Friday, March 16, 2012

Yamagata Zao

Conor and Dylan, and what's left of the Ice Monsters, March 2012

This is a great place for families. We stayed at the Zao Astraea hotel, which practically sits on the Yokokura Slope, on the far side of the resort. It's well situated next to a series of short lifts that lead to the big gondola, or rope way, that takes you to the summit where you'll find a whole mess of Juhyo, the area's famous ice-covered monster trees. It's because of these monsters that this resort draws busloads of tourists, and they don't need to be carrying skis or a snowboard to gain entry to the top, and in fact it's those folks who get to go to the front of the line. So in a way we were lucky that by the time we made it to Zao, the second weekend in March, the scenery was past its prime, there were few tourists about and not that many skiers either. No waiting for the rope way from Juhyo Kogen station, or any other lift for that matter.

In photos, the Juhyo look pretty incredible, like something out of Lord of the Rings, all lumpy and twisted and hunched. In person, having shaken off some of the snow, the trees still looked pretty cool and Tolkien like. Doesn't this one (below) look like a wizard in a white cloak?

How they form: extremely wet snow from the Sea of Japan is carried by the Siberian jetstream over the Asahi Range, where it is compressed and cooled, turning into particle ice, which then slams into the central Ou Range and glues itself on to these Aomori fir trees. What we didn't see:

The boys were not that impressed with the summit until we pointed out the Jizo statue, buried up to its neck in snow, the tip of his sceptre poking out next to the offering box. If you pat the head of a Jizo, does it bring you good luck?

The same Jizo in summer:

From the top there we skied the Zangezaka Juhyogen course, and ended up doing a stretch of moguls that turned out to be part of a black diamond run - a first for the boys.

The other side of the resort had some decent runs as well. We found a ski school for Conor and Dylan at the Zao Base lodge Jupeer, next to the Uenodai Slope (marked No. 5 on the resort map). Their instructor, Yoshida, whom we called Yoshi-san, spoke excellent English, though we paid a premium for that - 15,000 yen for 2 hours, private.

Before he could get started, though, he had to coax them out of this ice cave.

To get to Zao, we took a JR train from Ebisu to Omiya (40 min on either the Saikyo or Shonan-Shinjuku line) then transferred to a shinkansen on the Tsubasa line. From Omiya to Yamagata takes about 2 hr., 15 min., and you stop at Fukushima along the way (the city, not the troubled nuclear power plant). Here's what looks like a taxi waiting area outside Fukushima station:

After arriving at Yamagata station, you can take a coach bus directly to the resort, only 980 yen per adult, 490 yen per child for the 30- to 40-min journey. Take the East Exit to bus shelter No. 1, and a guy in uniform will put your luggage in the cargo hold and point you to the ticket office. (I'm sure this was way more comfortable not to mention cheaper than if the four of us had tried to cram into a not-quite-big-enough Japanese taxi.) The bus dropped us at the Zao Onsen bus terminal, a small place with restrooms and vending machines and an info desk. We called the Astraea hotel, and somebody sent a van to collect us and take us 5 min. further down the road.
 Killing time at the bus station

We slept in Western style beds - four singles in one spacious room - and our package deal - 21,800 yen per adult, 15,900 yen per child - covered the room for one night, lunch and dinner on the Saturday, breakfast on Sunday, 4 hot coffee tickets redeemable at any restaurant on the mountain, and lift tickets for 2 days.

Dinner was Japanese Cuisine 101: tuna and salmon sashimi with shredded daikon and chiso leaf; broiled eel in a brown sauce glaze, stick of ginger root lying on top; cold soba noodles swimming in sweet soy with rings of green onion; fatty slices of raw pork on a bed of cabbage, ready for boiling in the shabu-shabu pot placed in the middle of the table; a basic white fish and shrimp, fried tempura-style; and plenty of pickles and white rice. The boys would only eat the pork shabu-shabu and rice, so Terry and I let them have at it, as there were enough other dishes to go around.

And then there was the onsen. I'm sure there are more traditional onsen to visit in the area - the resort is called Zao Onsen after all - but our hotel had its own, and it was more than suitable (I'll never forget the ladies kneeling by the famous but tiny village bath in Nozawa Onsen, using plastic basins to do the required pre-soak cleansing, as there was no place else to go - these hotel onsen really spoil you, with their individual shower stalls with big bottles of shampoo and body soap). Anyway, ahhhhhh... there's nothing like soaking sore muscles in a mineral bath after a day of skiing. That's something we'll surely miss once we leave Japan. (Funny, you get used to the nudity - women are with women, men with men, so it's no biggie.) Bathers had two options: a basic rectangular pool facing a big picture window with mountain view, late afternoon sun streaming in; or the pool lined with big rocks, exposed to the open air, also facing the sunshine. I chose that one, because it put me within an arm's reach of the snow and the trees (there was some fencing for privacy, but if you stood up you could see a parking lot). Usually these baths are way too hot for me, but the rocky one, steaming against the chill of the outdoors, was manageable.

Hotel Astraea 
Tel: 023-694-9603
Note: Only few on staff speak limited English; best to have Japanese speaker make contact.
Zao Onsen Tourism Association Tel: 023-694-9328
Zao Ski School at Jupeer, Uenodai slope, Tel: 023-694-9381, English language lessons available

Tip for viewing the ice monsters: If you're not staying at Hotel Astraea and are coming from Yamagata station by car, you can park near the Zao Sanroku lift station, marked No. 1 on the resort map, and take that up to the Juhyo Kogen station, and on to the summit from there.

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