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[Feature] Day-trip Hot Springs at Zao Onsen! Three communal baths


Zao Onsen is one of Yamagata Prefecture’s leading tourist destinations, with fresh greenery in spring, mountain climbing in summer, colored leaves in autumn, and skiing among its famed Snow Monsters in winter. It is also the oldest hot spring resort in Yamagata prefecture, which is said to have opened over 1900 years ago.

The hot springs located at an altitude of 880 meters on the hillside of the Zao mountain range are volcanic and strongly acidic sulfur springs.
The water here is said to be effective against cuts, burns, chronic skin diseases, frail children, chronic women’s diseases, diabetes, hypertension, arteriosclerosis, etc., and has long been popular for its skin-beautifying effects.

Zao Onsen is lined with hotels and inns of various sizes in and around the hot spring town, but in addition to these, there are 5 Day trip bathing facilities and 3 communal baths for you to enjoy the hot springs here.

The five day-trip bathing facilities Genshichi Roten-no-Yu, ZAO Center Plaza Yu-Yu, Yunohana Chaya Shinzaemon-no-Yu, Sunoko-no-Yu Kawaraya and the Zao Onsen Large Open-air bath have been introduced before so now it is time to look at the three communal baths Shimoyu, Kawarayu and Kamiyu.

Takayu-dori street and Sukawa Onsen Shrine

Takayu-dori street

Zao Onsen is one of the three Takayu hot springs in Oshu, and was formerly called “Takayu” or “Mogami Takayu.”
Mogami Takayu was renamed to the current name of “Zao Onsen” in 1950 when Zao was selected as one of the 100 best tourist destinations in Japan.

Even now, Takayu-dori street, the birthplace of Zao Onsen, retains the remnants of the former Takayu era, and the communal bath introduced this time are near this section of the hot spring town.

Takayu-dori street
Takayu-dori street (near the entrance)

Today, Zao Onsen is widely dotted with accommodation facilities and stores, but at a time there were accommodation facilities and stores on this street only. As such, it can be said that Zao Onsen started from this street.

It is said that there were 17 inns in the last years of the Taisho era (around 1925), and the historic inns on Takayu-dori street (or once on Takayu-dori street) were 13 as of 2020. Some inns and hot springs have owners that inherited for 17 generations.

Takayu-dori street (near Shimoyu)

Sukawa Onsen Shrine

If you go straight on Takayu-dori street, you will see a red torii gate at the end.


This torii is the entrance to the approach to Sukawa Onsen Shrine.

If you go up the stairs after this red torii there will be a second one made of stone.

Second torii

Further on, the stairs continue.

The Sukawa Onsen Shrine is located at the end of this long staircase.

Stairs leading to Sukawa Onsen Shrine

I was out of breath when I finally climbed all the stairs, but there was the shrine on the right.
* It’s a detour, but you can drive by car to this point too without climbing the stairs.

Yakushi Shrine

However, this shrine is not the Sukawa Onsen Shrine but the Yakushi Shrine.
It enshrines Yakushi Nyorai, which has been said to be the main divinity for the Sukawa Onsen Shrine since ancient times.

This Yakushi Shrine’s treasure, a Yakushi Nyorai statue*, is an iron Buddha made in the Kamakura period and is said to be one of the three Buddhas in Yamagata prefecture.
* The statue of Yakushi Nyorai is housed in a sarcophagus inside the shrine, so you cannot see it directly.

After visiting the Yakushi Shrine, if you climb the stairs to the left, you will finally reach the Sukawa Onsen Shrine.
* This shrine, currently located in Zao Onsen, is said to be Kuchinomiya, with its headquarters said to be on the summit of Zao’s northwestern Mt. Ryuzan (1363.5 m).

Sukawa Onsen Shrine

The four pillar deities of this Sukawa Onsen Shrine, which protects Zao Onsen from ancient times, are Okuninushi no Mikoto, Sukuna Hikona no Mikoto, Susanoo no Mikoto and Kagutsuchi no Kami.

Sukawa Onsen Shrine is revered for the promotion of industry, family safety, elimination of troubles, fulfillment of romance, and academic improvement.

When you come to Zao Onsen, make sure to visit Sukawa Onsen Shrine and Yakushi Shrine and greet the gods before entering your inn or the hot springs.

