Experience the 'Satoyama' Life of Yamagata Zao! Farm Tours and a Visit to the 'Snow Monsters'

The Yamagata Zao area is famous for its "snow monsters," frost-covered trees that can be seen for a limited time in winter. The area offers other fun experiences in addition to seeing the snow monsters. We will take you through a model course for a two-day/one-night stay starting from Kaminoyama-Onsen Station, one of the best hot spring resorts in Yamagata Zao. There are plenty of new events and projects starting in winter 2022. If you're interested in visiting Yamagata, be sure to check them out!

Satoyama experience in Yamakawa Farm

Yamakawa Farm log house
On the first day of the Yamagata Zao tour, we visited Zao Mountain Farm/Yamakawa Farm, a farm located about a 15-minute drive from Kaminoyama-Onsen Station. During the summer, you can meet the animals and try your hand at milking and butter making. In winter, you can enjoy activities in a snow-covered satoyama (the border zone or area between mountain foothills and arable flat land).

Mr. Yamakawa, owner of the farm
Kiichi Yamakawa is the organizer of the tour. He has been working as a dairy farmer for more than 30 years. In order to show the importance of "food and life," he has prepared a tour that only a dairy farm can offer.

Mr. Yamakawa explaining the tour in the log house
Mr. Yamakawa changes the tour's contents according to the conditions and time of the day so the participants can experience nature as it is at that moment. I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of tour Mr. Yamakawa has planned, as he knows all about the nature of this area. First, we changed into warmer clothes and joined the satoyama walk.

Put on wakanjiki to explore the snowy satoyama

Guide and participants walking
We explored the area behind the farm. Accompanied by a guide, we headed deeper. Along the way, we were told about the ecology of plants and animals living at the foot of Mt. Zao and got to see the natural scenery unique to the area.

Narrow path
The forest is covered with snow and has a tranquil atmosphere.

Many trees
The row of trees is magnificent and captivating! It's a great place to take a photo.

Guide explaining how to wear wakanjiki
The further you go, the deeper the snow. You have to wear wakanjiki to go further. They are traditional snowshoes to help traverse through rough terrain without getting stuck.

Untying the wakanjiki laces
The wakanjiki are hard to put on, so it may take some time if you don't remember the steps.

Putting on a wakanjiki
If you have trouble putting the wakanjiki on properly, the guide will help you. These traditional snowshoes are attached to our shoes by pulling a string tightly. It is a reminder of the traditional satoyama culture.

Guide walking through snow
By wearing wakanjiki, you can walk through deep snow!

Walking in the snow wearing wakanjiki
It allows you to walk farther, and you can run around on snow-covered roads. Walking through the soft snow is an exciting experience.

Laying in the snow
Laying in the snow is a great experience in powder snow. It's like sleeping on a soft, snowy bed.

Enjoy powder snow on nature's slide!

Snow slide
As we went deeper, a beautiful natural slide made of snow appeared. All you need is yourself and a bag of rice. This is a very eco-friendly and fun sliding adventure.

Getting off the snow slide
The trick is to sit on a bag of rice and slide down while making sure to keep the center of gravity slightly back. The guide will explain it in detail, so anyone can try it easily and safely.

Falling down a snow slide
Don't worry if you take a bad fall. The soft powder snow will absorb the impact.

Tour participants on the slide
This unique slope and the speed created by natural snow was exciting. We wanted to get better and better at sliding.

On the way back, we collected Oba-kuromoji branches

Guide collecting Oba-kuromoji branches
On the way back from the satoyama walking tour, we collected branches from the Oba-kuromoji tree (Lindera umbellata var. mambranacea) that have fallen off. We will use these branches later. We had to bring back as many branches as possible.

Smelling the Oba-kuromoji
There is a faint citrus scent when you crush the Oba-kuromoji leaf.

Guide pointing at the snowfield
While explaining the nature of the area, the guide discovered something.

