Winter is upon us, and the distinct phenomenon of the juhyou or “snow monsters” of Mount Zao in Yamagata prefecture are not to be missed as one of Japan’s top winter wonders.
The kanji for juhyou (樹氷) literally means frozen, or ice, tree. After collecting moisture over the Sea of Japan, Siberian winds whip around and into the pines on Zao, creating huge, powdered and zombi-ish creatures on par with the work of Edward Scissorhands.
The significant snowfall of Zao keeps more than twenty ski runs open from December to April, but the best time to enjoy the snow monsters is from mid-January through the end of February. Zao is also famous for its many onsen, or naturally hot mineral baths. What better combination could there be?
Steam from the hot springs floats up from under the main bridge in town and the smell of sulfur and other minerals wafts in the crisp—well okay, downright cold—air. Not a large or typical tourist town, you’ll find Zao’s infrastructure more than sufficient, but minimal, and dare I say, charming.
If you haven’t come equipped, skis, snowboards, snowshoes, boots, poles, and all manner of snow sport paraphernalia can be rented from the quaint Shiba Ski shop at the base of the ropeway station.
Ride the ropeway up to the slopes and to see the monsters (round trip fare ranges from 1,500 to 2,600 JPY). Make sure to take in the views on the way up, and prepare to catch your breath. This is not just because you will either be scaling a mountain in snowshoes or hurling yourself down one on skis or a snowboard. The sheer magnitude of the vistas is stunning—on a clear day you can see all the way to Mount Gassan and even Mount Chokai. The expansive layers of everything in between will quickly recalibrate your sense of scale and leave you feeling like a very tiny figurine in a very large snow globe.
View from halfway up the monster patch; Mount Chokai is in the distance.
5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of the Snow Monsters
- Pack your ski goggles or sunglasses. No matter your normal sensitivity to light, it is nothing compared to being surrounded by white.
- Check the weather forecast. There’s no doubt you can have a fantastic time on the slopes when it’s cloudy, but try your best to time your trip for a clear sunny day to get the most out of panoramic views from the peak. Have a Plan B for bad weather: this will usually involve eating steaming noodles and soaking in a steamy bath. Not a bad Plan B!
- Chat with your fellow travelers. There is something about the fluffiness of snow that creates an infectious giddy atmosphere in the mountains. Whether swapping stories inside the cable car, offering to snap a photo at the peak, or romping around among the monsters, fellow visitors are open to random shared moments of fun in a way you’ll never find on the Tokyo subway.
- Dip in the hot spring. You’ve been out in the cold all day. Reward your body by relaxing in the numerous onsens. This feature of mountain adventure in Japan stands apart from anywhere else in the world. Shinzaimon no yu (新在門の湯), just across the street from the ropeway station, has an outdoor foot bath out front, an attached gift shop with local delicacies, and a restaurant.
- Prepare for the fees. While the bus, ropeway, rental, and accommodation fees may feel like they’re adding up faster than you’d like, remember that this view is priceless, especially if you come from a place with no snow.
How to Get There
From Tokyo, take the Yamagata Shinkansen to Yamagata station (2.5 hours), transfer to a bus on the west side of the station (50 minutes, 1,000 JPY, it runs every hour).
Where to Stay
The town of Zao Onsen has approximately 80 accommodations, ranging from traditional ryokan to hotels and less expensive lodges or “pensions". Many places include breakfast and dinner, and have on-site baths.
In addition to Zao Onsen, you can also enjoy snow monsters at Zao Liza World, located 18 kilometers from the Kaminoyama Onsen Station on the Yamagata Shinkansen line. This resort also has snowboard and ski courses for beginners, and reputably some of the best pizza in Yamagata prefecture. For detailed snow conditions and access information click here.