Last month, I rode the shinkansen three and a half hours north from Tokyo to Yamagata Prefecture, where I hopped a bus to Zao Onsen, a hot spring resort that’s home to one of the Nihon Hyakumeizan (100 Famous Mountains of Japan) and a winter wonderland famous for volcanic hot spring baths, excellent skiing, and a unique natural phenomenon called juhyo, or “snow monsters.”
I first visited Mt. Zao in the summer of 2018, when I climbed the highest peak as part of my 100 Summits hiking year. Although I loved the mountain in summer (and plan to return to hike it again), I promised myself I’d go back in the winter to see the snow monsters on the summit. Five years later, I was back!
A winter storm blew in the afternoon my friend and I arrived, and the ropeway closed down, with no promises of re-opening. Although we were disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to see the snow monsters that day (and maybe not at all) we enjoyed our evening at a fantastic onsen ryokan (which was so great it’s getting a post of its own!) and crossed our fingers for better weather the following day.
Although the innkeeper told us the ropeway was probably closed, we took our chances and made the 20-minute walk in gently falling snow . . . and found it open! The line was so long that it took us more than two hours to finally reach the gondola–and we spent the whole time hoping it wouldn’t shut down again before we got there.
The storm had frosted the trees and covered everything in a fresh layer of pure, white snow.
Frozen winds sweep down from Siberia, across the sea, and over the mountains of Japan. The winds are so strong and so cold that they envelop the trees in a layer of solid ice, which grows through the winter to create the famous “monsters.” The monsters are visible only for a few weeks each year, usually starting around the end of January and continuing until February, and they develop only at the very top of the mountain, where the winds blow all winter long.
Farther down, the winds create beautiful, feathery coatings of frost (not ice) on the beech trees:
Halfway to the summit, we changed to a second gondola–which was coated in ice and frozen sleet from the storm. The temperature was well below freezing, and much colder than at the base of the mountain–but still much warmer than what awaited us at the top!
The view down the mountain was beautiful.
The weather on the upper mountain was much fiercer than what we experienced below. Near the summit, the winds were blowing at over 30km (sustained), and the temperature was about -14C.
As we approached the summit, visibility dropped to nearly zero, too.
The shot above, and the one below, were taken looking down the mountain, about one minute apart.
On the summit, the cold and winds were so fierce that frostbite set in almost instantly on any exposed skin. Since we’d been told the ropeway wasn’t open, we’d brought only minimal cold weather gear (standard-issue winter gloves and hats, and parkas, but I’d left my inner second and third layers, and my snow gloves and balaclava, at the inn, thinking I wouldn’t need them. OOPS. There are no words for how cold it was–but…there were snow monsters!!
The monsters were amazing – twisted, gnarled shapes, much larger than the trees beneath. Some of them, like the one on the right in the picture above, even seemed to have “faces.” Their icy branches reached out like grasping arms.
Some of them looked like giant figures rising from the snow to hunt unsuspecting skiiers (of which there were a surprising number, despite the bitter cold and whiteout conditions).
We spent a few minutes on the summit and then hightailed it back to the gondola, which was not heated, but at least did give us some shelter against the winds. As we rode back down the mountain, the visibility slowly improved, until we once again found ourselves looking down on a magical frosted wonderland.
It took five years and a little extra persistence, but I’m so glad I went. The snow monsters were every bit as cool as I’d hoped (in fact, quite a bit colder than merely cool!), and I definitely hope to get back to see them again another year.
Did you know about the Snow Monsters of Mt. Zao? Would you like to visit them someday?