How to take a bath in a communal bath

Zao Onsen has a history of more than 1900 years and is known for its abundant amount of hot water, but up until the Meiji era, each home there did not have a bath.
Therefore, after the Meiji era, communal baths were introduced for the residents.

Stock bath

It is said that these communal baths eventually became a place of relaxation for the residents, and bathing all together deepened the bonds between the residents.
Even now that each household has a bath, many residents still go to these communal baths almost every night.

As mentioned above, Zao Onsen has three communal baths, Shimoyu, Kawarayu, and Kamiyu, but basically the way to enter each is the same.
So, first of all, I would like to explain how to enter a communal bath.

Bathing fee and fee box

The communal baths are all unmanned, and there are no clerk or manager resident.
Therefore, in the middle of the three communal bath buildings, the pillar between Men’s bath and Women’s bath has a red fee box like a post box, and bathers can put bathing fees and bath tickets in this fee box. It is a mechanism to enter after putting it in.

Charge box (stock)

Bulletin about charges (Kawarayu)

[Bath fee]
Adult: 200 yen / Child: 100 yen

Shoe shelf

When you open the door of each communal bath, a shoe shelf is installed right in front of you.
Put your shoes here and go inside.

Shoe shelf (Kamiyu-Women’s bath)

Dressing room and bath area

As soon as you take off your footwear and go inside, there is a dressing room.
The Bath area is on the other side of the dressing room across the glass door.

As you can see, the bath area has only a bathtub and no shower facilities.

Dressing room and Bath area (Kawarayu / Women’s bath)

Precautions when entering the communal bath

Bath area (Men’s bath)

Please note the following points when entering the communal bath.

[Notes on bathing]
1. There are no lockers with keys, so it is recommended that you do not bring in valuables.
2. Since Zao Onsen is a sulfuric water spring, precious metals will corrode black, so please remove accessories before bathing.
3. There is no shower or running water, so please use the tub provided to clean your body before taking a bath. Also, because of the strongly acidic water qualities, soap etc. cannot be used.

Usage hours

* Please contact Zao Onsen Tourist Association Information Center (023-694-9328) for details as it is subject to change due to COVID-19.

The communal bath is unmanned and has an electromagnetic automatic lock, which automatically locks shut at the designated time.

Release button

There is also a release button, but the power of the release button will be turned off at the same time as the lights are turned off, so be sure to leave with plenty of time.

Parking Lot

There is no private parking lot near the communal baths.

Therefore, if you come by car, you can either use the Reisen Square Parking Lot or the Zao Gymnasium Parking Lot  on Takayu-dori street (pay for weekends and holidays from late December to early April) , or the former gas station’s East side Parking Lot (closed from mid-December to the end of March).

Zao Onsen Gymnasium Parking Lot

Former gas station’s east side Parking Lot

Now, let’s introduce each communal bath!

Shimoyu communal bath

First of all, I would like to introduce you to the wooden building on your right when you go straight from the entrance of Takayu-dori street — Shimoyu communal bath.

Takayu-dori street

Shimoyu communal bath


Front entrance

Fee box

Fee box

Bath area

Bath entrance

Toilets (Japanese style) are installed in front of the entrances for the men and women bath areas.
* Kamiyu has a Western-style toilet but Kawarayu does not have a toilet.

Shoe shelf

Shoe shelf

Dressing room

Dressing room

Dressing room

Dressing room

Dressing room

Bath area

Bath area Ceiling (Women’s bath)

(Men’s bath)

Bath area (Women’s bath)

Hot spring water constantly flows out in the bath area, and the hot water that overflows from the bathtub flows through the wooden boards.

Soaking your shoulders for a while on a cold day is just paradise.
Some elderly people recognize that Zao Onsen has cold water, but that is the story of the old days when the temperature of Zao Onsen was lower than it is now.
Now, the spring temperature is higher and more suitable than at that time, and even when I return to Yamagata City, which takes 30 to 40 minutes by car one way, my body still feels warm.

As you know, the hot springs in winter are exceptional, but in fact Zao Onsen’s hot springs are also recommended in summer!
Since it is a strong acid spring, the body feels refreshed and refreshed after bathing, and it also has a bactericidal action, so it is good for heat rash.

