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On the way to Yamagata
The temperature hovers around 2c as we drive along the Niigata coast in our rental car, switching from one expressway to another as we travel northeast. As the road distances itself from the Sea of Japan the rain turns to sleet and snow, then back to rain again as the influence of the ocean is felt.
The main routes to Yamagata City are on the shinkansen or the expressways from Tokyo. We're taking this back route as we're returning to Niigata Prefecture for the second part of this trip.
|Zao Onsen village from Ryuzan Slope|
Its dark as we make our way up out of the valley on the winding road to Zao Onsen. Our hot springs hotel, Tsuruya, is warm and welcoming, in traditional style.
Our tatami-floored room is spacious and comfortable, although I can't help bumping my head on the beams each day!
This famous hot springs town sits perched on one side of impressive Mt Zao (pronounced zawo rather than zow) at about 700 metres altitude. The room in the inn is perfectly positioned with great views into the valley below as well as across the little spa town to the ski slopes.
The onsen at Zao Onsen are notoriously acidic with a very low pH around and about 1 ... so visitors taking to the waters are warned to remove jewellery!
The two onsen in the town are more impressive.
One is a modern facility - called Shinzaemon no Yu - with indoor and outdoor pools of differing temperature in an attractive setting. There are also rotenburo tubs with water pouring from a pipe above your head.
The other is a smaller, older onsen near the ski slopes called, I think, Kamiyu. This one is basic but it is incredibly pretty at night with the trees surrounding the outdoor pools all lit up. But the air is so cold my wet hair begins to freeze!
The town is quaint and consists of narrow lanes filled with inns, restaurants, bars and a few shops. Its very quiet this week as we arrive just after a long holiday weekend. People are very surprised to see us ... but they are very welcoming!
|The clouds clear enough to see the Ropeway top station for a moment|
Altitude - 780-1661m
Lifts - 26
Runs - 41
Snow Depth - 170/100cms
The ski grounds at Zao Onsen rise up above three sides of the town. Two huge ropeways - cable cars that carry up to 30 people - are the most popular way to get from the town to the slopes.
Another gondola lift provides an alternative, as do the many other four- and two-seater ski lifts around the place.
The lower slopes at Zao allow you to ski back to town and one of the good things about Zao Onsen compared to some other Japanese ski resorts is that you can - with a bit of knowledge and experimenting - get around the entire place without having to walk or catch a bus.
There are really eight or nine separate but connected areas and you could spend all day in one of them if you wanted.
The snow falling before our arrival set us up nicely for our stay and it was to snow on and off throughout the five days.
The first day was spent exploring to scout out the best places to ski, made difficult by a white-out above about 1,000m as the air from the Sea of Japan turned into clouds that streamed up Mt Zao.
We learned that on days like these the lower slopes were the place to be - especially when the higher areas were registering temperatures of -10c to -17c. Yes ... this can be one very cold place. A European lodge-style restaurant up in the Chuo area had a heater that appeared to be more like a jet engine blasting fire at cold bodies!
|The village from Kurohime|
These two favourite areas offered some steeper ungroomed runs, lovely groomers with great snow for fast turns, and some gentle tree skiing.
Each night after our onsen we would wander around the quiet town and find another little izakaya to try, along with some nihonshu (sake).
Each day when the cloud looked like lifting for the first time, we got excited and rushed to the cable cars to get up high. If you brave the cold and fog to get to the top then you can ski or ride continuously down from the top station for 6 kilometres!
Zao is famous for its "snow monsters", a particular type of conifer tree that collects ice and snow from that persistent air flow from Siberia and takes the form of strangely-shaped creatures stuck in snowy poses!
To get to the snow monsters you need to take a second cable car from the top station up to 1661m. To be honest, we didn't really get a good view of them in their oft-photographed glory - it was either too cold and we were rushing down the run to warm up again, or it was too foggy!
One of the good features of a ski holiday at Zao Onsen is that you can easily head on down from the mountain for some sightseeing for half a day here and there.
The winding drive down from Zao Onsen takes only about half an hour, and nearby Yamagata and Yamadera in particular are well worth a visit.
Yamagata is a bustling city of some 250,000 residents - large enough to have some interesting sights and some good restaurants and shops. A wander around town takes in the Ka-Jo castle park area with its moats and castle walls, although the attractive shell is all that is now left of the fifteenth century castle.
Surprisingly the sun comes out just in time for some nice pictures - blue skies contrasting with the overnight snow resting serenely in the tree branches and on the castle walls. The snow starts again soon afterwards.
Those interested in art and culture would like to pay the Yamagata Museum of Art a visit. This little art museum punches well above its weight thanks to a program of investment in French paintings during the 80s and 90s. There are original works by Manet, Degas, Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Chagall and Cezanne.
A short drive back up the mountain means an early evening onsen followed by nihonshu and tasty food at an izakaya in the snowy streets of Zao Onsen, the perfect preparation for another day's skiing!
Another side trip from Zao Onsen not to be missed is the quick and easy journey to Yamadera, an incredibly atmospheric scenic place - a great trip to make for some time out from skiing!
When you head into Yamagata City from Zao Onsen its not long until you turn off away from the city again into the hills.
Granted, you pass through some fairly average commercial areas including a motel shaped like a flying saucer! But this is the price you pay to get to see some authentic Japanese culture!
Yamadera, meaning "mountain temple", is home to Risshaku-ji, a famous area of shrines and temples that was originally founded in the year 860.
The temple buildings cling precariously to the mountain hillsides making for a particularly spectacular viewing in winter ... a viewing unusual to many Japanese who would mainly visit here during the summer months when there is no snow.
We park our rental car at the base of the mountain in a small, snowy town ... there is absolutely nobody there at this time of year.
The famous Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho visited Risshaku-ji Temple in 1689 and wrote this poem: "Stillness/the cicada's cry/drills into the rocks".
The view from the top is awe-inspiring.
Click here for more pictures of Yamagata and Yamadera. Its worth checking them out if your interest has been piqued by the few pictures I have attached to this post.