Mountain Temples & Snow Monsters

A large ornate Japanese Buddhist temple situated in front of a snowy forest.

In approximately three months Tokyo is set to host the Olympic Games. The run-up to the huge global event, which was originally supposed to take place in 2020, has been fraught with difficulties. Despite ongoing uncertainty and the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, at the time of writing it seems that the games will be held—albeit without foreign spectators. This has left many people feeling disappointed. Some international tourists who purchased tickets likely planned to combine their sport viewing with travel outside the concrete megalopolis of Japan’s capital to experience more of the country. That is now impossible.

Japan offers some unique travel experiences and stunning environments. As veterans of exploring lesser-known areas of the country we wanted to share a few off-the-beaten-path adventures that may provide readers with a small amount of consolation, and perhaps give them some new ideas of places to visit if they ever do make it to the Land of the Rising Sun. We start with a winter outing among the mysterious mountain temples of Yamagata prefecture, on the trail of jyuhyo or snow monsters.

A winter mountain-top view of the Japanese town of Yamadera featuring beautiful snow-covered horizontal tree branches.

Yamagata is situated in the north of Japan’s largest island of Honshu. It can be reached from Tokyo by a scenic journey on the shinkansen (bullet train), which takes a little under three hours, or by an even shorter flight. The prefecture is bordered by mountains with fantastic opportunities for skiing and hiking. Like many rural areas in Japan, it offers a natural respite from the crowding of the country’s overdeveloped cities and their hectic lifestyles. Although Yamagata provides many options for adventure, two places in particular stand out; one is an ancient temple complex and the other is a volcano, which in winter is populated—believe it or not—by monsters. It was primarily to seek out these strange entities that I journeyed.

A man walking through deep snow with crampons and bright red gloves.

After taking a local train from Yamagata station I disembarked at Yamadera, a small town nestled in a valley at the base of snow-covered foothills. In English Yamadera means mountain temple. The name of the settlement is accurate because perched precariously on the slopes of a nearby peak is a Buddhist temple complex with the official title of Risshaku-ji, a holy sanctuary that is over a thousand years old. It was a bitterly cold February day at the mercy of the season’s usual heavy snowfall and poor visibility meant I would have to trek to the summit in order to see Risshaku-ji’s treasures for myself. The narrow streets of the town were frozen solid with ice and any attempt at ascending the mountain paths required the right gear, so I strapped on my crampons in a small field of ankle-deep powder snow and took a few seconds to orient myself before hitting the trail.

The winter sun piercing the clouds over the roof of a Japanese Buddhist temple and a large bank of snow.

Apart from the slippery seasonal ice the terrain doesn’t usually present any real danger, as the paths are well worn and contain steps. Although I wasn’t interested in the monotonous endeavour of counting them all, it is said that there are over a thousand that lead up to the highest reaches of the mountain. The climb is not particularly difficult but does require a moderate level of fitness. Fortunately the sights along the way serve as good excuses to take frequent breaks. As I rose higher the temperature fell, and the sun fought a desperate and mostly unsuccessful battle with the clouds to reveal itself. When it was occasionally able to burst through the winter vapour to crown the roof of a shrine or temple the resulting effect was ethereal.

A seated stone Buddhist Jizo statue partially covered in snow at the Japanese temple complex of Risshaku-ji.

The mountain slopes on which Risshaku-ji rests are interspersed with time-worn wooden architecture, but they also play host to some wonderful statues. Some of them seemed to be patiently awaiting my arrival after another lonely section of climbing, where the only sound I could hear was the regular crunch of my crampons puncturing the ice-cascaded steps. At one point midway through the ascent I raised my eyes to be met by the benevolent countenance of a stone Jizo statue deep in prayer, apparently unperturbed by the ever-deepening snow that threatened to bury him and eclipse his bright red bib until spring. Such representations of Jizo Bodhisattva are quite common at sites of religious significance throughout the country. In Japanese Buddhist belief he serves as the protector of travellers and children making him a popular and well-loved deity.

A collection of grotesque stone statues and other curios at a shrine at the Japanese temple complex of Risshaku-ji.

Not all of the statuary I came across projected the same aura of serenity. A small shrine set back from the main trail housed a curious collection of unsettling items such as old hanging towels, half-dead flowers, and dismembered stone heads. Offerings and prayers are made here before an assortment of creepy semi-clothed characters with frightening expressions who share space with more conventional Buddhist art and a menagerie of cuddly toys. There can be a fine line between gods and monsters, a passing thought that brought my attention back to the overall objective of my quest to Yamagata. As I left my recent stone acquaintances behind and continued along the path that wove its way through timeless rock and ice, I began to focus on my real quarry.

