There are many ways to enjoy your winter vacation. Some people love action and go skiing or snowboarding, some people prefer relaxation like soaking in a hot spring, some people seek for adventure and explore new things, and some people just want to get in touch with nature. Here’s the good news. In Yamagata Zao Onsen Snow Monster Festival (held on the first weekend of February every year), you get the chance to experience all of this! In this blog, I will introduce a model schedule that allows you to maximize your stay.
First, let me summarize the important events that you may be interested in (at least the ones I have experienced and would love to experience again!).
Thus, when planning your stay make sure that it coincides with these events:
1) Winter Fireworks（冬の花火 )
2) “Glide of Torches” or Taimatsu Kasso （松明滑走) where a thousand skiers glide down the slope with two torches on both hands.
- Head to Yamagata Zao Onsen
While there are many ways to access Yamagata Zao Onsen (http://www.zao-spa.or.jp/english/access/), my friends and I departed from Sendai Station at 8 am by bus going directly to the place. We arrived at 9:40 am and we headed directly to our accommodation, which is a small hotel near the slopes. The price of accommodation greatly varies; but in our case, we managed to book a comfortable room for four with 25200 yen (6300 yen each) including breakfast. Rest for a while, leave your belongings, and head to the ski area!
- Glide in powder snow!
It was my first time to try skiing and snowboarding and I believe that if you really want to learn it and be good at it…one day is not enough! There are a lot of facilities that cater for ski-related rentals around the area. The ski experience (with rental) can cost you anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 yen (ski wear, ski gears, lift ticket, tutorial etc.). If you do not have the budget, it is wiser to join arranged ski trips that provide cheaper deals including a set package of ski gear and wear rentals, accommodation, and lift tickets. In our case, we brought our own hiking pants and jackets as ski wear and rented the gears for no more than 5000 yen.
Once prepared, we headed out to the nearest slope near our hotel. Yamagata Zao Onsen has many available slopes that you can try depending on your level of expertise. You can also glide among the snow monsters! Though not among the snow monsters, we were able to glide (mostly fall, actually) in powder white snow on a clear and sunny day. I can say that I was glad I experienced my first ski and snowboard experience in Yamagata Zao Onsen. You get to enjoy not only the sports but also the gorgeous view of the mountain and snow-covered town.
- See the snow monsters
We decided to finish skiing before 6pm so we have time to rest and prepare to go to the mountain peak to view the Snow Monster illumination event. I suggest that you go earlier before the sun sets to have a better view of the snow monsters along the cable car’s path. Upon reaching the top, the temperature will drop extremely so it is wise to bring extra stuff to warm your hands and feet lest you suffer with numb fingers. While the snow monsters themselves are already a wonder of nature, the flashing colorful illumination makes it even more beautiful. Indeed, a must for your first Snow Monster Festival!
- Witness the enchanting winter fireworks and Taimatsu Kasso
The Snow Monster Festival does not end with just seeing the snow monsters! In fact, more than the snow monster illumination, I find the next event even more moving and more memorable. So after seeing the snow monsters at the peak, we climbed down the mountain and headed to the Snow and Fire Festival event venue before 8pm. Here, you can watch the ‘Taimatsu Kasso’ where a thousand skiers holding two torches in both hands glide down the mountain slope with hair-raising musical accompaniment. After the Taimatsu Kasso, the event will be capped-off with a short but radiant fireworks display. I personally like the contrast of the background music they used for the two event. Be sure to watch the videos! After these, you can end your day by soaking in a hot spring and have sweet dreams under your warm futon blanket.
Watch a sampler here!
Glide of Torches
- Go hot spring hopping
The next day, wake up early and go eat your breakfast. Once full, have your morning soak at one or more of the natural hot springs available in the town! Zao Onsen is a village of hot springs and there is a wide choice of hot springs available. Namely, three public hot springs, three foot bath, and five hotels offering day spa. While the acidic water is probably the same, the feel and ambiance of each spa are different. Be sure to try most of them! It is wise to bring your own small towel, yukata and haori (overcoat) when you do your onsen hopping (aside from your outdoor wear, of course)!
- Town tour and souvenir shopping
The last part of this itinerary is for you to tour the town and explore it on your own. There are a lot of interesting establishments like cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, and the like. While there are a lot of food choices available, your experience cannot be completed if you haven’t tried the famous soba noodles of Yamagata!
This ends the weekend schedule for your very first Snow Monster Festival! If you are blessed with more time, I suggest getting out that ski gear again and taking another chance to glide down the slopes!
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