. At the buffet you’ll find salads made from vegetables harvested fresh that morning, fresh, house-made tomato juice, freshly squeezed Zao carrot juice, and more. The staff will also bring you a tray of traditional Japanese food. Your body and soul will be satisfied by this breakfast that beautifully combines Japanese and Western breakfast elements.
・Mori no Coffee Time
After breakfast, you can relax and enjoy a coffee at the coffee counter "Mori no Coffee Time" in the main building. Choose your favorite porcelain mug, and the staff will serve you up a cup that’s been brewed with freshly ground beans using the hand-drip technique. The smell of coffee in the air is the perfect thing to wake up your senses.
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.