As winter enters into its deepest months of January, a natural phenomenon takes place on the slopes of Mt. Zao. Massive white pillars form across the winter landscape like frozen soldiers guarding a sacred fortress. They are known as “juhyo” or “snow monsters” and their presence near the peak of Mt. Zao announces to all the height of winter is upon us.
A rare blend of moist air—driven by frigid Siberian winds—batters the upper alpine region of Mt. Zao each winter. The needles of the fir trees, called Aomori Todomatsu or Maries Fir, capture the moisture from these icy winds, freeze over and and then act like natural magnets for the heavy snow that blankets the area. This cycle repeats over the winter building layer upon layer of snow and ice, creating countless imposing figures across the high mountain slopes until Zao’s snow monsters have risen once again.
The snow monsters share the mountain with the Zao Onsen Ski Resort, which features a vast ski network of terrain boasting some of the best powder in the world. “Zao is a classic Japanese ski resort, better suited to skiers who can traverse the many courses without having to take off skis,” says local resident and ex-ski racer Mao Oshima. “Its a bit harder to get around some courses for snowboarders as there are a few flat sections.”
Oshima has skied all over Japan as well as to many ski resorts around the world during her racing career. She notes there aren’t many resorts that can rival Zao’s size and the stunning views, as well as the unique opportunity to ski or snowboard among the juhyo. Her family opened Lodge Scole, the first European-style lodge in Zao, back in 1973 and still own and operate it today.
“You can enjoy great views of the mountain from the village, but Zao is also a classic hot spring town,” Oshima adds. “You can smell the sulfur while wandering around and exploring the village.”
Depending on your skill and sense of adventure, there are various ways to interact with the snow monsters. Skiers and snowboarders can enjoy a close up view while hitting the slopes—even at night with a torch in hand when they are illuminated with a magical tinge of color, creating a surreal atmosphere.
Whether you are skiing or just enjoying the view, the Zao Ropeway is a great way to see the local celebrities from above, and, as you get to the end of the ropeway, you are greeted with a view of the lit up snow monsters from the comfort and warmth of the lodge. For those wanting a bit more adventure—but still like to stay warm—the “Fantasy Corridor Tour” is a nice option that takes place halfway up the ropeway. Guests can jump in the “The Night Cruiser” for a heated ride in this massive snow vehicle through the illuminated monsters.
It’s important to note there are a number of problems threatening the existence of these winter creatures. First, the growth of the Aomori Todomatsu trees, which are unique to this area, is typically slow with a low spread rate at high altitudes. Natural propagation of trees is few and far between due extreme weather and lack of assistance from animals, which normally assist with the spread of the trees.
The threat of insects is another factor, which damages the trees and stops leaves from regenerating fast enough, or worst case, cuts off the lifeline completely. Palmerworm caterpillars first infested the trees, then came bark beetles. A study conducted by Yamagata University showed all the trees sampled in the study, as well as additional trees nearby, had been damaged by bark beetles. Insects are more active in warmer temperatures, and recently there have been more days with 15°C or higher daytime temperatures during winter months.
To prevent the beloved snow monsters from going extinct, re-planting and growing efforts are underway, as well as the removal of infected and dead trees to prevent more infestation from occurring. Educating others about the situation and respecting the rules of the mountain is also important. This includes refraining from touching the trees directly or walking in fenced off areas, which could be plantation sites. Enjoy the beauty of these majestic creatures while also taking steps to ensure future generations can do so as well.
You won’t have to wait long to see the snow monsters on your way to Zao. There are posters of juhyo all around Yamagata Station, where the Shinkansen (bullet trains) arrive from Tokyo. There are even some tasty, edible snow monster omiyage (souvenirs) being sold to give to loved ones who didn’t get to join you on your winter adventures in Yamagata.
When to Go
The best time to see juhyo is late January to early February. Be sure to keep an eye on weather patterns and temperatures as every season is slightly different. If you aren’t fortunate enough to visit during peak season, the end of December to the start of March often gives you the opportunity to see the snowy giants in various shapes, sizes and states of transformation. Be sure to layer up, as temperatures from -8°C to -15°C are not uncommon at this time of year.
The Juhyo Festival takes place at the beginning of February and there are World Cup ski competitions. The National Inter High School Competition will also be held at Zao Ski Resort (zaoropeway.co.jp) Feb. 8-11.
By Car: Take the Tohoku Expressway from Tokyo to the Murata I.C. (4 hours) and then the Yamagata Expressway to Yamagata Zao I.C. (30 min.). Continue on Route 13 to Zao Onsen (30 min.).
By Train: From Tokyo take the JR Yamagata Shinkansen to Yamagata Station (2 hrs. 30 min.) and then the Zao bound bus to Zao Onsen (40 min.).
By Plane. There are flights from Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya to Yamagata Airport. From there take the bus to Zao Onsen (60 min.). From Sendai Airport there is also a direct bus (reservation required) to Zao Onsen (1 hr. 25 min.).