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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Disclosure: Seen as a guest of the JTB.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com