I’ve always liked science fiction. My formative years were populated by the Daleks of Skaro, The Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, Cybermen, Vogons, Vulcans and a whole galaxy of others. In fact, I’d always considered myself no slouch when it comes to identifying alien life forms. Which was why, when my mate T enquired whether I’d ever seen The Snowmonsters of Zao, I was initially perplexed. Was that an episode of Doctor Who I’d somehow missed?
But no. Far from being a product of the fevered imagination of some 70’s BBC script writer, these monsters were real; not the denizens of a distant world circling some some far-flung star, but somewhere a little more accessible; Yamagata, in fact, a province in central Japan, a couple of hundred kilometers north of Tokyo. From what I could gather, the Snow Monsters of Zao, (in Japanese, Juhyou 樹氷) were pretty much a unique phenomenon to the area. Giant monoliths of snow and ice twisted into incredible shapes by the wind. The next day, I sat down to find out more about these mythical beasts of the icy slopes. What I discovered was fascinating.
The Snow Monsters are a particular kind of pine tree that crowd the slopes of Mt Zao, one of the more notable peaks of Japan’s rocky backbone that stretches the length of the central island of Honshu. Zao san (蔵王山) is one of the Hyakumeizan, the Hundred Famous Mountains of Japan and one of the more active volcanic peaks in Honshu. The vulcanism gives rise to plentiful natural hot springs, and it’s these that contribute to the formation of the Show Monsters. The water in these natural hot springs doesn’t freeze in winter, but gets picked up by the wind and deposited on the trees. As it cools in the bitter mountain air, ice crystals grow around the pine needles, thickening them. Snow, whipped-up by the winds blowing over the mountain ridges then gets deposited on the icy branches, eventually completely covering the tree to create bizarre giant “figures”; a sight every bit as surreal as anything the stoners of the BBC special effects department could dream up. T had mentioned that there was a trip being organised to go and see the Monsters before they were vanquished by the arrival of spring. This, I had to see…
At the appointed hour, I presented myself at the meeting place near Tokyo station to join my fellow monster-hunters. The group of about 16 was split into two people carriers. With introductions made and gear crammed into every available space, off we went, heading out of the city onto the expressway heading north. Due to the length of the drive, the plan was to stop off at a Super Sento in the city of Koriyama, about three quarters of the way to our destination. The Sento is a Japanese institution; a communal bathhouse that used to be (and still is in many rural areas) central to the local community. The place to relax with neighbours, catch up with the gossip and discuss the comings and goings of the town. An aquatic version of the British local pub, in fact. But with less beer. And more naked people. So, not really like the pub at all really. But anyway… Super Sentos take this idea of communal bathtime to a whole new level: spa pools, sauna, restaurants and bars – some of them even have mini-cinemas. Other esoteric treats include things like hot rock rooms, where you can lay down on heated rocks until you pass out from heat exhaustion. Ooo nice. Super Sento in Tokyo are like mini onsen resorts, beautifully laid out, impressively equipped with every convenience, immaculately clean and great fun.
Unfortunately, we weren’t in Tokyo.
Koriyama, it transpired, is to Tokyo what Scunthorpe High Street is to London’s West End. The arrival of two bus loads of foreigners at 11pm on a Friday night, was both unexpected and disorienting for the locals, most of whom appeared to be in a fairly advanced state of refreshment. A small group of us congregated in an upstairs lounge over tins of beer from the nearby vending machine. No sooner had we settled down, when a large group of local yahoos swarmed onto the next table. Thinly veiled jibes were aimed at the foreigners in their midst, until it was pointed out that many of us could understand Japanese. The spokesman for the group staggered over and slurred at us, and for a few tense moments, it looked like things could conceivably kick-off. But eventually they lost interest and drifted off back to their wives, leaving us – and the poor old guy on the floor behind us, who had valiantly tried to sleep through the whole encounter – in relative peace. We retired to the communal “sleeping room” to get some rest, along with about 40 other people. The symphony of nocturnal shuffling, snoring and farting reached a spectacular crescendo at about 3am when someone’s alarm clock went off. The owner appeared to have died earlier that evening, because the alarm continued to ring long after everyone else in the building had been woken, until, at last, depleted battery bought merciful relief.
Somewhat shell-shocked, our bleary-eyed group gathered in the foyer at 6.30am to crawl back into the cars for the final push to the resort town of Zao. A couple of hours later,we pulled off the highway. The mountains that had fringed the horizon for the last leg now started to fill the windows as we climbed through the first traces of snow. Pretty soon,we arrived in the little town of Zao. Bags were dumped at the mountain lodge and everyone kitted-up quickly, eager to get out and experience the mountain scenery.
Zao is a town built on winter sports. There are several ski resorts around the foot of the mountain, plus chair lifts and a cable car serving the various pistes. In the town itself, numerous natural onsen and the ever-present whiff of sulphur remind the visitor of the dynamic nature of the landscape we were about to venture into. Mt Zao is a complex volcanic group consisting of several peaks. At the centre is a spectacular 360m wide crater lake named Okama (御釜), formed by an eruption around 400 years ago. Zao is one of the most active volcanoes in Honshu, which last erupted in the 1940’s. Recently, it has shown signs of stirring, prompting the Japan Geological Survey to raise and relax its alert level twice last year as a precaution.
