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Snow Monsters of Zao

樹氷 | Snow monsters

Frozen forests of trees twisted into phantasmagoric shapes

Photo by Wesley Keppel-Henry

Photo by Roger Smith

Photo by Roger Smith

Photo by Chayanit Chaweewannakorn

  • Every winter atop Mount Zao, entire forests of fir trees are transformed into otherworldly shapes. It is one of the few places in the world where just the right combination of snow, strong winds and low temperatures trap trees in layers of snow and ice to form “snow monsters.” The snow monsters typically start to appear sometime around mid-December, growing in number and size until around early March.

    On the Miyagi side of Mount Zao, seasoned local backcountry skiers and snowboarders carve past these snowy giants on their way down from Togatta Peak. For newcomers, M’s Guide offers backcountry snow-monster viewing tours by ski, snowboard, and snowshoe. For those wanting to see the snow monsters without the exertion, Sumikawa Snow Park offers snowcat vehicle tours.

    On the Yamagata side of Mount Zao, the Zao Ski Onsen Resort (蔵王温泉スキー場) features groomed runs that pass right through a forest of snow monsters. The ski resort also welcomes sightseers: simply ride the gondola up with the skiers and snowboarders. The gondola ride itself offers spectacular views of the snow monster forest below, and the area around the top of the gondola is an easily accessible spot where you can trapse around freely through the snow monsters. Free loaner boots are available near the exit at the top of the gondola. In the evenings during peak snow monster season, the ski resort illuminates the snow monsters in psychadelic colored lights.

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