Footprints of a white rabbit
We looked down and saw the footprints of a white rabbit. It's common to see them here in winter; if you look closely at the footprints, you can see the direction they went. When a rabbit jumps, its hind legs move forward rather than its front legs, so you can see in the photo that headed towards where we were heading. One of the real pleasures of the tour is that you can learn about the wildlife here.

Going down the hill
While looking at the animals tracks, we walked to the log house, where a delicious meal awaited us.

Participate in making 'kamakura' igloos

A man carving a kamakura igloo in the snow
For those who are physically unable to walk in the snow or have small children, we recommend the kamakura igloo-making experience near the farm. After an explanation from the guide, you will dig into the snow to make a traditional kamakura igloo, using a nearby example for reference.

Posing inside a kamakura
Once the kamakura is complete, you can take photos, or build a snow table and chairs to eat on. You can even decorate your kamakura with branches and leaves you collect from around the farm to make it look pretty!

A child sliding down the slide in front of the log cabin
There is a gentle slope in front of the log house where children can slide.

Enjoy the cuisine of satoyama life

Takikomi Gohan
The long-awaited lunch is a full course of seasonal dishes from the area. Dishes such as Takikomi Gohan (Japanese mixed rice) and miso soup are served to warm us to our core.

Wild boar yakiniku
Most of the dishes served are obtained through hunting and gathering, such as wild boar meat. Not only are we able to eat fresh and unique dishes, but also feel gratitude for nature's blessings.

Hot miso soup
Freshly-made dishes are served to whet your appetite. Free refills of Takikomi Gohan and miso soup are also offered, perfect for those with large appetites.

Satoyama cuisine
A variety of traditional satoyama cuisine, such as wild boar meat and pickled wild vegetables, are served. All the dishes have a robust flavor that spread inside the mouth. Milk and yogurt from the farm are also served. It is a course rich in local ingredients.

Dining at the table
It was fun to share a meal and have a chat with Mr. Yamakawa, the local guide, and the tour participants. While enjoying a delicious meal, we could gain a deeper understanding of the ingredients used, wisdom of the snow country, and the animals living here.

Creative activities using collected branches and vines

Mr. Yamakawa explains the activities
After enjoying our meal, we tried our hand at creating something using the branches and vines collected during our walk. It's fun making things using only plants and trees that exist in nature. Under Mr. Yamakawa's guidance, everyone got right to work.

Some samples made from branches and vines
We were tasked with making small bowls. I was surprised to learn that all the sample bowls on the desk were made with only branches and vines. The trick is to make the base of the bowl using hard branches and wrap the soft vines around it, gradually adding shape.

Getting advice while creating art
Mr. Yamakawa says, "It's important to think with your head and create with your senses." He does not give detailed lectures but encourages participants to think and work independently. We can enjoy, through trial and error, working together to complete the project.

Cutting a circular tree branch with scissors
When the shape is formed, we used scissors to cut off the excess branches. Once the base is in place, completion is just around the corner.

Immersed in the creative process
This was a simple yet surprisingly addictive experience where everyone is focused on creating something wonderful. You can take the finished bowl home as a souvenir. Plenty of spare branches available so there is no need to worry about running out.

Oba-kuromoji branches soaked in shochu
There are other ways to use the Oba-kuromoji (Lindera umbellata var. mambranacea) branches. One way is to make shochu with the branches. You can choose a thick branch and take it home as a souvenir to make shochu at home. It is a great tour where you could enjoy the nature of the satoyama area in one day.

Enjoy the seasons and hot springs of Yamagata Zao at Saikatei Jidaiya

Exterior of Saikatei Jidaiya
After the first day of walking and making, a stay at a quaint Japanese-style hot spring inn, Saikatei Jidaiya, was the perfect way to relax our tired muscles.

Lobby of Saikatei Jidaiya
Saikatei Jidaiya is a small inn in the Kaminoyama Onsen area and offers guests the highest level of hospitality. The lobby has a relaxed atmosphere and a sense of nostalgia.

