Tuesday 27 February 2024

Skiing in Zao: Snow Monsters, Japow, and Jizo Statues

The UK may be famous for its ever-changing weather - "four seasons in one day" - but the weather this past week in Japan has been similarly unpredictable. On Tuesday (Feb. 20th) we had a high of over 23℃ here in Tokyo, with people in T-shirts and plum blossoms blooming all over. Record breaking temperatures of 25℃ in Chiba made this the official first "summer day" on Honshu this year! However, Friday (23rd) saw snow and a high of only 4℃, a drop of nearly 20℃! On top of that, we have also had the first wind of spring known as haru-ichiban (春一番), a strong southerly wind marking the change from winter to spring, characterised by a warmish day followed by more cold weather. Four seasons in a week if not a day!

© Zao Onsen Tourism Association (URL here)
Speaking of snow, recently I took a trip to Zao in Yamagata, two and a half hours on the bullet train from Tokyo, to get in a bit of skiing. Yamagata is located in Tohoku (東北) or Northeast Japan and was the first place I lived in Japan way back in 1992. I fondly remember getting the bus on weekends from Yamagata-City to Zao Onsen Ski Resort (蔵王温泉スキー場), a sprawling network of 25 trails and almost 1.9km of skiable areas with the longest run at 9km (official English site here).

Ropeway information in both Japanese and English
Zao is famous for "Snow Monsters" (juhyō=樹氷), not abominable snowmen but trees glazed with ice and snow due to water droplets in the cold air blowing from Siberia freezing. Even if you don't ski, you can ride up on the ropeway and see the Snow Monsters which are particularly impressive when illuminated at night. In recent years, though, as temperatures have risen, the Snow Monsters have not been as imposing as before. Indeed, one thing I noticed overall was how much warmer it was on the mountain, nothing like the freezing temperatures, biting wind, and low visibility of previous years. 

BritishProf with Snow Monsters
Rising temperatures and less snow does not seem to have put off tourists - in fact, it seems to have encouraged them - and visitors from Australia and Taiwan were noticeable in Zao. Indeed, the foreign "invasion" of Japanese slopes has been discussed at length, with Niseko in Hokkaido - named by some as the Japanese powder snow ("Japow") capital of Japan (link) - gaining special attention. Post-pandemic, foreign visitor numbers have well and truly recovered, encouraged by the weak yen, and foreign investment in the resort looks set to expand further. The downside is an increasing strain on the local infrastructure, especially transportation, accommodation, water, and food, with labour shortages and price increases a growing problem. Fortunately, Zao is nowhere near as crowded as Niseko and over-tourism is not such a problem - indeed, skiing over the east side of the mountain there were places when I was completely alone. Bliss!

Right at the top, we can see the amazing almost 250-year-old 2.3 metre Jizo Statue (地蔵尊), just below the 1736m Mount Jizo (地蔵山) peak. While the purpose of many Jizo Statues is to protect the spirits of children who have passed away before their parents (see here), this one serves to protect travellers from unforeseen misfortunes or disasters. Compared to past winters, when I remember only the head visible this time the snow was only up to the chest, reflecting changing temperatures. In the summer, of course, the full statue is visible and the surrounding area offers many lovely hikes. Thoughts? Do please share in the COMMENTS!

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