The Snow Monsters of Mount Zao

Mount Zaō is a complex volcano on the border between Yamagata Prefecture and Miyagi Prefecture in Japan. At its base is the town of Zaō-Onsen.

As a volcanic group, Mount Zaō is predominantly formed by stratovolcanoes, but also by lava domes and tuff cones. There are numerous reports of volcanic eruptions from historical times, dating back to the 8th century AD. Most of these eruptions originated from Okama, a crater containing a lake with highly acidic water.

The highest point is the lava dome Kumano with 1841 meters. It is located in the Yamagata Zaō Onsen ski resort, with the Zaō ski jump used for international competitions.

Skiing, swimming and admiring snow monsters in Zaō

Ski Resort of Zao
Ski Resort of Zao
Zao Onsen in Autumn
Aerial view of the scenic cable car flying over the beautiful autumn valley of Zao Onsen

Zaō Onsen (蔵王温泉) is a Japanese hot spring resort located on Mount Zaō in the northern part of Honshū, the main island of Japan. At the same time, it is one of Japan’s Best and largest ski resorts.

The first records of the use of these springs date back to 110 A.D. A warrior wounded by an arrow was said to have miraculously healed his wound after bathing in these waters.

The Springs of Zaō Onsen are sulfurous and, therefore, smelly, resulting in a low number of visitors by clueless tourists.

Although Zaō Mountain straddles Yamagata Prefecture and Miyagi Prefecture, the town where Zaō Onsen is located was recently annexed to Yamagata City.

Zaō Onsen is accessible via the Tōhoku Highway.

Meanwhile, the real spectacle is the unique winter landscape:

Meant are the coniferous trees on the slopes of Mount Zaō, which in winter are covered by a thick layer of snow.

Snow-white structures that are reminiscent of alien beings and therefore are often referred to as “snow monsters.”

Who are the Snow Monsters of Zaō?

This is the name given to the trees on Mount Zaō in winter, when they are covered by multiple layers of snow that give them the shape of monstrous figures.  The correct term for the snow monsters is “Juhyō,” which literally means “tree ice” in Japanese.

It is special climatic conditions that make this natural phenomenon possible. A ride on the gondola allows one a bird’s eye view of this impressive snowy landscape, which reaches its peak each February.

First described in 1914, the “ice monsters” rose to worldwide fame after the famous German director Arnold Fanck made a documentary film about the Icy Trees of the Zaō in 1935.

Trees frozen over in the manner of “ice monsters” are known only from the Zaō in Yamagata and do not occur on Mount Fuji or in the Japanese Alps.

The reason for this is the unique wind conditions, vegetation, and average height of the snowpack at the Zaō, which allow the formation of the “ice monsters.”

Moisture from the air masses coming from Russia sticks to the Zaō and freezes to the trees.1

A unique weather condition forms the Zao Juhyo (Snow Monster). Seasonal winds from Siberia collect moisture from the Sea of Japan, which adheres to the Aomori white firs and freezes there.

It is a magnificent and delicate natural artwork created from the intertwining of ice and snow. From the cable car, you can enjoy the view of the vast area with Juhyo or see it illuminated at night.

Amazing Images - Ice Monsters In Zao

What to do in Zaō Onsen

Sking in Zaō Onsen

Cable Car Mount Zao
Zao Snow Resort in 4K

The large-scale Zaõ Onsen Ski Resort between Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures has 38 ski lifts (including three gondola lifts) serving a total of 14 ski slopes and 12 ski routes – open from late December to late April.

Thanks to first-class snow quality and enormously versatile slopes, everyone from beginners to seasoned winter sports enthusiasts will get their money’s worth here. Dozens of ski lifts, a few cable cars and a gondola take you to slopes for beginners, intermediate or advanced skiers.

The famous snow monsters of Zaõ – called Juhyo – await you near the top of the slope

Cold Siberian wind freezes the ice on the trees, on top of which the snow gathers into bizarre shapes that can be found only in a few places in the world.