Basically, Zao Onsen’s water qualities are almost the same at any source, so you can get the same effect no matter where you enter the facility.
There is almost no difference in water qualities in the communal baths introduced this time.
However, when I asked a resident who is accustomed to entering the communal bath every day, I heard that Shimoyu feels more hot than the other Kawarayu and Kamiyu.
* It’s just an individual opinion

Recommended points

On the right side of the Shimoyu public bath, there is a hand bath and a foot bath that anyone can use.

Hand bath (Shimoyu)

Footbath (Shimoyu)

Even if you don’t take a bath, if you get tired of walking around the town, why don’t you stop by and enjoy the source?

Onsen information

Facility name Shimoyu communal bath
Source name Hebiarakawa Origuchi source, In-Kyo source, Kamikawa mixed source
Water qualities Acidic / sulfur-containing-aluminum-sulfate / chloride hot spring (hypotonic acidic high hot spring)
Spring temperature 53.3 ℃
Added water Since the source temperature is high, tap water (well water) is added to control the temperature.
Heating None
Flowing / circulation filtration All hot spring water is flushed (discharged)
Bath salts and disinfection No bath salts or disinfectants are used

Kawarayu communal bath

Next, I would like to introduce the Kawarayu communal bath, which is quietly set up on the back street of Takayu-dori street.

Kawarayu is a popular bath with the most obvious features of the three communal baths.



Kawarayu front

The public bath that is apt to be damaged because it is made of wood but the building was renovated in 2012 so it is a new and clean condition.

Fee box

Fee box (Kawarayu)


There is no restroom in Kawarayu.
* A Western-style toilet is installed at Kamiyu and a Japanese-style toilet at Shimoyu.

Shoe shelf

Shoe shelf (Kawarayu, left: Men’s bath / right: Women’s bath)

Dressing room

Dressing room(Men’s bath)

Dressing room (Women’s bath)

Bath area

Bath area (Kawarayu / Men’s bath)

Bath area (Kawarayu / Women’s bath)

Recommended points ① Spring at your feet

As you can see from the picture of the bath area above, Kawarayu does not have a faucet, unlike Shimoyu that we have already introduced and Kamiyu that we will introduce later.
* What is flowing from the thin pipe in the foreground is not hot spring water, but added well water that keeps the temperature at an appropriate level.

However, it does not store hot water all the time without draining it, and like other baths, fresh hot water constantly enters and drains into the bathtub.

So where does the hot spring water come from…

This structure holds the key.

Bottom of bathtub (Kawarayu)

You can see that the wooden bathtub has a sunoko (duckboard) on both the bottom and all sides.

In fact, the hot springs spring from this area, and the hot springs flow into the bathtub through the sunoko.

In Zao Onsen, there are many hot spring facilities that flow directly from the source, but the hot springs oxidize from the moment they spring up to the ground.
However, the Kawarayu hot water is poured into the bathtub as it is without contact with air, so you can enjoy the freshest hot water.
* Our feature article Day-trip Hot Springs at Zao Onsen! Sunoko-no-Yu Kawaraya introduces a bathing facility with sunoko baths. However, the tubs are different since a Kawarayu the sunoko is only at the bottom while at Kawarayu it is on the sides too, so the hot water flows from there too.

Recommended point ② The back side of the building

After entering Kawarayu, be sure to visit the back of the building.
You can see the slightly bluish white puddle spreading out.

Hot water pool (Kawarayu)

The waste water from Kawarayu flows directly to the back of the building, creating such a pool of water, and then flowing out into the river.

The bottom of this hot water pool is completely white —
This is due to the influence of yunohana, which is a condensed form of hot spring particles .

Many of you may have seen the white things floating in the bathtub, mainly in the hot springs of the sulfur springs, including Zao Onsen.
The true identity of the white thing is this yunohana, and the presence of these yunohana make the hot spring waters cloudy. These are called”nigoriyu” hot springs.

Zao Onsen is also sometimes called “nigoriyu” too, but the hot water that springs up is colorless and transparent.
When it oxidizes, the ingredients solidify and become yunohana, which makes the hot water turn cloudy.

Therefore, even in Kawarayu, the hot water in the bathtub is basically colorless and transparent when it springs out, while the hot spring pool at the back of Kawaraya is completely white because it is where the discharged hot water flows.

