Zao Snow Monsters – On A Volcano in Japan

By Abi King | Japan

Feb 21

Zao Snow Monsters lit by moon in Yamagata, Tohoku, Japan


The Snow Monsters of Zao

A legend. A volcano. A full moon and swirling, falling snow. The cable car creaks through the night sky to reach the peak of the Zao volcano in the snowy winter of Tohoku in Japan. At this point, I feel I should throw in the solitary howl of a wolf in the distance, silhouetted against the watchful eye of the full moon.

Well, it’s almost true. The throbbing full moon casts its glow across the frozen landscape, but instead of strangled cries followed by silence, I hear happy chatter and the promise of hot chocolate. Zao may well be a volcano with centuries of stories, but in its 21st century reincarnation, it’s also a buzzing ski resort.

Night-lit snowboarders swoop and swerve beneath the floodlights and back in the gondola eyes grow wide as we contemplate the 38 degree mogul field known as “the Wall.” Although I love to ski and snowboard, that’s not why I’m here.

I’m here to find Zao’s Snow Monsters.

Zao Snow Monsters stretching over hill, Yamagata, Japan, Zao Onsen Resort

Zao Snow Monsters: Beaten by Nature


Searching for Snow Monsters in Zao

I’m thousands of miles from home, suspended in the night sky of Yamagata, watching the snow fall and fall. In Europe, snow covers pine trees evenly, as though nature took a stash of icing sugar and ran it through a tightly meshed sieve. Here in Japan, snow breaks away from dead branches, leaving clumps of snowy cotton balls trapped in a wooden net. I suppose it’s these differences that explain the creatures that live on Zao’s peak.

These differences explain the creatures that live on Zao’s peak

I saw my first one long before the summit, though – and snow monsters don’t hunt alone. Zao’s volcanic wind whips snow against tree skeletons to create field after field of jagged sculptures, snowy figures with hunched shoulders and stooped heads. A defeated army, a population in chains – or snow monsters as the Japanese call them. A ski slope carves through one cluster, a ribbon of tranquillity slicing through the wild.

Zao Onsen behind Zao Snow Monsters in Yamagata, Tohoku, Japan

Zao Onsen beyond the Zao Snow Monsters

On the peak, they glow in rainbow hues while the street lights of Zao Onsen sparkle in the distance. That’s the view from one side of the observatory, anyway.


Zao’s volcanic wind whips snow against tree skeletons

From the other, the cruel coldness of the wind draws tears from my eyes and I realise that each snow monster broods at twice my size.

Zao Snow Monsters Closeup in Yamagata, Tohoku, Japan

Zao Snow Monsters – Over Twice My Size

Each snow monster broods at twice my size…

What seduces with beauty on one side of the mountain, haunts with menace on the other. From goblins and clowns to Death with his scythe.

Silhouetted against them, a man walks alone.

Zao Snow Monsters stretching over hill, Yamagata, Tohoku, Japan

Zao Snow Monsters: A Hint of Menace

I shiver and return to the rainbow-coloured version, where children slide in the snow and adults pause to take photos. Perhaps it’s time for that hot chocolate after all.

Zao Snow Monsters in Yamagata, Tohoku, Japan with rainbow lights

Zao Snow Monsters with Rainbox Lights

Disclosure: Seen as a guest of the JTB. 

Lauren Harris February 23, 2011

My mouth literally fell open when I looked at this. I was in Japan for the last three years, and recently came back to the states and got a job at a travel agency. I visited the Yukimatsuri in Sapporo last February, but I have never heard of these snow-monsters! I wish I had. The conflicting beauty and eeriness really gives it impact.

You expressed it beautifully. Thanks for this cool post. I subscribed to your feed and look forward to reading more about your travels. :)


Abi King February 25, 2011

Wow, thanks Lauren. I’m tempted to print out that comment and stick it to the wall above my desk!
I actually haven’t made it to the famous festival in Sapporo… At least not yet ;) Maybe one day…

Cam March 1, 2011

Wow – this is incredible! I have never heard of these snow monsters before. It kinda reminds me of Cappadoica in Turkey

Very cool!

Sabrina March 17, 2011

That looks so awesome! They must be creepy – especially at night. Great pics btw!

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