Snow Monsters of Zao, Japan

Mount Zaosan in Winter, Miyagi and Yamagata Prefectures Japan

By some measures, Japan is the snowiest place on earth, and winter in areas such as the Tohoku region north of Tokyo add to that rep. The Zaosan (蔵王山) mountains, on the border between Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures, for example, gets around 12 metres dumped on its forested slopes each season. That’s a far cry from the 40-metre (120-plus feet) epic blanket that smothers the Japanese Alps around Nagano each year (there’s a reason houses in the countryside traditionally have a second front door, upstairs), but still more than enough to transform this range of stratovolcanoes, crater lakes, and subalpine fir trees into a magical fantastical winter wonderland each year.

At up to 1,841 metres (6,040 ft) in elevation, the summits are more than tall enough to snag passing clouds and form horizontal icicles on the branches of spindly Aomori fir trees, bushes — and everything else that doesn’t move in the subalpine zone . Then, from December to March, when cold air rolls out from Siberia and crosses the relatively warm, ice-free waters of the Sea of Japan, winter wash up against the west coast of main-island Japan and dump its burden of snow on the mountains which, coincidentally, protect Tokyo and make for mild, dry, sunny winters in the capital.

This western wall of snow-making machinery is really a double-win for Tokyoites: the city stays dry and user-friendly during the winter, while a powder playground is a short drive or shinkansen bullet train ride away, in the mountains.

The perfect spot for a long-weekend staycation.

So, on a weekend this January, R. and I layered our hardcore Patagonia over wimpy city clothes, grabbed our cameras, and headed for the slopes.

Turns out, we timed our trip just right. “The best conditions in 10 years,” the guide announced to the passengers on the snowcat. I’m not sure of that, but I’m sure of one thing: the 樹氷 “juhyo” snow monsters were in fine form this year.

Zao Onsen Ski Resort and Ropeway, Yamagata

In winter, the cablecars that service skiers and snowboarders pull double-duty by whisking tourists — and photographers — magic carper-like over a forest of snow monsters. to Zao Sancho Station at 1661 metres (5449 feet). Here, exposed and at elevation, the wind and cold threatened to turn us into snow monsters ourselves if we didn’t keep moving, and take shelter in the lee of the station building.

There is also an indoor, heated viewing area which also offers hot drinks — including wine. The gondola run is best done at night, to take advantage of the illumination light show: coloured floodlights light up the snow monsters-so thickly covered in snow they looked more like giant shrimp tempura when we visited-in candy floss reds and blues and greens. The ropeway is open til 9. Apparently, it is also possible to take a ride on a heated snowmobile into the forest interior…

Zao Sumikawa Snow Park, Miyagi

On the east side of the range, in neighbouring Miyagi prefecture, Zao’s backcountry can be explored in the daytime by snowcat. We took the 45-minute trip to the subalpine zone where we had about half an hour to shoot pictures in what our guide told us was “the best snow conditions she’d seen in ten years.” Apparently, you can also arrange to be dropped off from the snow cat, to hike or ski or snowshoe back to base — we would have taken this option if we’d known about it in advance, and were prepared. Half an hour simply wasn’t enough to really take in the landscape. As it was, we ground our way up-and down-slope inside the over-heated snowcat with a full contingent of other daytrippers.

Next time, we’ll take the snowcat up and snowshoe back down…

Pictures of the Snow Monsters of Zao Ropeway, Yamagata

Snow Monsters of Zao in the Backcountry, Miyagi Prefecture


Here are some websites to help plan a trip to Mount Zaosan’s snow monsters:

Zao Onsen Ski Resort and Ropeway

Zao Miyagi

Miyagi Zao Sumikawa Snow Park

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