Take a hike on the historic Zao Legacy Trail

The Zao Legacy Trail is a classic mountain route enabling hikers to experience Shugendo symbolic death and rebirth through the cleansing effort of hiking the 16km track up to the Kattamine shrine on Mt Katta.

Woodcut of the Zao Legacy Trail, or Zao Kodo
Woodcut of pilgrims on the Zao trail © Sprout Japan Inc.

Where and what is Zao? Although the casual observer may take the Japanese name ‘Zao-zan’ or ‘Zao-yama’ literally to mean Mount Zao, there is actually no Mount Zao! ‘Zao’ is a range of mountains bordering southern Miyagi and Yamagata Prefectures.

1200 years ago, the area was known as ‘Wasurerarenai’ (Fubou), an area that one couldn’t forget due to its beauty.

However, the range and the peaks in that range didn’t have proper names. The mountains were considered kami (gods) and thus, people could not climb them.

View to the Zao Range from Miyagi © Sprout Japan Inc.

Then in the middle of the Heian Period, the Shugendo belief was brought by priests from Nara. A pilgrimage trail crossing the mountain range was created to maintain ascetic training for the Shugendo monks – yamabushi.

In 1962, the Zao Echo-Line road was opened, paving the way for automotive travel up to the Zao Okama caldera. This lead to a rapid decrease in trail usage. Convenience triumphed over culture.

For around 50 years, the trail lay mostly unused. However, citizens‘ efforts to maintain local history resulted in a 2011 petition to Miyagi Prefecture to re-establish the trail. This effort, known as Zao Kodo – The Zao Legacy Trail – bore fruit as the first Yama Mairi (mountain ascent) in 2014.

The Yama Mairi is meant to be a difficult journey, which results in the satisfaction of having gone through hardship as well as the belief of being spiritually reborn, a key tenet of Shugendo.

The Zao Legacy Trail Yama Mairi course

The current day Yama Mairi departs from Katta Mine Shrine Satomiya in Togatta, Miyagi. It follows a shortened course which culminates with arriving at the Katta Mine Shrine Okumiya overlooking the Zao Okama caldera.

The official Yama Mairi is an annual affair held on the 3rd Saturday of August, but guides are available for those wishing to make the 1,450m vertical, 16km long climb outside the official date. That is almost exactly the same length and vertical gain as the far more famous Yoshida Route on Mt. Fuji.

Historic photo of pilgrims hiking the Zao Legacy Trail
Hiking the trail long before the road was built © Sprout Japan Inc

Highlights of the Zao Legacy Trail

Satomiya Temple is the traditional start point. The road passes under a big Torii gate before the temple.

Raisendo is a cool natural spring in the forest beside the trail. Historically the spring water was used for cleaning off, drinking and filling water bottles, and you can do the same today. It’s the last potable water source along the trail.

Koubou Goya meeting point marked by ancient inscribed stones

Koubou Gooya was originally the meeting point for other pilgrims joining from the Aone Hot Springs direction, still marked by ancient stones.

Rainbows over Takimidai falls © Michael Martin

Takimidai – Sangai Falls is considered one of the top 100 waterfalls in Japan, at it’s best in Autumn.

Autumn colours Takimidai Falls © Sprout Japan Inc.

Fudou Falls that follows is the largest waterfall in the Zao mountain range 53.5m, with a great view.

Fudou Myo-o statue is a scary-looking statue enveloped in flame, denoting the burning away of desire, passion and evil.

Trekking up through the forest © Sprout Japan Inc.

Sainokawara has historic importance as the area where one makes preparation before crossing a river into death. Entering this river purges one of evil desires and sins in preparation for the afterlife.

Sanzunokawa, the symbolic river, is actually just a little stream. As you climb higher on the trail the lush forest gives way to the more desolate wasteland of rocky scrub.

Successful climbers at summit of Zao Legacy Trail
Success! © Sprout Japan Inc.

Kaerazu Falls (Falls of No Return) At the Komakusadaira observation deck, you’ll have a great view of Kaerazu Falls, known as the ‘Falls of No Return’ since you have passed through the Sanzunokawa into death to be reborn.

Jodoguchi (Daikokuten area) For spiritual travelers, this is the point where rebirth begins, and it marks the start of the most difficult section of the Yama Mairi as you ascend into the desolate volcanic caldera zone. From here to the eventual ending point is the Omine course, the most difficult section of the Yama Mairi. Jizo statues (Daikokusan) sit beside the trail in permanent contemplation.

Jododaira As you near the summit, you will come across a mountain hut used to escape the elements in dangerous situations. Nearly there!

Summit views are worth the effort, and the bonus of getting reborn! © Sprout Japan Inc

Katta Mine Shrine Okumiya Arrive at the summit shrine at 2020m reborn – you have completed the journey! After catching your breath from the steep Omine course climb, you’ll be treated to a panoramic view of the Zao Okama caldera. It’s somewhat moody and shy on bad weather days, but magnificent on days with good weather.

As you look over the caldera from the viewpoint, the mountains behind it hide Sendai from view. You can’t see the city, but that’s where it’s at if you’re wanting some orientation.

At the summit shrine © Sprout Japan Inc.

The Resthouse Just below the shrine the Resthouse has meals are available upstairs. Sweets and snacks as well as gifts and trinkets available on the ground floor. If you’re with the official Yama Mairi group, you’ll have time for a restroom break and maybe a quick snack before riding a bus back down to Togatta. For those on a private hike, you can take time to have a meal upstairs and enjoy a great view of the Zao Okama caldera.

The shrine and Resthouse at the summit; snow patches last through summer along the peak of the Zao Range © Sporut Japan Inc.

When to go on the Zao Legacy Trail?

The Zao-Highline road is closed from Nov-May, the range gets heavy snowfall. Late summer and early Autumn is the best time to do the hike. Be prepared for cold temperatures at the top in any season.

Our thanks to the team at Sprout.jp for this feature