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Still not too late to trailblaze Zao : ‘Snow monsters,’ hot springs and lush, powdery slopes are among the attractions available

Feb 27,2018
So-called snow monsters, made by snow that piles up against trees due to strong winds atop high mountains, are easily seen at Zao Ski Resort in Yamagata Prefecture, Japan. [TRAVEL WRITER KIM SAN-HWAN]
One of the thrills many skiers find at Zao Ski Resort is trailblazing, left. Some forests are often sought by experienced skiers looking for a challenge. Zao is also known for its hot springs and some hotels, like Waldberg, have outdoor hot springs where skiers can rest their muscles after a hard day of skiing. [TRAVEL WRITER KIM SAN-HWAN]
Above: Two “Snow monsters” at Lovers’ Sanctuary, on top of Zao Ski Resort, take on many forms. Some look like sheep while others look like roosters. Below: Skiers slide down slopes at Zao Ski Resort, where many go alone thanks to an abundance of slopes - over 17 in all. [LEE SUN-MIN]
YAMAGATA PREFECTURE, Japan - Ice sculptures of dragons or horses may often be seen at parties and events in the city, but snow sculptures are less common. High in the mountains, however, all types of snow art lie waiting to be seen at Zao Ski Resort in the Yamagata Prefecture.

Known in English as “snow monsters,” juhyo, or “tree ice,” consists of chunks of snow that cover up trees layer by layer for days and weeks on top of mountains.

This scene, rarely seen in Korea, draws curious visitors to the town each winter. It is also popular among local Japanese travelers. As a result, the ski resort operators showcase these unusual forms by lighting up the slopes at night.

At first glance, these snow monsters look like a fat tree trunk has merely been hidden beneath a thin layer of snow.

Some snow monsters look like horses and many visitors even mount them to take a photo, as the snow has hardened enough to hold a person’s weight. Other snow monsters look like roosters, or rabbits ready to jump away.

It all depends on how much one uses their imagination. It might look like you are surrounded by snow pirates chasing you, or it might look like you are with a group of villagers who are ready to break into dance.

One place, called Lovers’ Sanctuary, is widely known as a snow monster hotspot among local Japanese. But make sure to go up immediately after sunrise, as the weather near the top changes hourly. On a clear day, visitors can see a variety of snow monsters from a good distance.

Seeing these snow monsters at night is also possible, thanks to the resort lights. The lights are operated from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. every day. The last cable car to the top of the mountain leaves at 7:50 p.m. The nighttime lights will stay on until March 10.

Those who are not yet ready to welcome spring as temperatures are slowly going up in Korea can continue making snow angels in Japan, where the mountains remain blanketed in white as late as early May.

The Japanese National Tourism Organization, which recently invited members of the Korean media to Zao, has been promoting many ski destinations outside the well-known northernmost islands such as Hokkaido.

Many slopes and courses are available, with 17 being listed on the Zao Ski Resort website, as well as three cable cars.

It takes more than one day to ski each and every slope, so it’s best to go for at least a weekend.

If you hit the slopes early, there is a high chance you will be the first one to touch snow on some slopes. Even during the day, you will often find yourself going down alone on a slope, especially during weekdays.

The cable cars are where you’re likely to find a crowd - and lines. But here in Japan, lifts wait for people to get on instead of people waiting for their turn to get on a lift.

Besides rare snow monsters and a selection of slopes to choose from, there is also the thrill of trailblazing. Skiing off-slope through dense forests is a sought-after experience by skiers and snowboarders alike.

While trailblazing, skiers and snowboarders have to focus much more on making turns as they maneuver around trees and rip through waist-high powder. Such runs can be dangerous but here the tree are spaced out enough to make the ride a pleasure cruise.

But while talented skiers and snowboarders trailblaze for an added thrill, the easy slopes are almost too perfect for beginners. It snows almost every day on these slopes, making them full of powder and easy to ride. This helps beginners control their speed easily and minimize injury even when they fall down.

While all the ski resorts in Korea also run hotels and resorts for those looking to stay overnight, in Zao, ski slope operators do not necessarily run lodging options. Instead, it is up to visitors to choose from hotels like Oomiya Ryokan, located close to the town’s main bus terminal, for quick access in and out of the town, or Waldberg, which is close to the slopes.

While Oomiya is one of the oldest Japanese-style hotels, or ryokan, in a town with a history of about 1,000 years, Waldberg allows visitors to simply put on their gear and hit the snow within seconds. It’s also one of the few hotels to have outdoor hot springs.

Zao is also known for its onsen, or hot springs. Thanks to the pipes that carry hot water underground from one side of the town to the other, many roads remain free of snow.

Whenever you spot steam coming from under the road, that means you are on the right track to finding either a public bath or a hotel with hot springs.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

To get to Zao Ski Resort in Yamagata Prefecture, fly into Sendai Airport. Asiana Airline flies to Sendai every day. During the ski season, a shuttle from the airport to Zao is available. It takes about one hour and 30 minutes one way. Packaged tours found at ilbonski.com include airline tickets, hotels, breakfasts, dinners, daily lifts, transportation from the airport to Zao and travel insurance. Packages for three-day trips start from 595,000 won ($553), or you can go book separately at each website. For more information about activities in Zao, go to www.zao-spa.or.jp or www.jnto.go.jp.