Onsen information

Facility name Kawarayu communal bath
Source name Kawarayu public bath source
Water qualities Acidic / sulfur-containing-aluminum-sulfate / chloride hot spring (hypotonic acidic high hot spring)
Spring temperature 42.4 ℃
Added water Since the source temperature is high, tap water (well water) is added to control the temperature.
Heating None
Flowing / circulation filtration All hot spring water is flushed (discharged)
Bath salts and disinfection No bath salts or disinfectants are used

Kamiyu communal bath

Lastly, I would like to introduce the Kamiyu communal bath located in the back of Takayu-dori street and in front of the torii gate of Sukawa Onsen Shrine.

This Kamiyu is the oldest communal bath and was originally called “Oyu.”



Serving the soup front

Kamiyu has a torii gate behind the building, and has the most quaint atmosphere of the three communal baths.
Although it is the oldest bathhouse, the building itself was renovated in 2010 and the interior is clean and tidy.

Fee box

Fee box (stock)

Bath areas

Bath areas (stock bath)

Toilets (Western style) are installed in front of the entrances for men and women.

Shoe shelf

Shoe shelf (Kamiyu)(Women’s bath)

Shoe shelf/Dressing room/Bath area (Kamiyu)(Women’s bath)

If you go inside from the entrance, you will see the dressing room on your left for the women’s bath and the dressing room on your right for the men’s bath, and you can see the bath areas behind the glass door.

Dressing room

Bath area (Kamiyu)(Men’s bath)

Dressing room (Kamiyu)(Women’s bath)

Bath area

Bath area (Kamiyu)(Men’s bath)

Bath area (Kamiyu)(Women’s bath)

Soaking in the historic Kamiyu hot water makes me feel nostalgic and warm.

Recommended points ▪️ Behind the building

If you go to the Kamiyu communal bath, be sure to visit the back of the building too.

Kamiyu (back side)

There is a bench, and it is a recommended place to cool down after bathing or take a rest when walking around the town.
And here is the scenery you can see when you sit on this bench…

Behind Kamiyu

A fashionable scenery is spreading.

This water wheel was restored and was used back in the day to grind the rice that is the raw material of Zao Onsen’s specialty igamochi rice cake using the extra hot spring water.

Sitting here, I can’t help but feel nostalgia for this landscape, which is reminiscent of Zao Onsen of the past.

Onsen information

Facility name Upper bath communal bath
Source name Oyu No. 1 source
Water qualities Acidic / sulfur-containing-aluminum-sulfate / chloride hot spring (hypotonic acidic high hot spring)
Source temperature 54.0 ℃
Temperature at the supply location 43.0 ℃
Added water Since the source temperature is high, tap water (well water) is added to control the temperature.
Heating None
Flowing / circulation filtration All hot spring water is flushed (discharged)
Bath salts and disinfection No bath salts or disinfectants are used

In conclusion...

A communal bath that is still a place of relaxation for the locals of Zao Onsen, as it used to be —

I feel that there is always warmth that can be felt because of its small appearance.

If you come to Zao Onsen, why not stop by the communal baths too.

Outline of each day trip bathing facility (bathing fee, hours, features)

Bathing fee Adult Child
200 yen 100 yen
Hours 6:00~22:00

* Hours is subject to change, please contact Zao Onsen Tourist Association Information Center (023-694-9328) for details.

Bath Bathroom Source name Recommended points
Shimoyu Yes (Japanese style) Hebiarakawa Origuchi source
In-Kyo source River mixed source
・ Closest to the bus terminal
・ Hand and foot bath available
Kawarayu Nothing Kawarayu public bath source ・ Foot spring
・ There is a hot water pool behind the building
Stock bath Yes (Western style) Oyu No. 1 source ・ The oldest communal bath
・ There is a water wheel and benches behind the building

Other day trip bathing facilities

Yunohana Chaya Shinzaemon-no-Yu
ZAO Center Plaza Yu-Yu
Sunoko-no-Yu Kawaraya
Genshichi Roten-no-Yu
Zao Onsen Large Open-air bath
* Click the facility name above to jump to the feature article of each facility

Detailed information

[Summary] Zao Onsen! All eight day trip bathing facilities

[Summary] Zao Onsen! All eight day trip bathing facilities

Introduction of all facilities where you can enjoy Zao Onsen’s baths for the day.

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