Lanterns and snowscapes
The lobby has a large window with a view of the lanterns and the snow. The space reminds us of a cozy hideaway.

Tea and hand towels
It was nice to gaze out of the window at the snow scenery while sipping a cup of tea that is served at check-in.

A gorgeous dinner
Dinner is a stunning Japanese course using seasonal ingredients from Yamagata. It is designed to bring out the flavors of the ingredients and shows the best of the chef's talents.

Japanese-Style Pot-Au-Feu
Japanese-Style Pot-Au-Feu is a specialty of the inn that has a depth to its flavor. We could enjoy seasonal vegetables slowly simmered in a Japanese broth.

Yamagata beef grilled on a ceramic plate
Yamagata beef is grilled on a ceramic plate. It has the perfect amount of marble and is so tender that it melts in your mouth. We could also enjoy a variety of dishes such as seasonal sashimi and local Yamagata brand rice.

Enjoying dinner
So many dishes are served at once, so it's hard to decide which one to try first. The dinner was a great success, with participants sharing delicious foods with each other.

Guest room at Saikatei Jidaiya
There is a great choice of rooms at the inn. The guest rooms are relaxing Japanese-style rooms while some rooms also have a private open-air bath. At the end of the day, take a dip in a hot spring bath to unwind and relax.

2nd day is Yamagata Zao's Juhyo (Snow Monster) Tour

Departing the inn
After enjoying a delicious breakfast at the inn, it's time for the main attraction of Yamagata Zao, the Juhyo (Snow Monster) Tour. Zao Liza World is a ski resort with one of the best slopes in Zao and a vast field of iced trees. It is famous as an area where you can enjoy exhilarating runs amid a stunning view of the snow monsters. There are also plenty of activities for non-skiers, such as snow trekking, snow buggy rides, and snow play areas.

Snow-covered road
As you can see in the photo, the amount of snowfall that day was quite a sight. It's rare for Kaminoyama to get this much snow, so we were treated to a fantastic 360-degree view of snow-covered scenery. It's great to enjoy the fresh powder snow. We made our way to the bus stop. It takes about 30 minutes by shuttle bus from the inn to Zao Liza World.

Ride through the juhyo field in a snow buggy

Zao Liza World
The first thing to do at Zao Liza World is to take a snow buggy tour. Its great to cruise on the fresh snow and head for the juhyo field.

Mr. Oba, organizer of the juhyo tour
After arriving at Zao Liza World, Mr. Oba, who plans and leads the tour, gave us some tips and provided highlights of the tour. Due to bad weather, we could not go to the area with the snow monsters as initially planned. It is common at ski resorts to be unable to reach the juhyo fields due to blizzards or strong winds. However, the good thing about Zao Liza World is that they have plenty of events even if the weather is bad. There were other good spots to see the snow monsters, so we changed our route and set off on our journey.

Listening to instructions about the snow buggy tour
We were instructed on how to enjoy the snow buggy and the precautions we should take. Juhyo is a natural phenomenon created by the climate of the Yamagata Zao area, and you can enjoy a different scenery every time you visit. It's rare to see juhyo during such heavy snowfall, so everyone was excited as we headed for the tour. After renting goggles and winter gear at Liza World before the entrance, it's time for the snow buggy tour.

Snow buggy
The snow buggy is a new model for this tour and will give us a ride through the juhyo field over some very fresh snow.

Riding a snow buggy at a ski resort
We were driven by the ski resort guide across the snow in all directions. The snow sometimes gets into our hands and face, but this is one of the best parts of riding a snow buggy.

A thrilling snow buggy ride
The snow buggy is surprisingly fast, like riding a thrilling theme park attraction. It's an experience not to be missed.

Photo with a skier passing by
Depending on the time of day, skiers might join the shot.

Juhyo field in the distance
After riding through the snowfield, we reached the area where we could see the snow monsters.

Snow monsters everywhere
It is a fantastic and rare sight to see so many snow monsters. They may look a little small, but you will be amazed when you see them up close.

