This past weekend we headed out for the inaugural ski trip of the season. Our destination: Zao Onsen, a ski town about 400 km north of Tokyo. I heard of its famous snow monsters and hot springs and decided that we should check it out for ourselves.
We set out on Thursday morning heading for Tokyo Station, and our ride: the Yamagata Shinkansen (bullet train). Our ski gear left before us via the miracle that is Yamato Transport Ski Taq-u-bin, as chronicled in a past martayaki post.
Late that afternoon we arrived at our hotel, Meitoya Sou. We arrived to our Japanese room as you see below, with two beds in place and a low table in the center of the room. Before bedtime the housekeeping staff pulled the futons out of the closet and made them up for the kids, then restowed them (the futons, not the children–though wouldn’t that be great?!?) in morning. We settled into our room, enjoyed the onsen bath right in the hotel, grabbed some dinner, and got ready for skiing the next day.
The next day we rode up two ropeways to the very top of the mountain to check out the famous juhyo, or snow monsters. As this Japan Times story helpfully explains, juhyo are trees covered in layers of snow and ice, and only certain parts of Japan have the right combination of conifers, high winds, and icy snow to produce them. My iPhone photos don’t really do the juhyo justice. (Aside: Juhyo Justice is an excellent name for a rock band). We oohed, we aahed, we skiied between them. They were incredible! Japanese ski resorts usually offer a basket of slippers in the dining areas, which is absolutely fantastic. I love taking off ski boots for an hour or so, and it’s pretty much the only time I’m happy to wear vinyl slippers that have been on hundreds of feet before mine. The tatami seating area is also a nice touch, though honestly I choose the regular tables and chairs myself–I get more than enough sitting on the floor thanks to the floor chairs in the hotel room. That night we boarded a snow cat for a night tour of illuminated juhyo–because lighting up things in colored lights a Thing in Japan. Winter illuminations. Cherry blossom (sakura) illuminations. There’s pretty much an illumination for every season.
Illuminations aren’t limited to the snow monsters themselves. Walking through town we saw several spots where the stinky, sulphurous spring like this one were lit up by LED that changed color every few seconds.
The next day was a little snowier and colder, but still fun. We enjoyed our second day of skiing, followed by dinner at a local shabu shabu and barbecue joint with a dirt floor.
With two great days of skiing under our belts, the time came to board our shinkansen home. See you next time, Zao Onsen! We’ll be back for sure.