There is a snowy place in the North East of Japan that really re-enforced why I love this country so much. Near Yamagata, the town of Zao Onsen is a ski resort and can be found up in the mountains. We didn’t visit for the ski slopes, though I still wish we’d budgeted a little more time for the place.
When we made our way to Yamagata from Tokyo station, the quietness of the area is probably the first thing that got to us. After years in China being assaulted relentlessly by the car horns, the music blaring from every store front and the general yelling, Yamagata was just the complete opposite, and while Zao Onsen was, of course, a little busier, the streets held the same silence. But that’s not what made me fall in love with this place.
Zao Onsen, natural hot springs:
You might know already that onsens are very much a national tradition, and going to the baths in Japan is a habit for most. Zao Onsen doesn’t shy away from this: you’ll find an onsen at every street corner in this small town. Sure that might not be what you will notice first when visiting the area. First you’ll get the smell… Sulphur. That smell of rotten egg that is so particular of natural hot springs. It’s an odd sight as well: the water is hot and steaming, while the surround landscape is buried beneath metres of snow.
Little wooden houses seem to be popping all around and most contain hot baths for men and women as well as some foot-baths on the outside. Everything here is telling you to relax for a while.
Most are unattended so if you fancy giving them a try, slide a 100yen coin in the box in front of them and enter the side apportioned to your gender (the public baths in Zao Onsen are not mixed)
If you are looking for something a bit bigger and you’ve got time (unlike us, sadly), you might want to try the private onsens. For around 500yen, you’ll find some pretty amazing open air ones.
If, like many western tourists in Japan, your ingrained sensibilities make you feel uneasy about hopping in an open air bath stark naked alongside a dozen strangers, just slide your feet in the foot bath. The “Shimoyu” hot bath was certainly a great experience for us after visiting the town all day. When you’re freezing, tired… the only problem might be to get your feet out of there!
Getting close to the snow monsters.
If you’re not into skiing (like us), there is another good reason for you to visit Zao Onsen in winter: it’s famous snow monsters. Also called Juhyo, this phenomena happens every winter in the mountains of Yamagata. Because of the heavy snow and the cold temperatures, every winter the trees on top of the mountain get covered by snow and freeze solid, giving rise to some strange and eerie shapes. It’s easy to see how the name ‘snow monsters’ came about.
While you can see those any time between December and March, February might be the best time to witness them fully formed and, if you’re lucky, you might get to see them at night too during the illumination. We visited at the end of January and while we didn’t get to see the lights, the spectacle of those snow monsters covering the hills was truly magical.
Two cable car trips are necessary to reach the summit of the mountain, unsurprisingly most people there were wearing ski gear, ready to come down of the mountain. We, on the other hand, had arrived less formidably armoured in jeans and trainers. It was to be a cold walk.
We arrived to the top in a snow storm, the blue sky turned white, the temperatures felt lower and it became difficult to differentiate the snow from the horizon. We took a few steps on the path and my foot got swallowed by the snow. I was knee-deep in there, and this was nothing. When Robb decided to go a little further, he immediately sank to his waist: one thing was clear, leaving the beaten path was not going to be an option. Around us, in this strange atmosphere, the smallest burst of sunshine through the thick clouds would give a bit of a dreamy or at other times, a nightmarish look to it all. I’m not sure what scared me the most: the prospect of being lost in a blizzard amidst perilous snow drifts and the haunting figures of the monsters around us, or the moment when my treasured camera succumbed to the cold and began displaying nonsensical error messages. Probably the later actually, that’s the one that made me seek shelter in the cafe near the rope way in the hope of getting it to recover (which, yes, it did).
Local culture and wildlife in the old town.
The people of Zao onsen are working hard to preserve their town and their culture. In the winter months you’ll find people constantly moving snow around to avoid damaging their old buildings, and to keep the roads clear. Founded almost 1.900 years ago, there is, apparently, a lot of the town that remains. Torii gates, wooden bridges and houses, ryokans and onsens, the old town seems to flourish the further you get from the ski slopes and rope ways.
But there’s a lot more to the culture of Zao onsen than the amazing hot springs (not sure how you top it though!), the food and the craftsmanship are still very much of a testimony of the area. One big craft is found in the kokeshi dolls: those are created on a wooden support and painted by hand. Their head is usually bigger than their torso which might sport some flowery patterns.
If that’s something you are interested in, plenty of shops in Zao and Yamagata do sell them.
And of course there is the food… Up in the mountains you’ll find a few specialities in Zao onsen: Genghis Khan hot pot, Tama Konjac and Iga mochi.
The Genghis Khan hot pot has, sadly, I guess, little to do with him ever stepping foot in the area and more to do with the use of mutton in the dish.
Our favourite was the Iga Mochi that we tried in a small cafe. Owned by a lovely lady and her cat (who’s made it on the walls in quite a few photos and will probably come and check you out when you come in.), we got to sample those home made traditional sweets.
Iga Mochi is a small rice cake that comes in threes and will be served on a bamboo leaf. With a little yellow point on top of it, not only is this a very pretty sweet, but it also taste good.
As you would expect it’s filled up with bean paste and is fairly sticky. Perfect treat to have with some green tea.
Aside from the culture, you might also get a chance to go for some wildlife spotting. Don’t be fooled, like us, when you see a strange shaggy animal skulking out of the forest near the town limits, it’s probably not a wolf. So what could it be? A Japanese Serow apparently. This goat-antelope can be spotted in this area and they seem to hold a pretty good relationship with the locals since they leave them food outside. He certainly didn’t seem fazed by us approaching.
Zao Onsen is not just for skiing but if you’re into winter sports…
We didn’t come to Zao Onsen for skiing but it clearly seems to be the main attraction in the area. If that’s what you’re looking for then go for it: metres of snow and good facilities have been attracting people to the slopes here for a while, and coming down, slaloming between a few snow monsters sounds like good fun and something we might try ourselves in the future.
There’s something for everyone: beginners to more advanced and the area is pretty quiet even more if you decide to go outside of the standard time (usually after 3pm that’s when the place gets quite empty).
Practical information about Zao Onsen.
Getting to Zao Onsen is really easy. You’ll need to get to the town of Yamagata by train (served by the Shinkansen) and from there you can get a bus that will take around 40 minutes.
There is a bus every hour until 6.40 pm ( be careful, the 8pm bus doesn’t run on weekends and holiday ) to get there and also one every hour to come back until 7.40.
Make sure to get a time table with your bus tickets just to be safe.
If you are staying there for the night (we’d advise you to do so, we certainly wish we did ), your hotel can most likely pick you up at the bus stop in Zao onsen, make sure to contact them and let them know when you’ll arrive.
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