Mt. Zao, Yamagata, Japan. Altitude: 1,841 meters
For most outsiders, winter sports in Japan are associated with only two places: the northern ski towns of Nagano and Sapporo. Their global popularity is due mainly to the fact that both cities once played host to the Winter Olympics: Sapporo in 1972 and Nagano in 1998. But ask the Japanese and they will mention Zao, the historic onsen or hot springs town frequented by the Japanese imperial family.
The town, which nestles on the slopes of the Zao mountain range in Yamagata Prefecture, is popular for having one of the largest ski areas in Japan. Zao is also the second oldest onsen town in the country. Legend has it that the area’s potential was discovered when one of the soldiers of Japan’s twelfth emperor Keiko was mortally wounded in battle but was miraculously healed after being treated with water from an onsen found in the town. Since then, wealthy Japanese, nobles, and members of the royal family have made the pilgrimage to Zao. Until today, the Emperor’s family source their supply of Yunohana, a therapeutic skin powder made from the vapor of sulfuric springs, from Zao.
Japanese seeking the healing powers of Zao’s springs also discovered that the mountain’s natural beauty, high altitude, and powdery snow were ideal for winter tourism and sports. The town’s ski lifts have been running since the 1920s, one of the oldest in Japan. Zao also features an extensive network of aerial lifts that take passengers on scenic rides from the onsens below to the mountain peak and back.
Another attraction is the famous “Snow Monsters” in mid-winter. The name comes from the ghostly impression created by forests of pine trees covered in icicles produced by frozen droplets of water carried by strong winds from the nearby lake.
Photographs by David Celdran
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 8 2012.