From Sendai it takes about 1 hour to get to Mt. Zao in the neighboring prefecture of Yamagata. On the way there, our bus stopped at a little omiyage (souvenir) shop, where we were provided lunch as part of the travel package. The lunch was super-Japanese: we ate Imoni Soup, a kind of savory potato and vegetable soup, made Yamagata style (shoyu, ie soy sauce, flavor). We also had pickled vegetables, a common side dish with traditional meals, and salmon filled onigiri (rice ball wrapped in seaweed). I say super-Japanese because in addition to the food, we listened to traditional music and had a view of a very pretty, snow-covered garden.
|Lunch: Yamagata-style imoni soup and onigiri|
Next we arrived at Mt. Zao. The scenery on the way there consisted of rustic Japanese country-side, lots of vegetable gardens and small houses covered in layers of snow and icicles. At the Mt. Zao ski/snowboard park, we had to ride two gondolas to reach the peak of the mountain. It was cold at the bottom, but the top was freezing; we're talking -10 C and really strong winds apparently blown in from Siberia. We wandered around blindly outside for about 10 minutes while the wind blew ice in our faces and our extremities froze, took a few squinty-eyed pictures and ran back inside. Luckily there is a small lodge at the peak where you can view the snow monsters from inside a warm cafeteria.
|View of the Yamagata countryside from the Gondola, halfway up the mtn.|
|Braving the cold to pose w/ the monsters|
The snow monsters were amazing- it was like being in Dr. Seuss' idea of a winter landscape. They are quite large and the shapes are more whimsical to me than they are monster-like. It's also possible to see them lit up at night, which I would've loved to see but we were on a tight schedule with the tour. So in summary, it's very cold and the wait for the gondola was a bit long (~20-30 min.), but they're definitely worth the trip.
|Snow Monsters at night (photo from Google images)|
After that we stopped at a winery, basically just a blatant opportunity for us to spend more money, but there were actually lots of free samples of wine and cheese, meat, etc., so it was quite fun.
And finally we arrived at our final stop on the tour, a small town called Yonezawa where we went to see their annual snow lantern festival. The festival was small but very nice. It was held in a big park in the center of the town, which was the original site of a castle. It belonged to a famous daimyo (lord) from that region, named Uesugi Kenshin. Uesugi lived during the Sengoku (Warring States) Period in the 16th cent. and is considered one of the strongest warriors of his era. There are two shrines in the park dedicated to Uesugi and his son, as well as a traditional house made restaurant, along with a gorgeous garden out back.
|"Yonezawa's 34th Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival"|
All throughout the festival area were lanterns made out of snow and lit by candles. There was also a snow replica of Uesugi's castle, as well as some sculptures of Uesugi and other famous samurai. There was a Taiko performance, lots of good festival food and live music. For a small festival, I felt there was a lot to see and do, and we had a great time.