Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Zao Onsen's Famous Big Outdoor Hot Spring (蔵王 温泉の湯名な大露天風呂)

Spectacular is the word that I would utter to describe Zao Onsen if I were limited to only one word. The surrounding mountain peaks, the skiing, the snow monsters (ice and snow encapsulated trees), and the Japanese hot springs are spectacular, spectacular, and spectacular!
The Big Hot Spring of Zao in Winter
The small town of Zao is in a bowl and the rims of the bowl are volcanic peaks. Steam flows loudly and profusely from streams, hot springs, ditches, and many homes during winter. Zao celebrates 1,900 years of hot spring history in 2014. Probably every hotel and Japanese ryokan in town has a hot spring. Many homes have their own natural spring-filled baths as well.
Standing with Zao Snow Monsters
While researching hot springs, I have come across many great reviews of one public hot spring in Zao, the aptly named Big Outdoor Hot Spring, or in Japanese 大露天風呂. I did not try to find it during my last trip to Zao in February because I knew it was closed between November and April.

However, while walking along the steep edge of a ski run in Zao after snowshoeing among the snow monsters, I noticed the appealing smell of sulfur in the brisk air to my left. I walked through the snowy wooded area and peered between the leafless trees into a precipitous ravine. To my astonishment, I saw a large natural outdoor hot spring and a river of hot water running downhill. It was the Big Outdoor Hot Spring of Zao, which was closed because of the heavy snowfall.

I assume that shoveling and disposing of enough snow every day for the public to reach the hot spring would be too much effort. Perhaps, there is also a danger of an avalanche.

The hot spring looked so inviting that I was sorely tempted to strip and jump in. Nonetheless, I did not follow my bathing impulse because my naked body would have been visible to numerous skiers, and despite years of bathing in Japan, I still have some sense of modesty. Besides that, I was afraid of being arrested.

Now, I have a new goal; that is to return to Zao when the hot spring is open and bathe in its rich natural environment. What a spectacular idea!

If you are interested in reading about two other, closed in winter, Japanese outdoor hot springs along rivers, click here and afterward click here.