Japan's weirdest snowscape: The Monsters of Zao
When Hilary Wendel, a Tokyo-based photographer and good friend, asked me to tag along as she photographed “Japan’s scariest monsters,” I was apprehensive at first.
Fortunately for us both, the Snow Monsters of Zao in Yamagata Prefecture are more impressive than terrifying.
They are actually Aomori fir trees that have been coated with extremely wet snow and ice carried by a cold Siberian jet stream that also freezes them almost solid in some of the most peculiar shapes I’ve ever seen.
And they're easy to reach from Kanto too -- tickets from Tokyo Station to Yamagata by Shinkansen cost ¥21,800 round-trip and the train takes 150 minutes to get there.
If you’re skiing and not just snapping, you might want to consider sending your equipment and luggage ahead by Japan’s extremely convenient takkyubin service so as not to start the trip off with a sardine-can experience on the subway.
When you arrive in Yamagata, walk outside the station to find the bus to Zao Onsen waiting at stand number one -- the one-way ticket costs ¥980 and the trip to the home of the snow monsters takes just 40 minutes. Make sure to give your ryokan a call during the bus ride and request a pickup.
Be forewarned, the moment you step out of the bus at Zao, the stench of sulfur will overwhelm your senses -- “rotten” doesn’t even do it justice.
Holding my breath, I reminded myself of the reputed healing powers of the milky white waters -- the volcanic source of the smell -- gushing underneath the town, and carried on.
We pre-booked a room at Takamiya Ryokan for ¥15,000 per person per night, including traditional Japanese breakfast and dinner. You can also request a Western breakfast but coffee is extra.
The ryokan arranged tickets for us for the evening viewing of the monsters, hour-long massages in our room (¥6,000 with oil, ¥7,000 without), and also shuttled us around town for the three days we were in residence.
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Dinner the first night was a typical high-end kaiseki meal with so many tiny dishes I could only imagine the cleanup detail. The second night we had shabu shabu, which was delicious and fun at the same time.
The weather forecast for the trip wasn’t great, but when we arrived the sky was clear and blue and Hilary suggested we drop our bags and hurry to the top for what would be our first of several visits with the famed monsters.
From Mount Zao it is possible to see them without actually putting on skis, which was a nice option when we didn’t know how long the good weather would last.
Tip -- visitors on foot actually get priority over skiers and snowboarders when waiting in line for the ropeway.
Encountering the beasts
We took the ride directly to the top of Mount Zao at 1,600 meters and it wasn’t long before the “monsters” came into view. There are thousands of them -- to call them snow monsters is to underestimate their beauty and magnificence.
They appear real, like thousands of abominable snowmen walking quietly up the mountain, heads down, heavy with their burden of ice and snow.
At the summit, we disembarked and Hilary started snapping. How nice to have subjects that stand still majestically while you take their photo.
We ran through the trees, looking for faces of people we knew, shouted out our discoveries, anxious for confirmation when we found one that looked just like an Indian chief, a long-eared dog, a giraffe, Fred Flintstone or even Shrek.
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That night, we returned to the summit to see the creatures illuminated in glorious color. The night lift runs from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. and costs ¥2,500.
It’s brutally cold up there at night but there is a summit lodge, which sells hot wine and other warm beverages. After you’ve had your fill of walking around outside, you can come in, have a drink and look out through the huge glass windows, taking it all in.
We had a little fun taking photos through the glass and pretending to squeeze their “heads” from a safe distance.
The next day we got a little more intimate with the snow demons as we skied right by them. Unfortunately for us, it was a complete whiteout, with the wind whipping the snow directly in our faces, rendering the monsters invisible.
Fortunately, Zao is also famous for its outdoor onsen, or rotenburo, which we found waiting at the bottom of the mountain.
As I sprinted from the warm inside bathhouse down the icy stone steps and flung my frozen form into the burning bath, I’m pretty sure I could hear the crackle of my skin defrosting as it hit the water. Zao’s that kind of town.
Zao Onsen fact file
Season: Late November to early May, monsters Peak in February.
Average Snowfall per season: 12 meters
Night Skiing until 9 p.m.
Maximum Elevation: 1,660 meters
Longest Run: 10,000 meters
Slopes: Beginner, 40 percent; Intermediate, 40 percent; Advanced, 20 percent.
For a larger hotel with more facilities, try Zao Kokusai Hotel.
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