The Ice Monsters Cometh

Posted by on Oct 1, 2011 in Travel Volunteer Journey, Yamagata | 2 Comments
The Ice Monsters Cometh

In a mountain town in Yamagata, people go about their daily lives as if everything is normal. Men repair potholes; women linger in shops, waiting for customers; mile after mile of soba is served in little restaurants. No one seems worried by what’s to come, and yet they know – they must know – what lies ahead.

Around three months from now, the high slopes of Mount Zao will be overrun by terrifying creatures twice the size of a man, for this is the land of the Ice Monsters.

OK so they might only be trees with snowy coats on, but around here the monsters are big business – it’s possible to ski through these weird natural sculptures, and if you’re not steady enough on your feet for that, there are all kinds of mini-treks and photo opportunities at higher ground.

We took a ski lift to the top of the mountain to see if we could find any, but of course it’s far too early in the year. We did at least experience the fierce wind that creates the monsters in the first place, which soon sent us scrambling into the mountain-top café for a warm latte.

It’s that wind, quickly blowing moisture up from the valley, that is key to the monsters, but with rising temperatures around the globe there’s a worry that their icy domain my disappear altogether. Already, they’re said to have retreated 200m up the mountain in the last 80 years. The most apocalypic predictions say they they could be gone altogether by 2050 – so if you want to see them, you’d better get a move on.

There’s something vaguely sad about seasonal towns before the time is right. For islands and ski resorts around the world the off-season can be a slog, downtime in which all repairs and renovations must happen before the tourists flood back.

But Zao Onsen has a major advantage – and with a name like that, there’s no prizes for guessing what it might be. On driving into the town, visitors are struck by a pungent smell. After some accusing looks around the car to see who is the culprit, it will become clear that it is the town itself that reeks.

Zao Onsen is home to one of the hottest most plentiful and sulphurous hot springs in the country. The mountain spills its steaming guts all through the streets, with small streams eking their way through buildings and under bridges, spinning waterwheels as they go. Every other street corner has a natural foot spa, free to use. Naturally, all of the hotels and ryokans make the most of it too and provide ample opportunities to get naked with your fellow man.

The water is abnormal, with a ridiculously low pH. This stuff is more acidic than lemon juice – dead skin cells (and some living ones) don’t stand a chance. Monsters or snow monsters*, there’s little chance of it disappearing soon.



Our time in Yamagata prefecture was made possible by:

The Tsukioka Hotel in Kaminoyama, which gave us perhaps the biggest rooms we’ve ever stayed in, as well as laying on a great onsen and traditional dinner.

Naoki Edamatsu and Toichi Yamaguchi, who did their level best with trying to speak to us in English and taught us a lot about Kaminoyama, konnyaku and Yamagata sake (not all at the same time).

Our friend Miho Katagiri who we confused with some of the English language’s more unusual collective nouns, and who did a flawless job translating for us. Oh and she stopped us from missing the bullet train to Fukushima too.

The warm and welcoming Association of Zao Hot Springs Tourism who did everything right except control the weather. We won’t hold that against them, though.

And the fabulously hospitable Chigusa Sato Nolen of the Yoshidaya Ryokan who understands that sometimes all a person wants for breakfast is a bowl of cereal, a slice of enormous fluffy toast and a good cup of coffee.



今から3ヶ月でここ蔵王は人間の2倍もある大きな創造物に覆われる - まさに氷の怪獣(樹氷)だ。














  1. philip brian okoth
    October 3, 2011

    japan sounds amazing. must visit it sometime in the future

  2. Rachel
    November 8, 2011

    I loved Zao onsen. I went there in Spring 2009. Everyone was super friendly despite my extreme lack of Japanese skills. The Dewa Sanzan (though I only made it to birth) was really nice too.