Several large semi-transparent icicles overhanging a moss-covered rock in winter.

I knew that somewhere deep within the distant mountain ranges, hidden behind a thick veil of steel cloud, sat a group of volcanoes known collectively as Mount Zao. Despite its current quiet slumber, Zao is one of the most historically active volcanoes in northern Japan. As barren and devoid of life as one might assume the higher reaches of an active volcano to be, it is often frequented by winter sports enthusiasts, although of late visitor numbers have taken a drastic dive. Zao is also the rumoured abode of an army of giant creatures named jyuhyo that only emerge during the darkest depths of the coldest season of the year. These anomalies come in many shapes and sizes and can reach a height of several metres. Given the recent lack of human activity in the area I assumed that I might have quite a good chance of encountering at least one, should I make the effort to go and search.

A winter view of the Japanese town of Yamadera covered in snow, situated in front of barren mountains on a cloudy day.

It was to that task that I intended to dedicate the following day. My musings on what tomorrow’s adventure might reveal were brought to an abrupt conclusion by the realisation that the weather had taken a turn for the worse. What had been a relatively clear line of sight to the mountains beyond Yamadera was replaced by a grey-white miasma that seemed like a foreboding preview of what Zao might dish out. The huge bank of new clouds that had crept up over the skeletal spine of the opposite mountain range had swept in, enveloping the town. Pulling up my hood and doubling my pace I marched on. As fresh snowfall built up on the branches and leaves of the evergreens I arrived at the top of Risshaku-ji’s most famous viewing point. Clinging to the edge of a vertiginous cliff face, cracked and dusted with frost, sat the sutra repository—its splendid vermillion timber standing out against the icy elements.

A winter view of a red wooden sutra repository perched on the edge of a cracked and icy cliff at Risshaku-ji in Yamadera, Japan.

The next day I set out early by bus and arrived at Zao Onsen after an hour. The village that serves as the base for local outdoor activities appeared deserted apart from an attendant standing by a ropeway ready for its first dawn run. I clambered inside with my snowshoes and ski poles and the ungainly contraption headed upwards into the clouds. The twenty minutes it took to get to the 1,660-metre (5,446 ft) summit station was surreal. The bright morning light was swallowed whole by the impenetrable clouds causing everything to become suffused with a disorienting amber glow. With nothing discernible outside the carriage only the sensation in my stomach told me I was still ascending. When a sudden jolt informed me of my arrival I slid open the door and stepped out onto a platform that seemed frozen in time.

The frozen platform of a Japanese mountain ropeway station in the bright light of morning.

Looking like a location from a Hollywood disaster movie every surface was coated with hard rime ice that had been blown in through the narrow door and swirled around by powerful gusts. This served as my introduction to the rare and isolated naturally occurring phenomena that shapes the surrounding landscape. The high-velocity winds of the Siberian jet stream pick up ice-cold droplets of water and deposit them on everything they can reach. The subsequent rapid freezing process produces some environments that have an almost apocalyptic atmosphere, which is enhanced by a feeling of desolation when devoid of life. With the temperature at minus 16 °C (3.2 °F) I was only able to remove my gloves for a minute to take a photo before my hands felt painful. As the snow outside was several metres deep in places it was unsuitable for crampons, so I attached my snowshoes instead, covered any exposed skin, and ventured outside.

A winter forest clearing covered in deep virgin snow on Mount Zao in Yamagata, Japan.

Although still overcast, the wind had dropped somewhat and visibility had improved. Not knowing when the storm would resume I trudged to the edge of the forest as quickly as the terrain would allow and entered through a small break in the treeline. There I came across further evidence of the rime ice’s handiwork and slid into a hollow beneath the lowest limbs of a large tree to assess its formation at close quarters. The miniature needles it creates on the branches act as foundations on which the snowfall builds clusters of shapes that look like the growths of some uncontrollable white parasite. As I continued into the breach the air started to feel heavy and I surmised that the snow monsters themselves must be close at hand. Time turned into an abstract concept as I explored the never ending sea of wood and snow. Having not been rewarded with even a trace of success I started to fear that my best efforts would be in vain. The wind was gaining strength again and snow had begun to fall, but just as I was about to give up I heard it—an eerie intermittent creaking, and as I reached the next clearing there it was.

A crab-shaped snow monster standing between icy trees on Mount Zao in Yamagata, Japan.

