Road trip day 5: Mount Zao snow monsters
The morning after our very early night in Niigata we woke up feeling refreshed and popped to the 7eleven for a cheeseburger for me (such a healthy breakfast!) and a nikuman (steamed pork bun) for Tom before hitting the road on our next adventure back into the mountains to Zao Onsen and Mount Zao. Zao Onsen is a traditional popular hot spring and ski resort in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture and it is one of only a few places in Japan where "snow monsters" exist! This was one of the top attractions on our to do list for this trip, the monsters are trees that take on monster-like shapes due to the heavy snowfall and freezing winds and February is the best time of year to view them.
There was also a torii across the road:
This was to be a relatively long journey so we took the expressway for the initial part of it. It got snowy on the ground pretty quickly and we saw some wonderful bridges and streams before stopping at a huge dam to have a good look around.
I decided to climb up onto what I thought was a huge pile of snow in the carpark area (the pic didn't really come out!) and it was only after the photo and after a bit more exploring that I realised that this snow was in fact jutting out over the reservoir and had a sheer drop below! Hello near death experience!
Next we went to Yamagata and had lunch at one of my preferred Japanese chains - Matsuya. I had the regular gyudon (beef bowl) which is my absolutely favorite Japanese dish and Tom had the large topped with onions and spicy sauce with a kimchi and salad side.
It was around a 40 minute drive from Yamagata to the Mt Zao ropeway (cable car), the drive was pretty and winding as we reached the base of the mountain and we selected a carpark right at the foot of the ropeway near the main ski lodges and paid 1000 yen for parking.
We then paid 2500 yen each for the return trip, there was a rather large queue made up predominantly of skiers but pleasingly this moved quite quickly and we only had to wait around 10 minutes to board.
The first part of the trip up the mountain is in a large gondola that they cram full of people and takes 7 mins and the view is breathtaking as you climb higher, you see some beautiful frosted beech trees.
The second bit is a smaller gondola carrying around 15 people and takes 10 mins. This bit was the highlight of the ascent as it is where you get your first glimpse of the snow monsters.
Once out of the cable car we had a stroll around the snow monsters to take in the view:
The actual summit of Mount Zao was a bit further than where the cable car drops you and the snow was very deep so Tom the hero that he is went for it whilst I waited below. It was absolutely freezing and he was the only person braving the hike in jeans and trainers, if you want to have a go yourself we seriously recommend ensuring you are kitted out in the right gear!
Once reunited we took a couple more pictures:
Before beginning our descent and driving over to Sendai on the north east side of Honshu, our stop for the night.