A giant snow monster up close
The snow buggy allows you to get up close and personal with the snow monsters. They may look like they are about to attack but don't worry.

Taking a photo on the snow buggy
The snow buggy route slows down at some points so you can take photos.

Strolling through the juhyo field
If the weather is fine, there is the opportunity to get off the snow buggy and stroll around the snow monsters.

Giant snow monsters
In normal weather conditions the area where you can see the large juhyo is accessible. If you want to see the giant snow monsters, it is recommended to plan your trip on a clear day.

Take photos and play near the snow monsters

Juhyo forest behind Zao Liza World
There was a lot of fresh snow, so we were told that we could see the accretion of snow and ice on oak and other trees. We then went to the juhyo forest behind Zao Liza World with our guide.

Iced branch
Our guide told us that "the same trees have different ice patterns depending on the location." The snow monsters closer to the windward side have more ice, while there is less ice accretion on the leeward side. It's fun to walk around and see how the ice forms.

Photographing juhyo branches
There is also free time during the tour to enjoy walking around the area, taking photos, and playing in the snow. We could see people were frolicking in the snow, throwing powder snow into the sky, and having snowball fights.

Child laying in the snow
The best part about fresh snow is that you can have it all to yourself. Many people were posing for photos while laying in the soft snow.

Photo with the juhyo trees
Don't forget to have a magical shot with with the juhyo trees.

Holding a juhyo branch
Get a shot with the trees that are more exposed to wind for a more great photo to share. Experience the fun of playing in the snow that only Yamagata Zao can offer.

Enjoy juhyo pizza and juhyo parfait

Pizza stone oven
After enjoying the snow and snow monsters, enjoy a relaxing meal in a warm, cozy room. The juhyo pizza and juhyo parfait are two original items developed for the tour. We were one of the first to sample dishes decorated with cute "snow monsters."

Cutting the pizza
The first dish served on the menu, juhyo pizza, is an authentic pizza oven-baked one by one by the chef. The pizza is baked to crispy perfection using a stone oven imported from Italy. It's cut into easy to eat slices.

Juhyo pizza
We were served a cute-looking pizza with several kinds of cheese and baby leaves, and toppings cut out in the shape of snow monsters.

Drizzling honey on the juhyo pizza
Before eating, drizzle a generous amount of honey to enhance the saltiness of the cheese and accentuate the flavor.

Holding a juhyo pizza
Taking a bite, the flavor of the ingredients spreads in the mouth. Its very delcious and made us all incredibly happy. The rich cheese flavor and crispy texture of this pizza is a must-try.

Child eating a juhyo pizza
A fresh oven-baked pizza is perfect being in the cold on the juhyo tour. We found we were not the only ones having the pizza. The thin-crust is easy to eat; we even saw children eating it with ease.

Juhyo parfait
Another highlight is the juhyo parfait. It is a new dessert and looks stunning. The fluffy cotton candy and sky-blue pineapple-flavored jelly are arranged to represent the Zao sky and the snow monsters.

Juhyo parfait with jelly layer
It is lavishly topped with ice cream, whipped cream, apples from Kaminoyama, nuts, and more. All this along with the crunchy corn flakes and the jelly are a must-try for those with a sweet tooth.

Photo with the juhyo parfait
This dessert is a symbol of Zao, the Kingdom of Juhyo, and perfect take a photo with.

Yamagata Zao in winter is full of undiscovered charms

Family at the log cabin
This was an example of a two-day/one-night experience tour to enjoy Yamagata Zao in winter. There is much to discover in Yamagata Zao with many winter attractions. The tour introduced here is one of a number of tours on offer. There are many other unique travel plans available, so be sure to check out the WAmazing reservation site when planning your trip to Yamagata to find the perfect one for you.

Buggy Ride Experience

Buggy Ride Experience and Snow Trekking (lunch included)

[Note] Pricing information and schedule are correct at the time of writing and are subject to change without notice. Please check the official website before your trip.

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