Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY JULIE MILLER

From mon­sters to on­sens… Ja­pan’s To­hoku re­gion is mag­i­cal in win­ter.

There are mon­sters on the peak of Mount Zao in Ja­pan’s Ya­m­a­gata Pre­fec­ture, mas­sive con­torted blobs that loom omi­nously through the driv­ing bliz­zard, their lumpy fea­tures mor­ph­ing from pink to green and pur­ple un­der vivid evening il­lu­mi­na­tions.

There’s noth­ing scary about these myth­i­cal juhyo snow mon­sters, how­ever; and for snow­board­ers and skiers who swish through me­tres-deep pow­der in the shadow of these unique for­ma­tions, they are a won­drous ad­di­tion to the en­tice­ments of a per­fect 10 km run.

Snow mon­sters are a phe­nom­e­non unique to this part of north­ern Ja­pan, formed when a bit­ter east­erly jet stream, straight off the steppes of Siberia, snapfreezes pow­der snow cling­ing to the wet leaves of Ao­mori fir trees. Over the win­ter months, as the ice and snow con­tinue to form and so­lid­ify, the trees dis­tort into sur­real shapes that over­ac­tive imag­i­na­tions could per­ceive as a mon­strous army.

As a non-skier I am in­trigued by na­ture’s wicked sense of hu­mour and, as I sink up to my thighs in the mar­vel­lously deep, dry snow to pho­to­graph the mon­sters bear­ing down on Zao On­sen Ski Re­sort, I fi­nally un­der­stand the al­lure of ski­ing in Ja­pan. Not only is the snow in­cred­i­ble, but there are no crowds, no lift queues, count­less runs and mag­i­cal win­ter scenery. There are also very few Aus­tralian ac­cents to be heard; for now,

Zao On­sen Ski Re­sort re­mains some­what of a hid­den trea­sure.

This hot spring ski re­sort is lo­cated in the To­hoku re­gion of north­ern Hon­shu, ex­tend­ing from the north of Tokyo to the tip of the main is­land and cov­er­ing six pre­fec­tures. A range known as the Ou Moun­tains di­vides this re­gion east to west, coiled like a sleep­ing dragon, hack­les raised in an­tic­i­pa­tion. To the east of the range, the cli­mate is tem­pered by the Pa­cific Ocean; but to the west, it cops the full fury of win­ter, re­sult­ing in some of the deep­est snow­falls in Ja­pan.

The re­sult is a win­ter won­der­land of Nar­nia-es­que en­chant­ment, buried be­neath a per­pet­ual car­pet of white for six months of the year. Then, per­haps as way of com­pen­sa­tion, Mother Na­ture waves her magic wand, turn­ing the land­scape a flurry of pink dur­ing cherry blos­som sea­son, emer­ald green in sum­mer and a riot of red and gold in leaf-peep­ing sea­son.

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