Men among monsters in deep Yamagata

by Mark Thompson

When it comes to ski resorts, Japan has virtually everything you could want. For serious powder, there are the wonderlands of Niseko in Hokkaido or Hachimantai in Iwate. For those looking for Western-style apres-ski, there’s the posh Arai Mountain and Spa. And for the day-trippers from Tokyo, there are the clusters of resorts in Niigata while Osaka gets the alps of Nagano. And the greatest thing is the season can — heavens willing — last into April and beyond.

I’ve done my share of resort-hopping on the archipelago, but from the start, I had avoided one of the biggies — Yamagata Zao Onsen. Why? Simply because it was where everybody and their brother seemed to be going for their winter weekends away. I had always envisioned long lift lines and multiple pile-ups.

But when I received an invitation from two dyed-in-the-fleece Zao fans, a foreign couple who’ve been going to the resort for years, it was difficult to refuse. They offered not only to put me up in lodging a snowball’s throw from Uenodai Gondola station, on the resort’s west side, but also to give me the grand tour.

By the end of the two-day trip I felt like I’d covered much of the mountain, but in reality I’d probably only seen half. Zao is colossal — and complicated for a newbie. If it weren’t for the Zao vets leading the way, I would have surely lost my way in the labyrinth of chutes and ladders. Sans maps, my hosts knew not only how to get around smoothly but also where to go to for fresh powder, where to go to avoid traffic jams and, most importantly, where to get a bowl of soul-warming ramen (but I’ll get to that later).

The first day we were blessed with perfect weather. A thin carpet of dry powder had been spread on the slopes the night before and the sun shone through wisps of cloud cotton. After ascending on the gondola and a few more lifts, I found myself face to face with Zao’s prime attraction: the snow monsters, called juhyo in Japanese.

Juhyo aren’t merely snow-covered pines; these beautiful freaks of nature are born from Siberian winds that blow in from the Japan Sea and are then supercooled by the time they reach Zao. Great dollops of crystallized rain have piled onto the branches, creating fantastical shapes. A whole field of them is exquisitely surreal, like a huge Dali installation in white.

After getting an eyeful, I was led on a whirlwind tour of Zao’s highlights, from the gentle Paradise run to the faster Kurohime Super Giant course run in the east, and then back down through the maze of the western slopes.

I got a feel for the scale — and later learned how fickle winter weather can be on Zao. On the second day, a thick, white veil shrouded the mountaintop. Emerging from the cable car, I thought this must be what it would be like to ski on the ice caps of Mars. The snow monsters loomed in the mist, like giant alien sentinels. Later, when cloud cover lifted just slightly, I was treated to the sight from a lift of people schussing over the shadowless terrain. With the sound muffled, it was as if they were skiing on air.

Zao can be otherworldly, but there are a few realities that you should know about. The mountain used to be maintained by several companies, making the lift-ticket system a mess. It’s all under one umbrella now and you only need one lift pass, but a few flat spots between crucial lifts remain. They’re especially tough on boarders (that’s me), who have to unbuckle one foot and skate along.

Perhaps because of this, Zao is said to be more skier-friendly, but there is a hidden silver lining. While Zao doesn’t exactly promote this, the off-piste runs under the lifts and through the trees are full of luscious, untraveled powder. When I asked about the strictness of ski patrol, my hosts replied, “What ski patrol?” (Mind you, kids, use some sense and don’t do anything stupid.)

Another way to look on the bright side is that the numerous lifts (over 30) mean the crowds get well-distributed. As far as I could see, there weren’t any major bottle-necks — save the one for the cable cars.

The three ropeways, should you decide to use them, require reservations at specific times. On top of this, skiers and boarders have to share their space in these aerial tin cans with nonskiing tourists who travel all the way to the top just to snap shots of the snow monsters. The truth is, though, the ordinary lifts take you up far enough to enjoy the scenery. If you simply must see the tip-top at 1,600 meters, reserve early (and from the base you’ll have to make reservations for two cable cars).

Zao has a reputation for being old-fashioned, but for many that can be one of its charms — whether it’s the retro kitsch of the hotels or the enka on the loudspeakers (OK it’s not everywhere, but I did hear it on one course).

While there is some evidence of modernization, the villages hugging the resort’s base aren’t prefab; they’ve got roots, with many of the pensions and ryokan being family operations. In addition to being known for snow and juhyo, Zao has long been known for its sulfuric hot springs. The slightly acrid smell hits you as soon as you arrive. You’ve got dozens to choose from here; I dipped at Genshichi no Yu, where the snow around its outdoor bath is dramatically lit by purple and green lights.

The charm of Zao all came together for me in the Uenodai village. This is where you’ll find a little cafe serving mulled wine, with mellow jazz emanating from a homemade high-fidelity stereo. More importantly, this is where you’ll find Daichan Ramen. Painted in bright pink and with a sign shouting its name, you can’t miss it. The ramen is top-notch, but most folks return for the warmth of its owner, Masako Sakazume.

The two times I ate at Daichan’s, an eclectic group of characters — some locals, some visitors — was gathered there, chatting with Masako and her family. I even met a Kyushu-based neurosurgeon, who had fallen under Masako’s spell. She has that special something, just like Zao.

When driving back to Yamagata City, we passed through a giant torii at the base of the mountain. I was told you’re supposed to make a wish. I did. And hopefully I’ll be back soon to fulfill it.