There are monsters on the peak of Mount Zao in Japan’s Yamagata Prefecture, massive contorted blobs that loom ominously through the driving blizzard, their lumpy features morphing from pink to green and purple under vivid evening illuminations.
There’s nothing scary about these mythical juhyo snow monsters, however; and for snowboarders and skiers who swish through metres-deep powder in the shadow of these unique formations, they are a wondrous addition to the enticements of a perfect 10 km run. Snow monsters are a phenomenon unique to this part of northern Japan, formed when a bitter easterly jet stream, straight off the steppes of Siberia, snap-freezes powder snow clinging to the wet leaves of Aomori fir trees.
Over the winter months, as the ice and snow continue to form and solidify, the trees distort into surreal shapes that overactive imaginations could perceive as a monstrous army. As a non-skier I am intrigued by nature’s wicked sense of humour and, as I sink up to my thighs in the marvellously deep, dry snow to photograph the monsters bearing down on Zao Onsen Ski Resort, I finally understand the allure of skiing in Japan.
Not only is the snow incredible, but there are no crowds, no lift queues, countless runs and magical winter scenery. There are also very few Australian accents to be heard; for now, Zao Onsen Ski Resort remains somewhat of a hidden treasure.
This hot spring ski resort is located in the Tohoku region of northern Honshu, extending from the north of Tokyo to the tip of the main island and covering six prefectures.
A range known as the Ou Mountains divides this region east to west, coiled like a sleeping dragon, hackles raised in anticipation. To the east of the range, the climate is tempered by the Pacific Ocean; but to the west, it cops the full fury of winter, resulting in some of the deepest snowfalls in Japan.
The result is a winter wonderland of Narnia-esque enchantment, buried beneath a perpetual carpet of white for six months of the year. Then, perhaps as way of compensation, Mother Nature waves her magic wand, turning the landscape a flurry of pink during cherry blossom season, emerald green in summer and a riot of red and gold in leaf-peeping season. “I love experiencing the four seasons – though sometimes I hate the snow!” an elderly woman admits as she shovels ice from the roof of her thatched house in the traditional Edo-period village of O-uchi-Juku in the southern Tohoku prefecture of Fukushima.
There are many beautiful places in this region, especially those located in the mountains to the west like O-uchi-Juku and the nearby city of Aizu-Wakamatsu. Positioned around one of Japan’s largest lakes, Aizu-Wakamatsu is certainly an intriguing destination, with attractions ranging from a fascinating samurai history to a scenic railway excursion on the local Tadami Line.
In Aizu-Wakamatsu, the gorgeous Tsuruga Castle – reconstructed in the 1960s after the original structure dating from 1384 was destroyed during feudal wars – is illuminated at night, creating a multi-coloured Disney vision looming behind silhouetted cherry trees (laden with pink blossoms, of course, during spring).
Crafting Cows Nearby, in the village of Yanaizu, visitors immerse themselves in a local craft experience, painting bobble-headed, red papier-mâché cows called akabeko. According to folklore, a red cow helped rebuild the Buddhist Enzoji Temple after it was destroyed by an earthquake, carrying heavy lumber to the hilltop location on its back. It then refused to leave the site, and was turned to stone in the form of a statue.
The toys that have since been made to honour this legendary cow are said to bring luck, and to ward off illnesses such as smallpox. And for a cost of just 700 yen (about AU$8), tourists can decorate their own little akabeko cow, a fun and creative activity resulting in a cute souvenir.
Onsen heaven Heading north, the prefecture of Yamagata is arguably the jewel in Tohoku’s crown, a region of sublime beauty and unique attractions such as Zao Onsen Ski Resort’s snow monsters.
Yamagata is also dotted with hot spring resorts, sulphuric waters from deep within the belly of the rumbling mountains surfacing in springs, or onsens, renowned for their curative powers. For instance, the water of Onogawa Hot Springs near Yonezawa City is said to be good for the skin, making women who soak in the town’s public baths as beautiful as the legendary poet Ono no Komachi, who visited the town 1200 years ago.
Meanwhile, buried deep in the snowy caldera of an ancient volcano in central Yamagata is the onsen village of Hijiori, a name that translates as ‘elbow fracture’. Indeed, legend states that in the ninth century, a priest was cured of his broken arm by the hot spring waters and today, rights to these healing waters are tightly held by the descendants of the 36 original owners who subsequently formed the onsen town.
Although just a short 20-minute transfer from the shinkansen (bullet train) station of Shinjo, Hijiori Onsen feels isolated from the rest of the world, literally surrounded by walls of ice over three metres high, which are magically illuminated with glowing lanterns during winter.
This is Japan at its most authentic: there are barely any other tourists during my visit to Hijioro, and certainly no other Western faces. And while most visitors spend their time soaking in the private onsens at the 20 ryokans dotted along the river, the village of just 300 residents offers arguably the most practical tourist activity imaginable – shovelling snow!
“Work hard, then you can relax in the onsen,” jokes Masato Hiyasaka, manager of the community baths at Hijiori Onsen, as we struggle to manipulate the plastic snow shovel under mountains of ice, dumping the resulting load in a flowing stream. It’s hard, sweaty work, despite the -6° Celsius temperature and, while we are having fun, it’s a subtle reminder just how tough life can be in these extremes.
One of Yamagata’s most picturesque onsen towns is Ginzan Onsen, nestled in the mountains on the Ginzan River. Graceful three- and four-storey wooden ryokans line the pedestrian-only streets where tourists wander in traditional yukata robes and wooden geta, pausing to soak in footbaths along the snow-lined river.
This breathtakingly gorgeous town, illuminated by gas lanterns as evening falls, was immortalised in the Academy Award-winning Japanese animation, Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Sipping Sake Of course, the Japanese have another way of dealing with the cold apart from onsens – drinking sake.
Although brewed throughout the country, sake from Yamagata is particularly coveted due to the pure underground water, the fine rice grown in the region and the freezing cold weather – the perfect storm for sake creation.
In fact, the sake from Yamagata prefecture was recently granted Geographical Indication, making it the first place in the world recognised for its superior sake-brewing qualities.
Of course, the best way to appreciate fine alcohol is with good food and Tohoku has more than its share of delicious regional dishes. Leading the pack is the famed Yonezawa beef, a wagyu grown in the Yonezawa district of Yamagata. Cold soba noodles, produced in the region for more than 400 years, are presented with a leek replacing chopsticks in some towns; while hot ramen noodles are a warming winter snack, consumed with gusto in ice igloos, or kamakura-mura, at Onogawa Onsen.
Despite being a relatively unknown travel destination for Western tourists, southern Tohoku is easily accessed, with two shinkansen bullet train routes from Tokyo: one along the east coast to Fukushima and Sendai, continuing north to Aomori at the tip of Honshu Island; and another line branching west to Yamagata and Shinjo.
With unlimited travel available via a Japan Rail Pass, this is your passport to an authentic, charming and undiscovered region of Japan, a place of sublime beauty, traditional culture, great food and a fascinating history.
And, whether you are a skier or not, the snow in this region is simply unbelievable, as legendary as the monsters guarding the top of the mountain! •
Photography by Julie Miller and Zao Onsen Tourism.
- JAL flies from Sydney and Melbourne daily. au.jal.co.jp/aul/en
- Five-day unlimited travel on all JR East train lines in Tokyo and the Tohoku area is available from 19,000 yen (AU$226). jreast.co.jp/e/eastpass
- Tohoku Tourism: kingdom-of-winter-trip-tohoku.jp/en
- Yamagata Tourism: kingdom-of-winter-trip-tohoku.jp/spot/en/pref/yamagata