Zao, escape in Japanese nature

We enjoyed the amazing Tohoku nature few years ago, during our 4-day tour in Tohoku, but at that time we didn’t have enough time to visit Zao, famous for its ski slopes and the incredible Zao Monster. So, when I had the opportunity to explore this area thanks to Guidable and NCorporation, I immediately take the chance to explore again the Japanese nature in this area of ​​Tohoku, in the Miyagi Prefecture. Sendai is the best city to overnight for visit the area, and that was exactly what we decided to do last time. Easily to get there by shinkansen from Tokyo, Sendai is mainly famous for the history of Date Masamune and the remains of Sendai castle can still be visited on the top of the hill overlooking the city. Sendai is a lively city, full of restaurants of  Gyutan, the dish’s typical ox tongue, and being well connected, making it a perfect as a base even for groups, families with children and business travelers. In addition to the classic hotel rooms, is also possible to overnight in comfortable, short-term accommodation, spacious and equipped with everything (including the kitchen) accessible at any time by electronic check-in, thanks to the tablets placed at the entrance. I for example tried Villa Michi, in an excellent position less than 5 minutes from the station, complete with everything and with a beautiful counter facing on the city. Definitely recommended.

Zao, Snow Monster and rural Japan

Zao is a small town an hour and half drive from Sendai or two hours by transport, which brings its name from the mountain on which it is located, Mount Zao. Is here that the power of Japanese nature is revealed, during the heavy winter snowfalls, which make Zao not only a famous ski resort, but also create the famous “Zao Snow Monster“. These trees covered with layers and layers of snow and ice, which makes them look like real monsters coming down from the mountain!

The best way to see Zao Monsters is to take a snowcat from Zao Sumokawa Snow resort for 8,800 yen and climb up through the snowy forest. Usually the run ends around altitude of 1,800 meters, but when I was there unfortunately the bad weather conditions and the strong wind made us stop 200 meters lower for safety reasons and I couldn’t see the biggest snow monsters , but the walk in the snow and the “smaller monsters” was still a wonderful experience.

In addition to the ski slope and ice monsters, in Zao you can breathe the atmosphere of rural Japan, with characteristic temples and sanctuaries, including one in which there is a huge cedar tree of the incredible age of 900 years, typical restaurants, small bamboo forests and many rice fields. In the area there are also many onsen surrounded by nature and everywhere you’ll see kokeshi dolls! Yes, the ancient Japanese wooden dolls, made in a cylindrical shape and without limbs, are said to have originated in this area, and in Zao there is even a museum dedicated to them.

Other than the production of kokeshi dolls, the Zao handcraft also ranges in the production of fine pottery. Yoshihiro Takeda is indeed a master of ceramics, who brings insiration from the nature to create his masterpieces, like cups that contain the colors of a starry sky or the Japanese gardens of Kyoto. The master’s working studio is located in a traditional Japanese house built 200 years ago, with tatami, irori (the typical hearth inside the floor) low table with cushions to sit on the floor and sliding doors made of rice paper. The studio is located inside the Resort Zao Sansuien, a private and guarded complex where there are about 150 apartments, most second homes of Sendai residents who come here to relax and enjoy the beauty of the nature of Tohoku. These are generally couples aged 50 and over, which makes the area extremely peaceful, although everything is available in any case. Many houses can be rented to spend a few days off from the city rhythm and maybe experience the Japanese rural life! An old abandoned peasant dwelling has been renovated and from April will host a restaurant specializing in products at kilometer 0, while upstairs will give accommodation to visitors who want to experience farm life, working in the adjacent paddy field…of course, after work a relaxing bath in the swimming pool of the structure is more than legitimate!

Back in time at Marumori and Shiroishi

Marumori is a town in a circular basin surrounded by wooded mountains, where you have the chance to taste the real local cuisine directly in a private house. This Japanese family rents rooms in its spacious country house and gives the opportunity to experience a beautiful and authentic Japanese experience. This family owns many lands, in which it even has a small private Shinto shrine surrounded by bamboo. The food prepared is produced in their land and is served in bamboo canes carved and polished personally by the elderly owners. I had the pleasure of enjoying this exquisite meal together with the old owner and her daughter, two extremely friendly and helpful people who prepared a handwritten menu with a dedication of welcome special for me. If you want to live an authentic and genuine experience, discover the Japanese culture and tradition of hospitality, don’t miss this opportunity to experience a genuine Japan as far back in time as the frenetic pace of Japanese urban areas.

To continue with the journey into the past, next stop is Shiroishi, known mainly for the castle and Samurai houses. The castle of Shiroishi was unfortunately destroyed during the Meiji period (1868-1912) and the part that can be visited now is a reconstruction of 1995, made using high quality timber such as the “White Cedar of Aomori” which gives a very special scent. This castle and its city during the Edo Period (1603-1868) were governed by the Katakura clan, a vassal clan of the infamous Sendai clan Date. The highest point in its history was probably the Bakumatsu period, that is the period in which the domination of the Samurai caste, which lasted for almost 700 years, fell definitively. In this period the various Japanese gentlemen lined up who with the Tokugawa clan, holder of the power, who with the emperor, hoping his return to the power. The clans of northern Japan gathered in a loyal league to the Tokugawa called Ouetsu Reppan Domei, and for a time the official headquarters of this alliance was Shiroishi Castle.

Nowadays inside the castle, likeable elders volunteer guides, compete to assist those who enter and explain the history of this fortress. Inside you can also try weapons and armor, obviously fake, of the Katakura and Sanada clans, but Shiroishi castle is famous above all because in October it hosts the re-enactment of the Battle of Osaka Castle. Not far away there are also ancient Samurai residences, but unfortunately I have to postpone the visit to a future exploration, been tunning out of time…

This area really conquered me and I hope to return soon, here you can breathe an air different, more traditional, everywhere you feel a feeling of peace and silence and for this reason when you visit places like these it is very important to remember to respect and preserve this atmosphere. My guide was the very kind Mr. Yoshiyuki Udagawa and it is possible to contact him easily by email since he also speaks English.

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