There are ‘snow monsters’ who can help save Tohoku

by Christopher Johnson

Special To The Japan Times

Yes, it’s true. Spending some money on skiing among snow monsters and soaking in hot-spring baths is a good way to help the Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu recover from the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, the terrible tsunami it triggered and the ongoing nuclear crisis that followed.

Dating back 1,900 years, Zao Onsen, in Yamagata Prefecture, has a snowscape that is unique among the winter climes of planet Earth. Even if you don’t ski, it’s worth going there just to take a series of lifts and gondolas to the apex of the mountain and see the “snow monsters” — Aomori firs caked with snow and ice formed by a magical mix of winds and the right temperatures.

It really is special. It’s indeed one of the natural wonders of the Japanese world. The business card of Zao Onsen Tourism Association Director Yutaka Onuma says: “Traditional hot springs for more than 1,900 years.”

A visit to Zao Onsen should be on the winter itinerary of every tourist in Japan, right up there with Mount Fuji and the temples of Nikko, Nara and Kyoto.

Yet during my visit on a stunningly sunny Wednesday in mid-March, there was almost nobody there, and my guide and I often had slopes to ourselves. Somehow, people were too busy doing other things — working, playing video games, studying — to enjoy the finest winter attire of Mother Japan.

“Many people in Tokyo forget that we are here,” says Mao Ojima, a former ski-racer who now runs her family’s Lodge Scole at the foot of the Zao ski resort. “They are too busy on the Internet on their cell phones. But we are so close, and it’s so easy to get here.”

And really it isn’t far at all. Waking up at 6 a.m. in Tokyo, I could take the shinkansen to Yamagata Station, then a 40-minute bus ride, and be skiing on the slopes by 1 p.m. — at one of the most striking winter wonderlands in the world.

High up at the end of a winding mountain road, the little Zao village reeks with sulphur that makes your skin sing and your hair shine after an hour in the soothing outdoor hot springs.

The ski resort, among the oldest in Japan, features dobs of deep white fluffy stuff on funky firs and some of the deepest, freshest powder runs anywhere — even in mid-March.

On a clear day, you can see Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures to the east, and Niigata and Akita prefectures, along with the Sea of Japan, to the west. It feels like you are an old-time daimyo lord, standing on top of Tohoku, presiding over your fiefdoms below.

In the distance, the mountains and hills look like paintings, with brushstrokes of trees dotting slopes and dollops of white snow splattered on ridges, akin to scenes in the European Alps or North American Rockies.

A series of four gondolas and 35 lifts, owned and run by various companies who somehow cobble it all together, sprawl across a 300-hectare ski area on three faces of the mountain range. This means that if clouds or blizzards blight one face, you can often find sunlight on another.

Though confusing at times, there’s a wide variety of runs to suit various levels of skiers and boarders, and you can ski for 10 km continuously, if your knees can handle the burn. With so many runs, it’s best to hire the delightful Ojima or one of her friends to show you the way at first.

Zao’s most famous run is at the very top. The scenery here is so spectacular, many non-skiers take the lifts and gondolas just to enjoy it and take photos of the snow monsters. Even though the monsters were partially melted during my visit, I was struck by how playful and imaginative Mother Nature can be in creating shapes and images out of nothing but snow and trees.

Many ski resorts have beautiful forests and fields of snow, but there’s really nothing anywhere like this. Even Ojima, who has been skiing here her whole life, is still amazed at the breathtaking beauty of this heavenly place.

From the top, we ski through a narrow tunnel between these icy monsters, stopping for photos and to take in jaw-dropping scenes along the way. Ojima speeds down a steep slope and hits the brakes, kicking up a powder storm of snow. We cascade down the mountain, overlooking the town below and much of northeastern Japan. We hoot and holler and smile at the thought that we are here, and nowhere else.

Ojima, who also runs businesses from her base in Meguro Ward in Tokyo, says she spends half the year hosting foreigners at her family’s hotel, named Lodge Scole, as in Latin for “school.”

During their honeymoon in Europe about 40 years ago, Ojima’s parents, Sho and Sachiko, got the idea of building a Swiss-style ski lodge at the foot of the Zao ski lifts.

They enlisted Masahiro Ono, a member of an architectural firm that would later design the Hillside Terrace complex in Tokyo’s Daikanyama, to create a modern structure with the traditional flair of wooden ceilings and railings.

One of the coziest abodes in the region, Lodge Scole oozes with warmth, charm and a family familiarity. Smoke from a fireplace fills the open-concept dining room with a woodsy aroma, and it’s a great place to lay back on cushions, hang out, make friends, tell stories — and try a sample set of three glasses of three types of delicious Yamagata sake for the low price of ¥700. (For research purposes, I felt I ought.)

Years ago, the family planted five little momi (fir) trees that are now adults caked in snow, and a sign out front says “Dogs Welcome.”

Ojima claims she’s the first resort-owner in the area to actively welcome folks with dogs — for an extra ¥1,000 per dog, per night. Pictures of the family’s sheepdogs grace walls where others might put religious images. As a single mother of a 4-year-old boy who can already ski like a future Olympian, Ojima also has special rates for single parents.

Ojima, who studied English while living in Oxford, England, receives many foreign customers through her website: www.lodgescole.com

You won’t feel like a foreigner here. A favorite of skiers from as far away as Australia and Brazil, Lodge Scole is steeped in true Tohoku traditions of hospitality. Ojima says that a British TV crew stayed there, high up in the mountains, while covering the tsunami disaster down on the coast after March 11.

With 12 rooms for a maximum of 40 guests, Lodge Scole is just the right size for intimacy, and there’s Wi-Fi in the main room and a nice little hot-spring bath in the basement.

As well, the hearty homemade meals couldn’t be better. For the set-menu dinner, Ojima’s mother made us tender juicy saboten (cactus), smoked tai (sea bream)sashimi, batter-fried renkon (lotus root) and oysters, and a bitter and spicy mix of pork, cabbage and nasu (egg plant). Another night’s dinner was blessed with healthy doses of tofu prepared in different ways. After an exhilarating day of skiing, food never tastes better.

There’s also a good selection of restaurants in the area, as well as indoor and outdoor hot springs. At the bottom of the slope, Lodge Izawa serves a hearty lunch of Yamagata’s famed soba or ramen to warm you up. Up a hill above the ancient main street, Genshichi-no-yu’s outdoor hot springs were so good, I went after my daytime runs and before a few hours of night skiing.

If you plan on staying for a few days or longer, as many guests do, check out concerts, art exhibitions and other events at the Ojima family’s award-winning performance space in an ancient kura (warehouse) in Yamagata City. (For further details, visit www.ojisho.com/2010kura_web/kuraindexe.html.

It all makes for a great escape from the cell-phone world of urban Japan — without having to leave the country.

And it helps to fuel a rural economy in a part of Japan that truly needs it.

A longtime journalist and aficionado of skiing in Japan, Christopher Johnson’s new novel, “Kobe Blue,” can be found on amazon.com.