A slalom run on skis or snowboard through the impressive icy trees is one of the unforgettable experiences at Zaõ Onsen.

However, you don’t have to master the descent on skis to experience the snow monsters, as the cable car will also take you back down.

After a day on the slopes, relax in one of the town’s many hot springs and admire the fantastically illuminated sight at night.

The Ski Resort of Zao has many small hotels, restaurants and souvenir stores but still has the charm of a small Onsen Bathing Resort.

Hiking in Zaō Onsen

Mount Zaō during the Japanese cherry blossom
Mount Zaō during the Japanese Cherry blossom

For those who prefer to visit a green landscape with lush vegetation, there are also great hiking routes in Zao Onsen. Especially the hike to Zao Okama Crater is very spectacular!

Actually, Mount Zaō is not a single mountain but a whole mountain range of Volcanic Peaks that form the Zaō Quasi-National Park.

The Zaō Quasi-National Park was established in 1963 and covers an area of almost 400 square kilometers. The national park consists of the three areas – Zaō North, Zaō Middle and Zaō South.

The main hiking area is in Zaō Chuo (Zaō Middle), where Kumano Peak and Okama Crater Lake can be found.

Hiking trip to Okama crater lake

Okama is a crater lake with a circumference of 1,000 meters and a depth of 27 meters. It is also known as “Goshikinuma” – The Lake of Five Colors.

The colors of the water surface are changing dramatically due to the intensity of light – Lake Okama is a famous sight that is representative of Zao.

Visitors enjoy the view of alpine plants in summer and the beautiful colors of autumn leaves from September to November.

When the road leading to the summit opens towards the end of April, there are snow walls about 10 meters high on both sides of the road.

For the athletically ambitious, the hike from Zaō Onsen to this crater lake, located at an altitude of 1,700 m on the Zaō volcano, is an absolute must. Its name Okama alludes to its circular shape.

It is also called the “Five-Color Lake” because it’s acidic and clear – often emerald green water can change color several times a day, depending on the sunlight and the season.

The lake was formed after an eruption of Zaō in the 18th century. The water is so acidic that no organism can live in it.

Map of the Region around Mout Zaō – Zaō Onsen Ski resort and the Mout Zaō Loop Hiking Trail to the Okama Crater Lake. ↑
Download GPS Data for the Mout Zaō Loop Hiking Trail


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The thermal springs of Zaō Onsen

While Mount Zaõ attracts many ski junkies and snow monster hunters in the winter, the countless natural hot springs in the area draw just as many visitors to the small town on Mount Zaõ.

Arround Mount Zaõ you will find five different underground springs and forty-seven individual hot springs. These springs are also known as “Springs of Beauty” because their water stimulates blood circulation, has antimicrobial properties, and has a rejuvenating effect on the skin and blood vessels.

While Onsen devotees praise the springs as medicinally effective for everything from skin conditions to “weak children,” they are undoubtedly a true soul-soother.

As the news about the healing effect of  the hot sulfur water springs attracted many visitors, the town built around them grew more and more. The first locally operated ski lift began operation in 1950, followed by other developments such as cable cars and roads.

Today, the area is one of the largest mountain resorts in the Tohoku region. Even if you are not staying at one of the spa hotels, you can still take advantage of the local waters: Three public baths, three foot-baths, and five spa hotels whose bathing facilities are open to the public await you in the city’s hot springs district.

The Zao Onsen hot springs may have been discovered as early as 110 AD when wandering Samurai passing through the area discovered a warm stream flowing through the forest.

The Samurai traced the stream back to its source in the heart of what is now the village of Zao Onsen, where the Kawarayu public bathhouse is located today.

Volcanic activity deep inside the mountain fuels these springs, and you can still see traces of the last major eruption from the 18th century, which created Zao Crater Lake.

Zao Onsen, Yamagata | Japan Travel Guide
Hot Springs of Zao Onsen with their Sulfur Water

Perhaps you are also interested about the Climate Change in the Himalayas and why nomadic culture is at risk! 

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  1. https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jsse1986/5/2/5_2_23/_article/-char/ja/
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