The group divided into skiers and snowshoe-ers and by 10am or so, pausing briefly to visit the ubiquitous Family Mart for supplies, our team of intrepid hikers was ready for its ascent, which began at the Zao Liza ski resort. Two chairlifts later, it was time for the snow shoes and our adventure began in earnest. The terrain starts out pretty flat, giving snow shoe novices such as myself plenty of driving practice before tackling the ascent proper. I found walking in the shoes much easier than I had been led to expect, and our little party made quick progress out onto the wide snowfields. The encounter with the Snow Monsters is a gradual one; at first it’s just snowy woodland. Then you spot an odd shaped snow-covered tree. Then, as if by magic, you suddenly find yourself in a completely alien landscape and it is breathtaking. Our progress slowed as we began to take in what we were seeing – a quite unique place, unlike anywhere I’ve been before. Up close, the Monsters look almost organic. Imagine Godzilla attacked with the world’s biggest can of squirty cream, and then flash-frozen. Hold that mental image. Then imagine hundreds of them frozen in mid-rampage across the mountainside. A truly remarkable sight, made all the more wonderful by the azure-blue skies and pristine silence. Sometimes in life you encounter moments when the beauty of this Pale Blue Dot we call home just blows you away. This was one of those moments.
After a while, we moved beyond the field of Snow Monsters and the slope steepened, signalling the start of the climb to the outer crater rim of Zao san. Marching across the snowscape were the pylons of a disused chairlift; the same processes that formed the snow monsters had transformed the pylons into muscular icy titans, standing with arms outstretched in a line up the mountain side. Following from one to the next, we gradually worked our way up to the crater rim. The deep snow gave way to icy scree and the snow shoes suddenly felt ungainly and awkward as we clattered across the broken ground to catch sight of Okama.
Like the Snow Monsters, the view into the crater of Zao san is – for us Brits at least – like looking at another world. The lake, strongly acidic, appears to change colour depending on the weather and for this reason is sometimes known as “5 Colour Lake”. The lake is half-framed by the remnants of a historic lava dome, blown apart in a violent explosion at some time in the mountain’s tortured past. Now frozen and its scars softened by a blanket of deep snow, the crater presented us with a more serene aspect. Off to our right lay the peak of Mt Katta, and beyond, its jinja, which was our destination for today.
After pausing to take in the impressive scenery, we made our way up the short slope to the 1787m summit crowned by a Jinja shrine. Incidentally, a lot of people get a bit confused by the different suffixes the Japanese give their mountain names. For example san, as in Fuji san, dake or take as in Yatsugatake and yama as in Gozenyama. The kanji symbol 山 can be read as san, dake or yama – all meaning “mountain”. San denotes a mountain with religious significance in the Shinto faith; of the two secular suffixes, dake refers to a rocky summit, while yama implies a wooded or bare summit.
Fifteen minutes later, we were grouped around to grab a bite to eat and to contemplate again the view across the crater floor. Across to our left, at the highest point of the crater wall was the “official” summit of Zao san, at 1840m. Our original plan had been to tackle this peak the next day. However the weather forecast did not look promising, with the prospect of rain. So at T’s suggestion, we discussed whether we should cut short our lunch and make a dash for the peak that afternoon to enjoy the glorious weather while it lasted. We decided to go for it. Food was hurriedly jammed down and within ten minutes we were once again on our way, retracing our steps around the crater rim before heading over a ridge and across luscious, virginal snow fields bathed in brilliant clean sunshine.
A short but focussed drive bought us to the top, where we all officially bagged one of the Hyakumeizan – actually my first. The snow, wind and ice had also worked their magic here, encasing the jinja in a carapace of wind-blown ice. Quite incredible. After pausing for a few pictures, we headed off for the return down the mountain via a different route. Heading down the steep snow slopes, it wasn’t a question of if you were going to slip, but when. But with the pristine powder snow providing a feather-bed landing, sliding down the hillside on your butt was – for once – highly entertaining. On setting off we’d each been issued with a plastic “sled” – more like a small dustbin lid – and a couple of members of the group switched to this mode of transport while the rest of us picked our way carefully along a cornice-lined ridge before descending back into the field of Snow Monsters.
At around this time I became aware of some discomfort on my heels. My new boots purchased back in the UK some weeks before, had proved not quite as comfortable as my many short test hikes had promised. I could feel the blisters forming. By the time we’d got halfway back down the piste, the discomfort was such that I threw dignity to the wind, stowed my snow shoes and hiking poles and made use of the sled, arriving at the ski lodge horizontally in an ungainly flurry of snow and splayed limbs.
Back in Zao and reunited with our skiing friends, thoughts turned to the evening’s relaxation. Everyone headed out to one of the many local onsen. I, along with most of the others, chose the swankiest-looking place on the main street and we weren’t disappointed. Great outdoor pools gave everyone a chance to sooth tired limbs, watching the steam rise wisp-like towards the darkening sky and the first stars of evening. Pretty soon only one thought occupied everyone’s mind. Alcohol.
To be continued….