Snap on Your Snowshoes – 3 Stunning Winter Spots in Yamagata
Strike off the beaten ski runs for spectacular vistas and to experience the stillness of winter in Japan’s north country. Only on snowshoes can you access these stunning spots—take advantage of this low-cost, low-speed way to enjoy snowscapes while getting in a good workout.
1. Zao: Play With Snow Monsters and Trek the Ridge
Zao is synonymous with the monsters, a product of the icy Siberian winds that collect moisture over the Sea of Japan before wrapping the mountain’s pine trees in curls of snow. Disguised by their white covers, the trees transform into massive creatures frozen in mid-step.
Romping amid the giants presents a rare chance to visit with your inner child—let your imagination run wild with each unique shape. (The snowshoes make sure that you don’t sink several feet into the fluff while doing so).
Once you’ve worn out the giddy, climb to the top of Mount Jizo for an unforgettable vantage on the surrounding mountains, and, depending on the day, an extra gust of wind. From here you can trek along the ridge. Marvel at the vast snowscape and the crystalizing details of this special ecosystem.
Best time to go: Snow monsters are usually best from late January through February. Snowshoes, poles, boots and winter gloves can all be rented at various shops in Zao Onsen Town at the base of the ropeway. Remember to never snowshoe alone and inform staff at the station if you will be trekking the ridge.
2. Oe Machi: Approach the Sculpted Asahi Range in Spring Clothes
The Asahi Range unfurls from the peak of Mount Gassan like a white ribbon in contrast to the spring green of lower elevations. From the rural mountain village of Oe, you can approach the range on foot for rare up-close views made possible only by the winter defoliation at altitude.
The young entrepreneurs at Yamasa-be ("let’s go to the mountain") project are reinvigorating Oe, transforming an abandoned elementary school into an experiential learning center. Join one of their experienced guides on a snowshoe tour in the spring to crunch along the melting surface in mild temperatures.
Best time to go: April-May. Snowshoes and walking poles are included in the tour price.
3. Shizu: Hearing Quiet in the Shadow of Sacred North Mountains
The small onsen outpost of Shizu is a great departure point for snowshoe hikes either toward Gassan or the "backside" of Yudono. Tredding on up to 2 meters of snow, you’ll first notice the road signs that are now just above your head. Advancing deeper into snow country and buna (Japanese beechwood) forest, you’ll be enveloped in quiet as the solitude of the peaks emerge like the back of a whale above the treeline. Be wary of branches that may snap free from the weight of melting snow—these are the tops of trees that normally tower above you.
The following can help arrange guides and tours: Gassan Asahi Guide Association, Tsutaya, EcoPro Gassan Nature School, Gassan Pole Pole Farm. Snow boots, snowshoes, and poles are available to rent for just 500 Yen. Best time to go: late February-May (Shizu’s annual igloo town in late February is a rare treat).
Important safety reminders
Go with a local guide who best understands dangerous spots, especially as the temperatures warm
If you do not have a guide, never go alone and inform nearby facilities before venturing out
Be mindful of fast-changing weather conditions common in the north mountains
Bring sunglasses, plenty of water, and appropriate layers of clothing for the temperatures