The grotesque crab-like creature stood silently beneath the overhanging tendrils of timber and ice. It appeared to have ceased its momentum to size up the intruder that had dared to violate its sanctum. As it observed me the lower-hanging parts of its bulky amorphous appendages began to sway and twitch in tempo with the terrible howl of the rising wind. Here it was—a fully formed jyuhyo before my very eyes—a monster created and sculpted by fierce winter gales. I was captivated by its uniqueness. Its powerful head seemed to consist of a gigantic single block of rime ice that must have taken weeks to reach such proportions. I don’t know how long I stood there in that chilling standoff but it was clear that the icy crustacean wasn’t going to retreat. The storm rolled in with threatening intent and I withdrew, taking tentative steps backwards in an attempt to return to where I had come from. Having finally put enough distance between myself and the snow-crab I turned around, only to smash into the leg of another behemoth.

A gigantic snow monster standing on Mount Zao in Yamagata, Japan.

The four metre ogre of ice gazed down at me, its bent head adorned by some sort of nebulous diamond headdress. The circumference of just one of its legs was greater than that of my body and I wondered whether I was about to be stomped out, a victim of my own adventurous curiosity. But there it remained—animation suspended—its intimidating stare boring straight through me and into the very earth itself. With the incessant buffeting of the newly-birthed blizzard and my imagination in overdrive I took flight into the opaque white abyss. The main body of the storm drove in with renewed vigour and I was caught up in a mélange of flying ice particles and splintered twigs. Quickly approaching whiteout conditions I frantically scanned what little I could see of the area for a place to take shelter. Finding a narrow gap between two walls of ice I climbed in just as visibility dropped to zero. Cold and disoriented I hunkered down waiting for the blizzard to die down. When the worst of it had passed I emerged from my hideaway and glanced back in appreciation towards the agents of my salvation. To my horror, it was then that I realised I had taken refuge between two more icy giants that were locked in monstrous combat.

Two massive snow monsters fighting over a pair of ski poles during a blizzard on Mount Zao in Yamagata, Japan.

They were squaring off against other, getting so close they would surely soon become a single inseparable mass. I was fortunate not to have been crushed between their hulking torsos. I hurried downhill, leaving my ski poles behind at the mercy of the ice creatures’ violent rage. The skies had once again started to clear up but the storm had caused the wind chill factor to drop to minus 25 °C (−13 °F). My toes and fingers were starting to feel numb and I desperately needed to get down to the lower ropeway station. Using my compass to navigate I half walked and half slid through the misty forest, unsure of when or from where the next abomination would lurch out of the shadows. As I descended the air seemed to gradually lose its sinister tangibility and several hundred metres further down the slopes I finally staggered out from the treeline. Thankful to be no worse for wear I peered over my shoulder at two twin sentinels—unmoving—in a state of partial transformation from simple trees to hideous nightmares. They seemed to offer an unspoken warning as I ran through the chaotic and disjointed recollections of my ordeal in my mind — ‘abandon hope all ye who enter; here be monsters!’

Large snow-covered trees at the edge of a winter forest on Mount Zao in Yamagata, Japan.

Several hours later I was back in the city having thoroughly defrosted and resupplied my body with hot food and drink. As I sat flicking through my photographs in my toasty hotel room I wondered whether any Winter Olympic athletes had ever had similar experiences while training in other back-of-beyond snowy corners of the world. The athletes who will attend this year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo need not fear, for the jyuhyo of Zao melt away into the nothingness from which they came in spring. As for those who would like to travel to Japan after the pandemic to seek out the snow monsters of Yamagata themselves, they can rest assured that they are certain to rise up again every winter and will be waiting somewhere in the the icy volcanic mountain ranges. To those brave souls I have a small favour to ask. Should you happen to stumble upon a lonely pair of battered and bruised ski poles that were left abandoned to an unknown fate, please drop us a line on our contact page so we can ensure a safe return to their rightful owner. Thank you!

Disclaimer – A Note on Ownership and Copyright:

The photographs featured in this post were all taken by the creator of Escape & Adventure during his continuing wanderings. Consent is required from the creator and founder of Escape & Adventure before any of the images for which he owns copyright can be reproduced in any form. All the literary work contained in this post is the intellectual property of the creator of Escape & Adventure. Consent is required before any of the literary work can be reproduced in any form.

Additional Disclaimer – COVID-19 Pandemic:

While the world continues to be impacted by the highly contagious COVID-19 virus travel is not advised. Despite our love of escapism and adventure, health and safety must come first. None of the content in this post is intended to contradict the rules and advice put in place by the relevant authorities to protect citizens from contracting and/or spreading COVID-19 or other diseases. Escape & Adventure accepts no liability for sickness, injury, or death resulting from anyone failing to take necessary precautions to protect themselves and others.

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